The city of Heerlen in the Netherlands, along with a consortium of local ecosystem partners, developed and implemented an integrated innovation project named We.Service.Heerlen (WESH). The project centres around civic empowerment in order to manage the city’s public space, as well as to boost to the local economy. As part of the European Commission’s Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) initiative, this digital transition project was a ground-breaking urban experiment that lasted from mid-2019 till the end of 2022. After wrapping up the project, we are now looking back on its achievements, highlights, pitfalls, prospects and lessons learnt for other European cities. In this article we are focusing on the major pitfalls we came across during the project period as well as the prospects for continuation of the initiative.
How the experiment works
The WESH-project, led by the municipality of Heerlen, features an innovative civic engagement platform. The platform uses blockchain technology to delegate accessible and relatively easy city maintenance tasks to Heerlen’s citizens. For example painting a park bench, cleaning up playground equipment or weeding a public garden. Later on community service tasks were added, such as performing a night watch on the block and taking elderly in a wheelchair around the park. By downloading the smartphone app Heerlens Heitje and registering, citizens of Heerlen are able to apply for these chores assigned by the municipality. When they choose a task, they can pick up a toolbox at their local community centre, read the instructions and get started. When a certain task is completed the city’s public space maintenance department will check the result. Once approved, the citizen will be rewarded with local digital coins, named ‘Heerlens Heitjes’. These Heitjes, whereas 1 Heitje equals 1 Euro, can be spent at local shops, bars and cultural facilities within the city. The goals of the project were therefore threefold, firstly to increase civic engagement, secondly to improve the quality of the public space and thirdly to stimulate the local economy of retail and hospitality.
Heerlen resident painting a curb stone
Source: Municipality of Heerlen
An important pitfall of the project was the chicken-and-egg dilemma most digital platforms face in their early stages. In order to kickstart a digital platform successfully, both sufficient users as well as suppliers of products and services are needed. In order to convince suppliers to join, sufficient customers are required. And those platform users will only join if there are sufficient interesting products and services available on the platform. The golden rule applies to these platforms: they get one chance to make a good impression. During the preparation of WESH, a lot of time went into defining easy-maintenance tasks. As in, accessible to execute for citizens and not requiring power tools to do so. This broadened the target groups and minimised any risk of people getting hurt, which would be under responsibility of the municipality. This resulted in a task list dominated by painting jobs, which attracted only a modest number of intrinsically motived residents initially. On the other hand, the target audience of suppliers was limited. Since all retail and hospitality chains were excluded deliberately, so only locally active, small-scale, local family-owned businesses were available for targeting. This lead to limited participation by entrepreneurs in the first year of Heerlens Heitje implementation, which in turn did not help the engagement of residents.
Rigid taxing system
Another interesting pitfall for WESH, were the constraining national tax regulations and discussions about the experiment that followed with the Dutch authorities. For months, it appeared that these lengthy discussions went nowhere and could have easily stalled the project’s launch entirely. Although the municipality premiered a public cryptocurrency in the Netherlands, the straigtjacket reaction came completely unexpected. The obstacles outlined by the Dutch authorities, obliging taxing on both hourly wages and income for example, are part of the rigid taxing system that is in fact fundamental to governments in general. Believing in the purpose of innovating and experimenting, the framework in place on a national level was not fully taken into account for the project that was executed on a local level. In hindsight, it was a bit naïve to believe that a public cryptocurrency, parallel to the national currency and designed to be part of the financial system, would not have to follow financial laws and regulations of an EU Member State. Ever since the experiment received an official tax exemption status for Heerlens Heitje, the project team and its partners could finally laugh about these negotiations with the national government. Eventually the WESH team moved away from wage taxing to voluntary work, by lowering the wage from 15 to 5 Euros per hour.
Overview of the achievements of Heerlens Heitje by mid 2022
Source: Municipality of Heerlen
At the closing of the project period in December 2022, a WESH-conference was held at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus. This so-called ‘closing conference’ was attended by both the project partners as well as local residents. During various sessions, the WESH-partners looked back on the course of the project at its results. Heerlen’s Alderman Gelderblom underlined the important role WESH played for engaging the community, improving the public space as well as stimulating local retail. In his vision WESH proved to be the starting point of developing more public digital services, for which the Brightlands Smart Services Campus plays a pivotal role. He declared that WESH created a new stance of collaborative project development with the regional startup community on the Brightlands Smart Services Campus. There he also announced a prospect of WESH: continuation of the initiative at least for a year. In 2023 Heerlen’s Heitje was to be integrated more into municipal processes and policy fields. One can argue that this incorporation would have been necessary for the initiative to function properly during project period. But in order to have a smooth implementation, Heerlens Heitje was treated as an add-on to city maintenance work and processes. This prove to be handy in having an effective start of the project, but also as a pitfall for the possible continuation after the project period.
Enduring legacy for Heerlen
During the first half of 2023, the Municipality of Heerlen has been taking a leading role in executing the continuation of Heerlens Heitje. The initial municipal project team was dissolved after the closure of the project period, leaving both the roles of the Heerlens Heitje Project Manager and Assistant Project Manager vacant. Along coordinating and integrating Heerlens Heitje more within the municipal organisation, a new Project Manager would also be required to perform account management of participating entrepreneurs, engagement of citizens as well as monitoring of the results. Roles that were previously associated with city centre management organisation Heerlen Mijn Stad, neighbourhood association GMS and CBS Statistics Netherlands respectively. Their participation became limited when the financial support for their hours ceased at the project period closure. After the summer of 2023 the municipality announced an extended the prospect for Heerlens Heitje even further. The municipality would keep using the digital currency Heerlens Heitje at least till the end of 2025 for delegating various chores to its citizens. By effectively doubling the initial project period of WESH, this will create an enduring legacy of the digital coin for the city of Heerlen.
Refreshing a trash bin a bus stop in Heerlen
Source: Municipality of Heerlen