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Interview Natasja Wijnen on Brabantstad: we can achieve more together than individually

BrabantStad is an urban network of the five major cities of Brabant (the Netherlands): Breda, Eindhoven, Helmond, ’s-Hertogenbosch and Tilburg and the province of North Brabant. The partnership empowers the region, making it possible to achieve a competitive strength that cities have not been able to attain individually due to a lack of means and critical mass. BrabantStad cities have combined their qualities and expertise, as they largely complement one another in various fields, making them more competitive both in national and European contexts. The symbiosis is remarkable: the region has expanded into the Netherlands’ second largest economy and the Brainport-region Eindhoven is one of three national top-regions and the smartest region in the world.

We interviewed Natasja Wijnen, manager of the BrabantStad Office in the Netherlands, to find out what are the secrets behind such a successful cooperation.

You identified “trust building” amongst partners as one key tool to a successful partnership. Is there any sort of characteristic  or expertise cities should look for in partners to ease cooperation?
Wijnen: In the late 1990’s, driven by national Urban Policy, these five cities together with the Province of North-Brabant made use of government funding to build their partnership. It was not a coincidence that these specific five cities came together: they are all medium-size cities with more than 100 thousand inhabitants (except for Helmond). This is a key factor for the success of our cooperation. Usually networks are made of several smaller cities that come together with a bigger one which usually has the predominant capacity. That does not happen in BrabantStad: all cities are equal partners with different strengths  and that has a very positive impact in our cooperation.
We have tried to combine or develop specific characteristics from each city to build a diversified network of expertise that complements each other. We try to focus on the complementarities as they are a useful tool to build a strong partnership. Our region has “high-tech and technology” in Eindhoven and Helmond, “food” in ’s-Hertogenbosch, “social innovation” in Tilburg, “logistics and maintenance” in Breda, and these themes we try to mix and match.

The most important aspect is that people in the different cities want to cooperate with each other. They have to build trust, they have to be motivated and have to actually cooperate and work together to get the best results out of their partnership. That is the case of BrabantStad. There is no additional administrative layer, these cities join their efforts and collaborate on a voluntary basis because they feel they are stronger together and they can achieve more as a network than individually.

 What in concrete has been accomplished by BrabantStad that would not have been possible without this synergy?
Wijnen: In 2008 we made a large joint investment programme (1.2M €) in our cities. Each city contributed with the same amount and the province also contributed, adding a multiplier effect to the final amount. This is only possible if cities have more or less the same size. With this programme, we did several projects that make the region more attractive, i.e. the expo centre Brabanthallen in s’Hertogenbosch or the Dutch Institute for Advanced Logistics  DINALOG, in Breda. While these projects are based in those specific cities, they are a real asset to the whole region.  Without the BrabantStad network, these cities on their own would not have created enough added value and political and financial support to land these types of big projects in relatively medium sized cities.

How can the local political level be involved and which methods can be used to keep them involved/committed to initiatives/projects that surpass their elected period?
Wijnen: Well, that is a critical point also for BrabantStad. Local politicians – as I mean councilors- are involved, we try to promote their involvement by meeting regularly, organizing events to which we invite all local politicians, but it is always specifically difficult to keep the City Councils involved. I think that communication is very important, keeping local politicians (mayors and aldermans) informed so that they can in turn inform their City Councils about the network. Of course some cities are more active in communicating  successes and progress than others, so I would say that this is also difficult for us.

Which advices would you give cities who wish to develop a successful integrated urban approach? What are the main mistakes to be avoided?
Wijnen: I think you have to start with a small and concrete project in which cities can cooperate. That will facilitate the achievement of the first success, which will show people the added value of working together and this can enhance further cooperation. It is also important to set a common agenda and to meet regularly so that people can meet and build trust– invest in relationships.

A common mistake is for people to ask “what is in it for me?”. Of course it is important, but they should also be asking what can they bring into the cooperation. If parties only see the partnership from the point of view of what can they get out of it, creating added value will be very difficult. It has to be a two-sided relationship: each partner has to get something out of it, but they also have to bring something in.

Another mistake is for people to consider only the economic aspect of such cooperation. Of course there are economic benefits for a network, but there are several other important added values that are equally or even more important. It stimulates mutual learning,  empowerment and more efficient use of available (human) capacity . It is important that both civil servants and politicians see the added value of a long term relationship based on trust. Only then you will be able to reach mutual (financial) gains.

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