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Spruce up hopeless places and let them shine again. That’s what Sandra Poelman has in mind with her Glowingplaces consultancy. Over the past twenty years as an urban planner and project manager, Poelman has contributed to the urban transformation of Eindhoven. She was one of the initiators behnd the new Strijp-S cultural hub in Eindhoven, and was responsible for the redevelopment of the Eindhoven railway station. With Glowingplaces, she wants to share her knowledge and skills with parties who have difficulty with these types of transformation projects.

Last Sunday Poelman launched her book ‘Van Hopeloos naar Hotspot (From Hopeless to Hotspot) on this subject. In the run-up to that presentation, Innovation Origins talked to Poelman about the plans and ambitions for her consultancy firm.

What precisely do you do at Glowingplaces?

“I look at places that many people consider hopeless. For instance, think about inner cities which have a lot of vacant sites, churches or business parks. That is a problem in itself, but in the case of major transformation projects, I see many opportunities for renewal, for renewed pride and new companies. For innovation, actually. That’s what I’m going to work on.

Glowingplaces is aimed at governments, real estate owners, market players and other initiators. I am currently working as a strategic advisor to the province of Noord-Brabant on the transformation of the inner cities and city perimeters of medium-sized Brabant municipalities, such as Bergen op Zoom, Waalwijk and Oss. I am really in my element when it comes to these projects.

What motivated you to set up your own consultancy for that?

I have been a trailblazer for such a long time, but I like being able to stand alongside other trailblazers in order to help them as a strategic advisor. They are often on their own and have to reinvent the wheel. On top of that, I am now able to help move more projects forward. As a civil servant, I had to do everything myself, even clean the toilets at my events. At that time I could carry out one or two projects, but I am currently working on six in the North Brabant province. Basically, my efforts have expanded to a greater extent.

How does Glowingplaces distinguish itself from other consultancy firms?

I work across a wide area. Most of the time it’s all about what I call the hardware: the buildings, finances, regulations, etc. I also focus on the software: the new significance this has to take on, new programs that can be implemented, attracting new parties and building up alliances.

Within construction, 95% of the discussions are all about the hardware. That’s very challenging. However, just building something wonderful won’t bring it back to life. The very act of making something meaningful again for people has always been the way for me to generate enthusiasm for a project. And eventually raise millions of euros in funding. That’s why I speak not only with architects, urban planners and real estate parties, but also with those in healthcare, the cultural sector, new businesses and in the energy transition sector, to name but a few. I also aim to connect start-ups to places with vacant property. Because you do have to rely on energetic people who actually have the courage to do something. You all have to pull together.

What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?

My biggest obstacle is my health. I have slight brain damage which means working full-time is impossible for me. But thanks to the freedom I now have in being able to make my own choices, I’m really flourishing. I have recently become very open about this and have dedicated my book to everyone with health challenges. As a hopeless case, I had to rebuild myself and therefore not only draw inspiration from my profession, but also from my personal journey. It’s hard to talk about it, but that’s how you gain understanding and allow others have the chance to help you. This also alleviates some kind of tension. It’s a big leap that I’ve made.

What are you most proud of?

Aside from writing a book in six months and being open about my health, I can see that I am beginning to grow in my role as a strategic advisor. In the beginning, I had a tendency to take things over and I was forced to hold back somewhat. But now I have the courage to focus much more on inspiring others and identifying problems. This gives them the scope to take charge of things themselves.

What motivates you every day?

I just think it’s just such a wonderful profession. I really enjoy being able to shift a place from being enormously under-developed and obsolete to being ahead of the curve. Plus, in my case, I really am on a mission to get people, organizations and places to shine and prosper.

Where would you like to see Glowingplaces in five years time?

I don’t want to expand as a company in the near future. Nevertheless, I do want to increase my impact. That’ s why I wrote my book. I would also very much like to be invited as a speaker in order to contribute concrete ideas on locations and spaces. In five years time, together with a team of other experts, I hope to be a kind of itinerant company that organizes development events all over the place and enables major successes to be made within a short period of time.”

Interested in more start-ups? Read all of the articles in our series here.