Heerlen is home to a vibrant community of entrepreneurs, researchers and students, who gather at the so called Brightlands Smart Services Campus. Located in a brutalism-style office building on the premises of the largest pension fund in the Netherlands, they collaboratively create tomorrow’s smart and digital services. “Through the WESH-project we had the chance to really team up with the Dutch Association of Municipalities (VNG) along with Heerlen’s municipality. Together we’ve set up the Public Services Lab for example. A design-thinking playground for experimenting with innovative public services,” Business Developer Ivar Moberts explains. WESH showed him the benefits of co-creating an innovation project with the public side: “Our startups used to work mostly for large companies and research organisations. But by working with public bodies we can create much more direct impact for local communities.”
"A successful idea like WESH has many fathers, but a key ingredient that sparked it all was the connection we facilitated here at Brightlands"
“I’ve always had a thing for startups,” Ivar starts off. “It’s the entrepreneurial mindset and getting-things-done mentality that keeps triggering me.” Three years ago Ivar was finishing his Master’s degree on Entrepreneurship & SME Management, when he got a good look at what’s going on at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus. “Back then I was doing my graduation research on ‘how startups apply blockchain technology to create new business models’. I know, it sounds like quite a mouth full.” Ivar tells us jokingly. Coincidentally, the campus in Heerlen was hosting Europe’s very first Blockchain Startup Incubator Programme. “That gave me the opportunity to do my research first-handed and really get a sense of what tech startups are all about,” Ivar recalls. After his graduation Ivar could either do his PhD at Maastricht University or work at Brightlands as a Business Developer: “So I had the choice to either do more in-depth research on startups or work directly with them. I chose the latter for a couple of reasons, but primarily it was the energy I noticed during the incubator programme that really struck me.”
Forge partnerships and build alliances
“I know a successful idea like WESH has many fathers, but a key ingredient that sparked it all was the connection that was facilitated by Brightlands between Heerlen and the French startup CoTown. Basically we brought them together,” Ivar explains. After its Blockchain Startup Incubator Programme, CoTown became resident of the campus and is now the technical supplier of WESH. The company was already experimenting with platform-based civic engagement. “At the same time some of Heerlen’s municipal workers were really getting into the whole Bitcoin-thing. They were eagerly looking for ways to make use of cryptocurrencies in their work, which was actually managing the public space of Heerlen,” Ivar continues. “Chris Sparks, our Startup Incubator Programme Manager, knew both parties well and facilitated the strong connection. Add that up to the municipal wish of giving citizens more self-direction in general and specifically in helping to improve their living environment and the idea of We.Service.Heerlen was born.” For Ivar the Smart Services Campus clearly showed its value by facilitating the creation of WESH: “We are all about bringing the right minds and ideas together, to help them forge partnerships and build strong alliances.”
"When you’re halfway your first coffee with a startup, you’re already drafting a plan. With civil servants, it can take ten more cups before you take the first step."
Collaborative public innovation works
At its core, WESH is about stimulating civic involvement and empowerment, but it also provides a solution for two different challenges: improving the public space and boosting the local economy. For Ivar the project therefore is a clear example of how public services could be co-created nowadays: “It shows us that collaborative public innovation works. Although different partners in a regional ecosystem have their own agendas, if they join forces on a socially relevant subject, they can create impact and take a cooperative leap.” Although the Netherlands is known for close collaboration − historically a mere necessity since over a quarter of the country is below sea level − WESH was created in the hilly southern part. “Historically cooperation was not as easy here as elsewhere in the country, because of the hills, the different Limburgish dialects, the rich soil, the strong community ties, plentiful local associations, and so on,” Ivar points out. “But the fact that these mostly regional partners joined forces on this particular subject made me understand that times do change. Plus we are in a very internationally oriented region, so going cross-border is a logic next step to take for these type of innovations.”
Signs of cold feet
Ivar noticed that working with public partners is completely different from what he was used to: “If you look at WESH and commencing the Public Services Lab, I sensed some signs of cold feet. As a partnership we are very good at making plans and analysing all sorts of things, but at some point you just have to get going.” The administrative processes of public authorities also require some more patience for Ivar than anticipated beforehand: “Working with a startup is totally different from working with a municipality,” he underlines. “When you’re halfway your first coffee with a startup, you’re already drafting a plan. With civil servants, it can take ten more cups before you actually make a first step. It’s not a sign of unwillingness, but rather bureaucratic restrains you need to be able to handle.” Working with municipalities already proved to be a learning experience, that Ivar would like to explore some more: “Just imagine working for a local government for some time. Let’s say a year or two. Then you can really understand their organisation from within, their processes and decision-making. I believe that would be an asset for anyone working with both public and private partners.”
"We really want to make a difference by creating meaningful digital services for society"
Creative mindset and eagerness to get started
The Public Services Lab’s first feat is reaching out to other public authorities to scale up WESH and its innovative approach. Ivar sees this innovation project as the start of something bigger: “Just look at all of the students and entrepreneurs we already have in here right now. You can just sense their creative mindset and eagerness and to get started on new initiatives”, Ivar smiles. “I just can’t wait ‘till we have more municipal workers joining them here to develop collaborative new projects. We are creating all sorts of tools for example to smoothen processes and create more efficiency.” For Ivar the most rewarding projects are the ones where citizens benefit directly: “Of course speeding up a procedure or cutting costs is nice, but creating something relevant for people and tackling a social challenge is really something else.” In that sense WESH as a perfect showcase for the Public Services Lab. “We really want to make a difference by creating meaningful digital services for society, stimulating their usage and lowering the threshold,” Ivar concludes confidently.