Expert article
Project
WESH – We.Service.Heerlen Heerlen, The Netherlands
Edit 28 December 2020
by Harald WOUTERS, UIA Expert

WESH: How Heerlen’s citizens bob-a-job in a digital age

WESH Heerlen
WESH Heerlen
For decades, the city of Heerlen, a former mining centre in the Southeast of the Netherlands, is struggling with substantial socio-economic disadvantages and a declining population. To counter three of the city’s urgent problems, Heerlen’s urban authority and its partners created We.Service.Heerlen, shortened as WESH. With the help of the Urban Innovative Actions Initiative, the partners created a digital platform for citizens to perform community service tasks. By doing these tasks, they earn credits which can be spent at shops and bars in the city.

Valuable innovation: where desirable, feasible and viable meet

According to the principles of Design Thinking, a work process that helps stakeholders create useful solutions, the most valuable innovation takes place where society, technology and economy meet. By looking at what’s both desirable for the people, as well as what’s technically feasible and businesswise viable, the most resourceful solutions come to light. Interestingly, WESH combines all three perspectives and provides an integrated, promising formula. It can effectively counter both a social problem, a technical hurdle and an economic difficulty all at once.

 

Social problem: limited civic engagement and participation

The city of Heerlen never really recovered from the closure of the State Mines in the 1960s and 1970s. It left many of its blue collar workers unemployed and lacking a perspective even disgruntled some. Not only did the termination deliver a heavy blow on the regional economy, which was dependent on a single industry like many industrial towns throughout Europe. For generations Heerlen’s citizens were cared for by the state-run company. The mines not only provided jobs, but also various welfare services, pensions, childcare, social activities, sports and a strong community feel.

 

Mining: workers lost much more than their day jobs

The Limburg miners referred to their mining companions − and even the entire community − as koempels, derived from the German word for friend: kumpel. As hazardous as mining can be, all miners rely on the lifesaving help of their co-workers in case of an accident. A friendship based on mutual trust that dive buddies truly understand. When the demand in coal suddenly diminished halfway last century, the workers lost much more than their day jobs. Resulting in low level of trust in the government and limited civic engagement or willingness to participate within Heerlen’s communities.

 

Technical hurdle: cost-efficient maintenance of the public space

The shrinking population of Heerlen, and thus declining need for homes, has led to the demolishment of housing blocks and apartment complexes thoughout the city. Which in turn, led to an increasing acreage under the responsibility of the urban authority’s maintenance department. The steady rising costs for maintaining the public space, has become an eyesore for the municipality. It is looking for ways and tools to do the maintaining much more cost-efficient. Especially, since the demolition of housing at itself is already a very costly undertaking.

 

Surveys: living environment ratings are dropping

The city council has been seeking for ways to cut costs of maintaining the public space. Local initiatives have popped up, where citizens garden neighbourhood flower beds, once the municipality has planted their choice of vegetation. For the maintenance of public parks and its facilities, sidewalks and flower beds, the municipality can no longer offer its desired level of cleanliness or counter vandalism adequately. According to surveys among citizens, the living environment ratings are dropping and an increasing number find Heerlen’s public spaces unpleasant.

 

Economic difficulty: high vacancy rate of shops

Heerlen’s city centre, as well as its main shopping centres, have a high rotation of shops and an ever increasing vacancy rate. Due to the rise of e-commerce, many midsized European cities cope with this retail challenge, but the number of vacant shops in cities with a declining population are far exceeding the average. The economy department of the municipality of Heerlen is having hard time in finding the right solution to break this downward spiral. During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 for example, the city centre management organisation Heerlen Mijn Stad (Heerlen My/Mining City) launched a campaign to have Heerlen’s citizens buy local products and support local businesses.

 

Solution: digital platform for performing maintenance tasks

To counter the high cost of public space maintenance, low civic engagement and high vacancy rate of retail in Heerlen, the Municipality of Heerlen and its partners created We.Service.Heerlen, shortened as WESH. Within the Urban Innovative Actions’ grant, the Municipality of Heerlen developed a digital platform by applying blockchain technology for maintenance tasks performed by its citizens. The Municipality of Heerlen will be able to develop, prototype, test, experiment and implement the solution in the city for the described social problem, technical hurdle and economic difficulty.

 

Features: smartphone, web app and dashboard tool

CoTown, a French startup and one of the residents of Heerlen’s Brightlands Smart Services Campus, developed the software for the digital platform by applying blockchain technology for community service tasks. The digital platform of the main technical supplier contains three main features:

  1. smartphone application for citizens that shows the tasks and the rewards
  2. web application for entrepreneurs of shops to receive payments and see who’s involved
  3. dashboard tool for the city authority to commission tasks and deliver transactions

WESH digital platform


Tasks: painting a bench, removing stickers or weeding a public garden

By downloading an app on their smartphone and registering, citizens of Heerlen will be able to apply for accessible and relatively easy public maintenance tasks assigned by the municipality. For instance painting a park bench, removing stickers from lampposts or weeding a public garden bed. By completing a task to the municipality’s approval, the citizen will be rewarded with a local digital currency. These coins can be spent at local shops, bars and cultural organisations within the city that have joined in.

 

Digital platform: marketplace for citizens, entrepreneurs and city authority

The digital platform is a marketplace between the users (citizens) and the content providers (local retail entrepreneurs), where the platform owner (municipality) enables the transactions by assigning tasks and delivering the digital currency. The municipality pays the entrepreneurs involved, just like vouchers, when the coins have been cashed in for their products or services. Easy accessibility for both the citizens and entrepreneurs are crucial to the success of the platform.

 

Partnership: engage, monitor, support and scale-up

The city centre management organisation Heerlen Mijn Stad, is responsible to engage retailers on the platform and thus provide the right content and incentives. The neighbourhood association GMS (Grasboek-Musschemig-Schandelen) is engaging the first group of active users. They will help to kickstart the platform from its launch in March 2021. Statistics Netherlands (CBS) will monitor the users (where and when) and the effects of the project on the ratings for the public space and liveability in general (social wellbeing). Heerlen’s Brightlands Smart Service Campus provides business support and the Dutch Association of Municipalities (VNG) captures knowledge, share experiences and helps to scale up.

 

Digital currency: ‘t Heerlens Heitje

The reward for each of the tasks done properly, is in the form of local digital currency. These coins can only be issued by Heerlen’s citizens in the local economy. The currency is named ‘t Heerlens Heitje, derived from Dutch for bob-a-job: ‘heitje voor karweitje’. One Heitje is worth one euro. For citizens, the solution can improve their community engagement and meaningful wellbeing. The gamification aspect of the currency has been proven effective to stimulate further engagement. For entrepreneurs, the local currency can stimulate their business and attract local customers. For the municipality of Heerlen the new rewarding system, can help them to handle the maintenance of the public space and get much more insight in active community engagement. 

 

Next steps: providing content and engage users when live

At the start of 2021, a demo of the platform is operational. At the end of March 2021, the platform is expected to go live. Currently, the most crucial challenge to the success of the digital platform, is providing the right content and subsequently engage users. The community service tasks are dissatisfiers, so incentives to perform them must be very clear and easy accessible. The Dutch tax authority made the experimentation by WESH possible, by exempting the task performers of VAT. In principle, all citizens are seen by the tax authority as entrepreneurs, where they engage in gainful activity. With a maximum of 1,500 euros earnings, or 1,500 Heitjes on the platform, all citizens have a chance to earn some extra money, without actually stimulating entrepreneurship or oppression on the employment market. A maximum profit should ultimately ensure that as many citizens as possible are able to participate.

 

Emerging lessons: micro-entrepreneurship policy and tax exemptions

The discussions with the tax authority in regard to the WESH platform, underline the need for micro-entrepreneurship policy in order to define exemptions for national tax regulations and restrictions. Perhaps a delicate subject for EU Member States, but in regard to the EU’s Digital Strategy on digital platforms an essential one. For European cities it can be really beneficial to see the role of the urban authority in the upcoming participative society. The civic engagement and involvement in maintenance of the direct living space of citizens, are interesting tools in creating tailormade liveability within neighbourhoods and understanding the needs and preferences. Giving a purposeful meaning to their day to day lives, can be an interesting lead to follow for cities that, for example, deal with high unemployment.

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