Heerlen introduces digital rewards for local participation

/ Author: Miriam van der Sangen
Heerlen citizen doing a job for which he earns digital currency
How do you encourage residents to get involved in their local community? And how do you promote social cohesion in your town or city? In an effort to answer these questions, the Municipality of Heerlen has come together with a number of external parties to launch a ground-breaking project. Residents who perform activities that benefit their neighbourhood can earn digital currency in the process. A specially developed app then enables them to spend these earnings on goods and services supplied by local businesses.

Innovative solutions

An extensive study into social cohesion in Heerlen began in 2019. In addition to the Municipality of Heerlen, its organisers include the Association of Dutch Municipalities, Statistics Netherlands (CBS), Brightlands Smart Services Campus, CoTown, central organisation Heerlen Mijn Stad and neighbourhood organisation Grasbroek-Musschemig-Schandelen. The project obtained funding from the European Commission through the Urban Innovative Actions programme, with the aim of offering innovative solutions to the social and economic challenges facing Heerlen. If successful, the study is likely to be replicated in other European cities facing similar problems.

Promoting participation

Hans Schmeets, programme manager at CBS and professor at Maastricht University, explains why CBS is participating in this project: ‘Our expertise lies in the field of data collection and analysis. An earlier baseline measurement taken by CBS showed that Heerlen is lagging behind 50 similar towns and cities in a number of areas. That measurement was based on 17 key indicators drawn from a 2012–2019 study on Social Cohesion and Well-being and showed that Heerlen’s residents appear to have very little trust in one another and in public institutions. The same applies to their level of participation in aspects of public life such as volunteer work.’ From May to September 2020, CBS conducted another survey on social cohesion, this time involving over 1100 respondents in Heerlen. ‘Due to the Covid crisis, we were unable to visit people at home, so we contacted our respondents by phone and online. In total, we examined and compared five different areas. It was an approach that revealed major differences in social cohesion and well-being.’ CBS expects to be able to present a full report on the study to the Municipality of Heerlen in June 2021.

Heerlen citizen doing a job for which he earns digital currency
© gemeente Heerlen

Valuable studies

The project benefited enormously from the constructive cooperation between CBS and the Municipality of Heerlen’s Urban Data Center. Tim Muller, UDC coordinator on behalf of CBS, explains, ‘In recent years, we have carried out a number of valuable studies together and taken stock of the problems we encountered. Heerlen has been struggling with socio-economic problems for years. Not least, high levels of unemployment, a sharp demographic contraction and an ageing population. This has implications for the municipality’s disposable budget, among other things. Despite this financial challenge, the municipal authorities work hard to create as pleasant a living environment as possible. To strengthen this ambition, Heerlen launched an innovative project with three goals: to improve public spaces, to increase citizen participation and to stimulate the local economy. CBS can help by carrying out research at various phases of the project to obtain an accurate picture of the current state of affairs.’

Driving force

Pieter Bonnema is the project manager at the Municipality of Heerlen and the driving force behind the research into social cohesion. It was his idea to develop a digital currency platform that would reward citizens for participating in the local community. But before the pilot could get under way on 20 March, a number of barriers had to be overcome. ‘We held high-level discussions with the Tax and Customs Administration, which initially wanted residents to be taxed on any additional earnings, however small. In all likelihood, that would have discouraged many people from joining our project. However, in the summer of 2020, we were able to persuade the State Secretary for Finance to arrange an exemption for citizens who would be doing the odd jobs. That was a huge step forward for us.’

With this pilot, we are encouraging activity, involvement and contacts, while boosting quality of life and the local economy’

Technical, logistical and legal

Reaching an agreement with the tax authorities was not the only battle to be won. As Bonnema reveals, ‘There were also a series of technical, logistical and legal challenges to be met. Providing toolboxes, for example, with materials for the people who were willing to do odd jobs. And someone from the City Management department had to make sure the jobs were being done properly. The participants also had to be insured. All this had to be figured out and it was a laborious process.’ But once everything was settled, Bonnema was delighted that the project was ready to go live on 20 March. ‘We are starting small and hope that, if successful, the project can be expanded. It’s exciting for everyone involved, especially the business owners and local residents.’

Creativity and innovation

Executive councillor Charles Claessens of the Municipality of Heerlen is pleased with the initial response, which has been positive. ‘We are the first European city to launch a pilot with a digital currency to reward citizens for doing jobs that benefit their own neighbourhood. We are encouraging activity, involvement and contacts, not to mention giving a boost to people’s quality of life and to the local economy. The fact that this idea was born, developed and launched in Heerlen shouldn’t come as a surprise. Heerlen has always been open to experimentation, a place that offers scope for creativity and innovation.’ Local residents can spend the digital currency they earn at businesses in Heerlen who have signed up to the project. ‘It’s a great initiative,’ one of the local entrepreneurs agrees. ‘Our customers pay using the app. It takes a bit of getting used to, but we are definitely moving with the times.’