Expert article
WESH – We.Service.Heerlen Heerlen, The Netherlands
Modifier 06 December 2022
by Harald Wouters, UIA Expert

WESH: How social innovation improves participation and cohesion

Anton ten Westenend & Patrick Noortman (source: La Sirel - Creatieve Fotografie & Design)
We have interviewed social innovator Anton ten Westenend, involved in neighbourhood association GMS and partner of We.Service.Heerlen (WESH).

When people describe the situation in a neighbourhood, the conversation will probably steer towards a main social parameter: the community’s cohesiveness. Generally, social cohesion depends on the feeling of trust between neighbours, on the number and strength of relationships within the community and on a certain sense of solidarity for one another. “I can assure you that Heerlen is not your average city in this sense,” Anton ten Westenend of neighbourhood association GMS starts off: “In some districts the community feel is completely different than what you’re probably used to. For one thing, people here expect more from the government than elsewhere although there is little trust in official institutions.” For the neighbourhood association it was challenging at times to stimulate the community to join in on WESH. Anton and his partner in crime, Patrick Noortman of the neighbourhood association GMS, go a long way together in neighbourhood development and social impact. “We’ve been working on social innovation for decades. We know these people, we are part of them,” Anton points out. “When you understand their motivation, their needs and gain their trust, that’s when you really can make a difference for them.” For Anton that is the reason why they focus on the citizens’ point of view: “We look at the real world with real people and their real needs. Of course this perspective does conflict from time to time, with an  innovation project like WESH that is aimed at tidying up the public space with digital technology to uplift citizens.”


“The key to successful social innovation is identifying and understanding the real needs of people”

Self-service supermarket

Making knowledge applicable in a social environment has been a common theme throughout Anton’s career. “After working for a curriculum development organisation and the Open University, I became self-employed in social innovation,” Anton recalls. “Being part of Heerlen’s community made me realise I could make myself really beneficial for this city.” After working for a number of regional initiatives, Anton was asked by a housing corporation to set up a social lab in one of the less performing districts in Heerlen North. In the city district of Grasbroek, Musschemig and Schandelen, or GMS for short, he developed the so-called GMS Lab. “We analysed what the residents actually needed, by combining data research with surveying and talking to people on the spot,” Anton explains. “We learned a lot about the neighbourhood, but we lacked the execution power to follow up and improve the situation.” Anton became aware that in order to achieve success for the community you need to deliver a solution-oriented approach. “I believe the key to successful social innovation is trust, cohesion, cooperation and synergy. This is what we tried to do by bringing the whole ecosystem in the WESH project. Conditions for developing a potentially successful grassroots application. And this is how we developed a unique instrument to motivate and facilitate Heerlen’s citizen to do something for their neighbourhood or city.” For Anton WESH attracts others kind of volunteers than the usual suspects and takes a rather no-nonsense approach: “I see it as a self-service supermarket where tasks are presented with the corresponding rewards in the form of a digital coin, that stimulates local entrepreneurs.”

Curb marking paint job for Heitjes

WESH Heerlen

Source: Municipality of Heerlen

Why should we help?

When Anton got involved in WESH as a partner, he was surprised by the initial high hopes of the experiment: “So we had this overwhelming kick-off evening for the WESH partners in 2020. When someone stated that 5,000 Heerleners would easily join in on the platform, I just shook my head. To me that sounded like a bureaucratic objective, not from anyone that works hands-on with this local community.” Anton knows the reality of the low level of volunteering work in Heerlen: “With an environmental analysis of our city, from a social, economic and cultural perspective, we could have worked with a more realistic plan from the beginning.” He explains it is even better to avoid the term volunteer at all: “Honestly, the attitude of many residents is counterproductive for something like voluntary work.” Heerlen’s community is formed by its mining past, which was a way of living for many. When the mining of coal suddenly halted, people lost much more than their daily jobs. “In a way people felt deserted by the government when all that the mines took care off came to an end,” Anton points out.  “You can still sense that sentiment today. Just walk up to someone who’s walking his dog in a neighbourhood like GMS. Ask him if he would like to do something for the municipality or public space,” Anton tells us. “You’ll probably hear that he pays his taxes and has a clear reason to refuse: “Why should we help? The municipality should mow this public lawn or repair this sink hole here first, before they ask us to help out with anything at all.”


“Mow this public lawn properly first,

before you ask us to help out with anything at all”

Able to do something like this again

“When we started with WESH, we noticed a certain reserve by the organisers of other social initiatives in the city,” Anton recalls. “So, we had this group of fifteen motivated citizens to kickstart the project by performing chores. But since the general number of volunteers in Heerlen is rather low, some were afraid we would cannibalise on the help needed in their initiatives.” That changed soon when more vulnerable target groups of Heerlen’s society were reached as well. “I’ve talked to an older lady, that told us that by earning Heitjes she could finally buy gifts for her grandchildren,” Anton looks back. “We even had a disabled couple, that would crawl along the curb to paint no-parking markings. I know this sounds a bit harsh, but you wouldn’t even know what it meant for them to being able to do something like this again,” Anton brightens up. “Plus earning some extra money, that always helps.” The neighbourhood association underlined the need for a  personal touch in order to have citizens join in. Therefore, real participants were used as role models in the advertisement campaign. For Anton this was a win-win-situation: “We awarded a ‘handyman or handywoman of the month’ by putting proud participants in the spotlights to show our appreciation.”

Tulip mural by Gaia in Schandelen

WESH Heerlen

Source: Weller


“We learned a lot about reaching,

activating and stimulating citizens”

Reality check

WESH was a certain reality check for the municipality of Heerlen about the gap with its citizens and the limited willingness to carry out easy maintenance tasks. “Of course they are aware of the passiveness and distrust, but the project underlined this in a way instead of contradicting it,” Anton tells us. “The project made it possible to experiment with alternative approaches of activating and motivating citizen to participate. To find out which factors are crucial to motivate people.” In Heerlen 4,500 people are on welfare, which is really high for a city of around 86,000 inhabitants. “The potential is huge,” Anton continues. “But many people did not dare to participate because they were afraid that their allowances would be cut. I believe the number of citizens really could have been 3 to 5 times higher if we could have guaranteed they were safe and we added more attractive chores.” Being a digital platform for both citizens and entrepreneurs also prove a communication dilemma. “One of them was the urge from the municipality to frame WESH as an instant success story.  We needed to convince people to subscribe for tasks on the platform and shop owners to accept Heitjes,” Anton explains. “I believe that too much pressure on short term-results had negative effects on the experiment itself and its long term goals.”

Artsy painted apartment building Aurora in GMS

WESH Heerlen

Source: Visit Zuid-Limburg

Efficiency and effectiveness

Anton sees Heerlens Heitje as a promising instrument for the social department of the municipality, but there are many conditions to make it an enduring success: “You really need to structure the city’s social policy around it. Then I can see all sorts of possibilities: to combat loneliness, cohesion and poverty.” Paying citizens in digital coins can be very convenient according to Anton: “Wouldn’t it be great if it can be used as an additional income? Do a couple of chores and get paid immediately, instead of waiting till the end of the month.” All in all, Anton calls WESH a wonderful initiative, but he also has other thoughts on the efficiency and effectiveness of the project: “If you just look at all the effort and money that has gone in to reach and stimulate the people, you can ask yourself if we are really doing the right thing. I know particular attention is paid to the experimental value of the project, but as a social entrepreneur I tend to look more at the social effects. But we sure did learn a lot from experimenting in real life and working with the municipality: unpayable insights in activating and participation of citizen.”