WESH Heerlen
We have interviewed Mr Grégoire Piette, Co-Founder of the startup CoTown and the technical supplier of We.Service.Heerlen (WESH).

By 2030 the European Commission is expecting the EU to take a major leap in the digital transition. Driven by emerging digital technologies − such as AI and blockchain − the digitalisation of public services is a key aspect in the EU’s vision of this so-called Digital Decade. The We.Service.Heerlen (WESH) project is one of the experiments the EU fosters to digitalise public services. “The whole project is like a lab test for civic engagement,” Grégoire Piette, Co-Founder of the software startup CoTown points out. “We happened to find a unique way to facilitate and support city management by using the crowd,” he continues. Being involved in WESH supported their startup to design, test and shape its product. “It helped us to further develop this platform, which is a digital market place to exchange any kind of help or desired behaviour for credits,” Grég summarises. The UIA project in Heerlen gave Grég and his team more understanding to specific needs and wants of citizens. “We see all types of functionalities that could be brought in. But a valuable lesson we learned is to remain focussed our main goal: developing the right tools to engage and stimulate the community.”

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“We saw a lot of opportunities for crowd sourcing in order to manage public spaces by using collective data, AI and even blockchain technology.”

Setting up shop

In 2018 Grégoire and Daniel Vanetti, a fellow-student at Marseille-Aix University, founded a tech startup called Smart Futures. They created a digital platform that improves the management of all sorts of public spaces. “You can think of a common space in an office or residential building, to a park, a square or even the entire public area within a city,” Greg explains. “We saw a lot of opportunities for crowd sourcing in order to manage public spaces by using collective data, AI and even blockchain technology.” When the Brightlands Smart Services Campus in Heerlen hosted Europe’s very first Incubation Program for innovative blockchain startups in 2018, the guys were very eager to join in. “Basically, we were looking for blockchain expertise to shape up our innovative product and leads to sell it to our first customers,” Grég looks back. “The Brightlands Techruption formula was already well-known for developing ideas in co-creation, but compared to France we noticed a stronger community-driven, bottom-up approach in the Netherlands.” Afterwards they established CoTown and decided to become a resident of Heerlen’s Brightlands Smart Services Campus. “During the incubator programme, our market research allowed us to meet employees of the municipality of Heerlen. They were crypto enthusiasts and looking for ways to engage Heerlen’s citizens in the maintenance of the city,” Grég explains. “In July 2018 we signed a first partnership agreement with Heerlen to premiere our platform. So setting up shop in Heerlen, was a logic step for us to take.”

Grég signing a Letter of Intent together with Heerlen's Alderman Claessens

WESH Heerlen
Source: Municipality of Heerlen

Completely different today

Moving to Heerlen turned out to be effective for CoTown. The initial ideas that arose during the incubator programme, quickly materialised. “So next thing you know we were in this EU project partnership and we’re signing a longer partnership agreement with Heerlen as well,” Grég recalls. Working closely with a municipality and the other project partners proved to be particularly instructive for the tech startup. “Working in a consortium really opens up the thoughts of the different partners, from which fresh ideas occur and new collaborations are forged,” Grég tells us enthusiastically. “Plus it is great that UIA focuses on these new, very innovative ideas. I am pretty sure that a project like this would otherwise not get off the ground,” Greg concludes. At the same time there they have experienced difficulties in the required way of working. “As a startup we work agile and we can only look a year or two max into the future,” Grég explains. "Tech startups are always in survival mode. We have to be able to adapt to sudden changes in order to keep making a profit." In regard to WESH and the project’s predetermined goals and tasks, there is little room for change due to advancing insights. Greg states: “For future projects I believe that the UIA should incorporate more agility. Things we wrote three years ago can work completely different today, especially in digital transition.”

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“Tech startups are always in survival mode. We have to be able to adapt to sudden changes in order to keep making a profit.”

Meet in the middle

When the WESH platform went live in 2021, Heerlen’s debuted public space maintenance tasks performed by its citizens. “In fact, Heerlen was the first city in the Netherlands to use blockchain as a means to reward and engage the community,  Grég tells us. “Plus they were the first with a local digital currency that boosts the local economy.” CoTown is currently looking at the best suitable business model for other municipalities. Based on the valuable lessons they have learned in Heerlen they want to make it easier for others to join in. “We had some discussions on making parts of the platform open source, but honestly it is a lot of work to get this done,” Grég points out. For WESH there were agreements made on the co-ownership of the software. “In the WESH-project the Municipality of Heerlen owns parts of the platform’s source code,” Grég goes on. “Just to make sure the project could continue in case CoTown would go bankrupt.” For other municipalities, Grég foresees different partnership opportunities: “It’s easy for public entities to say everything should be open source, but IP ownership is something that signifies the value of a company.” The European Commission’s idea behind this vision of creating open standards is to avoid vendor lock-ins, as stated in the European Digital Strategy and detailed in the European Free/Open Source Software Licence. Grég understands the risks of vendor lock-ins and the reasons for local public entities to avoid profit exploit by companies. “We need to meet somewhere in the middle and make clear agreements at the start,” he underlines. “As a startup we have invested a lot in the development of the software. At one point, we need to deliver profit in order to keep investing in our products and our company.”

The smartphone app of Heerlens Heitje, developed by CoTown

WESH Heerlen
Source: CoTown

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“We will be developing this social-local currency, where people can do voluntary work and donate it to charity.”

Work two ways

Earlier this year CoTown experienced some difficulties to stay afloat. According to Grég the financial planning of UIA is quite challenging for startups: “We had to make all these pre-investments and our hours we’ve put in were reimbursed months later. That’s probably not an issue for a public partner, but for us as the only private partner in the consortium it was quite a hassle.” Grég believes this could have constrained the project itself: “We became unnecessarily vulnerable, which I believe endangered the project. With some pre-financing we could be much more dedicated to the deliverables and outcomes of the project.” Now things are going better because CoTown is attracting new investments and projects. They recently participated in the AMS Startup Booster programme to strengthen their value proposition. “In Amsterdam we are going to develop a more social-local currency, where people can also do voluntary work and donate it to charity,” Grég tells brightened. This new pilot will be a testcase for CoTown to see if they can move to scalable projects and use Heerlen’s digital currency differently. “This works two ways,” Grég points out. “Since Heerlen is continuing its digital currency platform at least a year after the WESH project is done, I believe these new experiences will lead to new functionalities being added to Heerlens Heitje.”

Grég at work

WESH Heerlen
Source: CoTown

Happy to do so

In Heerlen, WESH has now entered a phase in which the safeguarding within the municipal organisation as well as expansion in the city are both being looked at. This allowed Grég to seek for new possibilities and partnerships: “We got this idea to decentralise the platform, in which several parties in the city have control over the tasks and the transactions. So local organisations, such as social housing corporations, can have their tenants perform simple cleaning and maintenance work. Or people can lend a helping hand to care organisations.” The WESH project has given CoTown a lot of experience in working with an urban authority, but in terms of functionalities it was just a start. “To me the future possibilities of our software platform seem endless,” Grég continues with a grin. “Heerlen is like a showcase for us, but we can deliver all sorts of tailor-made solutions that plug into the specific needs of other cities.” According to Grég CoTown still needs two more years to develop an all-round civic engagement platform: “I think we would require more experience in the specific areas of health and sustainability. Major cities like Marseille and Dublin have already shown interest in local digital currencies, so if we can pilot on one of these topics there or somewhere else we are very happy to do so.”   

About this resource

Author
Harald WOUTERS, UIA Expert
Project
Location
Heerlen, The Netherlands Small and medium-sized cities (50k > 250k)
About UIA
Urban Innovative Actions
Programme/Initiative
2014-2020

The Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) is a European Union initiative that provided funding to urban areas across Europe to test new and unproven solutions to urban challenges. The initiative had a total ERDF budget of €372 million for 2014-2020.

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