In an interview with James Anderson, head of government-innovation at Bloomberg Philanthropies, we discussed their 2013-2014 Mayors Challenge—a competition to inspire European cities to come up with bold ideas that solve major problems and improve city life – and can ultimately spread to other cities to make a global difference. Modeled on a successful inaugural competition in the United States, the Mayors Challenge will award €5 million for the grand prize winner and €1 million for four additional cities that come up with the boldest and most transferable ideas. The competition invites leaders of European cities with 100,000 residents or more to submit their city’s boldest idea. Over 180 cities signed up for the Mayors Challenge. Their ideas are due January 31.
Rahim Kanani: How did the success of the Mayors Challenge in the United States spur the idea to do a similar experiment in Europe?
James Anderson: The inaugural Mayors Challenge in the United States produced a crop of fresh, powerful ideas — which have real potential to improve lives in America and beyond — and we are excited to inspire a bold new round of innovation from European cities.
None of the U.S. Mayors Challenge ideas stands out more than the idea from Providence, which won the 2012-2013 Mayors Challenge Grand Prize for Innovation. Providence Talks is a unique approach to addressing a widespread, well-documented problem: the socioeconomic “word gap.” Researchers have found that low-income children have heard about 30 million fewer words than their higher-income peers by the time they get to kindergarten, putting them at serious disadvantage. Providence Mayor Angel Taveras learned of new technologies that could help families find out if their children were hearing enough words. He found a creative way to make this technology available to every low-income family in his city. Providence Talks holds the promise of opening new markets and transforming the approach to early childhood education, which is probably why the White House has taken such keen interest in the project. The ideas from Houston (One Bin for All), Chicago (SmartData Platform), Santa Monica (Wellbeing Index), and Philadelphia (FastFWD) also have potential to transform the way things are done — and make people’s lives better.
At its core, the Mayors Challenge is an innovation process disguised as a competition. It creates space (and powerful incentives) to encourage public sector leaders to think bigger, beyond the demands of daily responsibilities. It encourages government officials to consult with their citizens, social entrepreneurs, and peer cities to understand what’s possible. For cities whose ideas win a place in the top 20, it’s an opportunity to work with experts and peers to deconstruct their ideas, challenge assumptions, and strengthen their concepts and how they communicate them to the public.
As in America, the value of the Mayors Challenge goes beyond prize money and recognition: participating in the process is helping European cities to generate and strengthen bold ideas. These opportunities are few and far between in the public sector.
RK: What kinds of solutions are you hoping to surface or spark in the region?
JA: We know European cities are focused on a number of issues ranging from migration to an aging population to youth unemployment — and we will be interested to see whether cities advance proposals in those areas. There’s also a strong and established focus on social innovation in European cities, so we are eager to see how they collaborate with partners and citizens to generate ideas.
Each city gets to select both the problem it wants to solve and the solution. The Mayors Challenge is not prescriptive: the program casts a broad net, asking cities to tell us what’s important to them and demanding new creativity. Our only requirements are that ideas be bold, implementable, impactful, transferable.
Last year, a third of the top 20 ideas were what we’d call “capacity” initiatives, namely programs or approaches that improve the approach or work of government across issue areas. Philadelphia’s FastFWD, Chicago’s SmartData Platform, Santa Monica’s Wellbeing Project, and Lexington’s CitizenLex are terrific examples. The remaining cities focused on specific urban challenges, ranging from recycling (Houston) to early childhood education (Providence) to fresh food access (Milwaukee, Knoxville). We expect to see a similar mix from European cities, but we know there are different strengths and challenges in and across Europe, so we also expect to be surprised.
RK: When we talk about innovative collaborations, what are some ways in which governments–here in the U.S. or around the world–are partnering with the private and social sectors to build or deliver something unique and effective?
JA: Effective city leaders are increasingly looking to leverage talent, resources, and creativity across sectors, and we see the Mayors Challenge as a vehicle to catalyze these types of collaborative partnerships and social innovation.
Philadelphia’s winning idea from the 2012-2013 Mayors Challenge is a great example. Mayor Michael Nutter believed that social entrepreneurs and creative Philadelphians could solve major city challenges. But the City’s status quo process for identifying problems and solutions didn’t make room for these actors. So, Mayor Nutter set up an alternative procurement process to encourage civic innovation. Its first priority is engaging entrepreneurs to find market-based opportunities to improve public safety in partnership with GoodCompany Ventures and the Wharton Social Impact Initiative.
It’s exciting stuff. There is huge potential for cities around the world to create new cross-sector partnerships to tackle their toughest challenges, and the Mayors Challenge provides a great vehicle to do just that.
It’s also worth noting that expanding the scope and scale of these innovative partnerships was a core strategy of Mayor Bloomberg’s at City Hall. We recently released The Collaborative City, which looks at 12 years of public-private partnership under his leadership. It shows how these partnerships have the power to help governments overcome the silos, research and development deficits, and agility barriers that too often stymie innovation. The social impact bond we completed with the City of New York and Goldman Sachs, which funds evidence-based programs to help 16-18 year old inmates avoid recidivism, is one great example.
RK: With more than 180 cities in Europe registering to compete, how will you plan to share lessons learned and innovative ideas from all of the non-winners, too, in order to truly scale the amount of insight gleaned from the endeavor?
JA: During the first Mayors Challenge, we learned that participating city innovators wanted to continue learning and collaborating long after the competition ended. There’s a real appetite to create a community of practice around the skills and approaches that city officials can use to generate better ideas more often. Coming out of this year’s competition, you’ll see a series of opportunities for interested city innovators to continue advancing their ideas, their commitment to innovation, and their connections with peers. Stay tuned. />/>
RK: If this competition proves successful, might you be thinking about future challenges in Latin America, Africa, or Asia?
JA: We work with eager, creative, and exceptionally talented municipal leaders in cities around the globe – and Mike Bloomberg believes an important role for philanthropy is unlocking their potential and creating room to try new things. We don’t yet know where the Mayors Challenge will take us next. If the 2013-2014 Mayors Challenge is as successful as we think it will be, we anticipate there will be more to come.