This article was previously published in the Danish weekly Mandag Morgen.
While leadership among the world’s heads of state is at a standstill, the major cities of the world are becoming increasingly important when it comes to solving global challenges. But how can cities work with innovation? New York’s outgoing mayor is leading the way.
”Nations talk, cities act” is supposedly one of the favourite slogans of Michael Bloomberg, the outgoing mayor of New York. For the last 12 years, he has been making a contribution to putting cities in the driving seat when it comes to tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges.
Despite being encouraged to run for presidency of the United States once his reign in the nation’s biggest city ends in a month’s time, he has decided not to stand. Instead, he is willing to put a significant portion of his private fortune into promoting innovation among his fellow mayors.
The idea that the world’s great cities hold the key to addressing many of the world’s challenges is not a new one. And the impact of this idea is growing, as is cities’ own self-understanding.
Take for example the aftermath of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. In a television interview, renowned researcher and sociologist Anthony Giddens was asked to give an analysis of the implications of a failure by the world’s nations to reach a binding, effective climate agreement.
He replied that in the future, we should not expect nation states to be the most progressive performers when it comes to climate. In the future, it will be the big cities. Since then, an organisation like C40, which is an association of 40 of the world’s largest cities, has taken up the challenge of reducing CO2 emissions.
Another advocate of the importance of cities for our society and for the future of the planet is Richard Florida, who is best known for his “creative class” theory. Over the last 10 years, Florida has argued that it is in urban communities with particularly high concentrations of creative people (defined as everything from designers to stockbrokers) that innovation and growth are best able to thrive.
Thus, it is not only the future of cities, but the future of nations that lies in the hands of the mayors and administrations in some of the world’s largest cities. Looking ahead, it is city authorities who will attract investments, talent and businesses.
A public system of innovation
Michael Bloomberg is a key driver of this development and his focus extends far beyond the city limits of New York and his role as mayor. Through his foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, he is developing and putting forward new solutions that can provide a further contribution to the strengthening of the role of cities as the stakeholder with the best answers to our global challenges.
One of the solutions the foundation is working on is to strengthen innovation skills close to cities’ top management. Bloomberg is achieving this by funding the establishment of innovation delivery teams in five major U.S. cities.
The cities, which include Detroit, New Orleans and Chicago, are awarded up to DKK 10 million annually. This money goes towards funding a team of innovators which (referring directly to the mayor) focuses on rethinking such things as public services, jobs and growth strategies and combatting crime. You could call this work “innovation by new capacity”, because the money is being spent on upgrading the innovative skills of the administration.
The entire process takes three years and is supported by advisors who ensure continual knowledge sharing and sparring between the various teams, with researchers from New York University responsible for evaluating the results.
A second solution, which the fund is helping to develop, involves intelligent competitions. Last year, Bloomberg invited over 300 U.S. cities to compete on good ideas about how urban challenges can be solved in new and more effective ways. This means innovation by competition.
Now it is Europe’s turn, where all cities with over 100,000 inhabitants have just been invited to take part in a new round: ”Mayor’s Challenge”, in which I myself am on the panel of judges.
In the style of Government Denmark’s innovation Award, which is due to be awarded again shortly, the purpose of the Mayor’s Challenge is to reward the good idea at city level. A cash prize of 5 million Euro for the winning city will help ensure that the idea will be developed and implemented.
The Mayor’s Challenge also provides massive process support to qualify the 20 most promising proposals before further competition and the announcement of the winner. Not only does this mean that cities get to develop their ideas. It also increases the possibilities for bringing ideas into the future. In addition to the first prize, four other ideas will be awarded a prize of 1 million Euros.
What are the prospects for Michael Bloomberg and the work of the foundation? In my opinion, it is that he is helping to elevate innovation in cities from singular and somewhat random initiatives towards a broader, systematic effort.
First of all, he puts innovation right on the agenda of the cities that are participating in the programs funded by the foundation. This applies not only to the lucky winners, but to all who throw themselves into the competitions, reaping the benefit of new learning in the process.
Secondly, he is helping to set new standards for how ambitiously one can proceed, if you as mayor seriously believe in innovation, even without external support. Many newly elected municipal politicians here in Denmark might want to draw inspiration from this.
Finally, Bloomberg’s efforts will be a benchmark for decision-makers at national level. If we can achieve results by strengthening a city’s innovative capacity, could the same also be achieved using similar devices in a ministry or an agency?
If this happens, nation states might get back on track. But so far, the cities are acting while the nations are talking.