In the realm of civic innovation, opportunity is aimed to strike in five Latin American and Caribbean cities this year after a $9 million announcement on Jan. 20 from billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The media and investment mogul directed his non-profit Bloomberg Philanthropies to launch its Mayors Challenge grant program — that seeks to improve cities against a backdrop of civic invention and data-based strategies — in the two regions. The jump into Latin America continues a campaign to globalize the challenge, which originated in the U.S. and moved into Europe in 2015.
In this next iteration, a committee of regional thought leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean are charged to select four city applicants to receive grants of $1 million each with one grand prize city receiving $5 million for an innovation initiative. It was said that special weight will be given to ideas that solve major social or economic issues, improve services for citizens and businesses, and harness citizen engagement.
Apart from its international push, the contest accelerates Bloomberg Philanthropies’ ongoing mission to catalyze sustainable initiatives for citizens at the municipal level. These advancements have included What Works Cities, a program launched in April 2015 to assist citizens in 100 mid-sized American cities through data, and Bloomberg’s Innovation Team project that embedded tech and data expertise in cities to answer problems and create replicable solutions.
"Cities around the world are pursuing bold policy innovations, and those in Latin America and the Caribbean are helping to lead the way,” Bloomberg said in a press release. “Expanding the Mayors Challenge to Latin America and the Caribbean provides new opportunities for progress on a wide range of issues that impact the lives of citizens.”
James Anderson, Bloomberg’s head of government innovation programs, said the deadline for cities to express interest is March 15, and that the Center for Public Impact, an international advocacy group, will act as Bloomberg’s official implementation partner. In an interview with Government Technology Anderson elaborated on expectations and what the challenge might mean for the municipalities.
Government Technology: Now in its third year, how does the Mayor's Challenge entry into Latin America complement the overarching vision for the initiative?
James Anderson, Bloomberg Philanthropies head of government innovation programs: Great question. As you know, our broader agenda at the foundation is focused on promoting public-sector innovation in cities around the globe. With the Mayor's Challenge serving as one of our flagship programs, we're very much building from success. To date, the competition has effectively spurred cities in the United States and Europe to produce a number of field-advancing new ideas. It's engaged hundreds of cities and thousands of city officials in a structured innovation process, and we're seeing a ton of interest as winning cities bring their ideas to life — from other cities and from the news media around the globe. It's a program that we continue to be very excited about, and of course, it's incredibly exciting to bring it to Latin America and the Caribbean, a region that is hugely innovative with cities that are really stepping into the global conversation around urban innovation.
GT: Just for a little context, what are some highlights from past Mayor's Challenges that represent cornerstone achievements?
Anderson: There’s a couple ways to answer that. First and foremost, the ideas that have surfaced through the Mayor's Challenge very much represent ideas that advance the fields of practice within their respective domains. For examples you can look at the well-being index from Santa Monica, Calif., that became the first city in the country to measure the well being of its citizens and begin to adjust policy and funding decisions based on those well being indicators. Or Providence, R.I., which harnessed a technological device — or word pedometer — to count and track the number of words young people are hearing for early childhood education. Then there are the ideas from Europe from last year. Barcelona took a highly innovative approach to creating a network of volunteers — professional caregivers, friends and family — for at-risk seniors. I think this example stands as one of the most interesting and provocative programs to combat loneliness and isolation that we've seen anywhere. This is all a very long way to say that the Mayor's Challenge has continued, in each iteration, to surface ideas that are cutting edge and that advance thinking in their respective fields.
GT: How do mayors get involved in the competition?
Anderson: I would say the competition gets mayors to engage citizens and other partners outside of government in new and interesting ways. We've seen mayors use the competition as a way to go out into the community, to talk about the problems they want to solve, to crowdsource ideas with citizens and collaborate with other unusual partners to develop very different lines of attack on urban problems they've faced for a long time. We're very excited about the new way of working that the Mayor's Challenge promotes, and the way that the cities and the mayors have used this challenge as a way to connect more authentically and differently with their citizens.
GT: Looking at Latin America and the Caribbean, it's obviously a very different environment than the U.S. How do you think some of the challenges might be different for mayors there as opposed to, say, in Europe and the United States?
Anderson: There are certainly themes that have emerged in the different regions during the different competitions. We saw a lot of focus on customer service in the United States. In Europe we saw many ideas focused on social inclusion and aging. We'll see what we see in Latin America and the Caribbean. Certainly we know the cities in the region are very focused on mobility, on poverty eradication and reduction, on education, on transparency and government legitimacy, on citizen engagement, on safety and security. You know, this is a competition that asks mayors to identify their biggest problems and develop interesting new solutions. We'll see what the mayors bring forward. I'm sure we'll be surprised.
GT: What do you think will be some hallmarks of a competitive application from some of the cities?
Anderson: We will have a 13-member selection committee comprised overwhelmingly of innovation and public policy experts from the Latin America and Caribbean region. Those selection committee members will be assessing these applications based on four criteria. The first is newness and boldness, the second is potential for impact, the third is a likelihood for implementation, and the fourth is the potential for transferability — or in other words, is this an idea that addresses a problem that many cities have, and do we believe that many cities could implement the idea? All four of those categories are key for a winning city's application to hit it out of the ballpark.
GT: Are there any agencies or collaborators you're working with in Latin America to help coordinate or facilitate this?
Anderson: Yes, absolutely. We have brought on board for this year's competition the Center for Public Impact, which is a global non-profit focused on promoting public-sector innovation and efficacy. They have a regional presence in Latin America and, as our official implementation partner, will be providing a wide range of support to cities as they go through the process. March 15 is the deadline for cities to RSVP and let us know that they want to participate in the competition. One thing this year that’s different than years past is we'll be conducting the challenge in Portuguese and Spanish. All of the correspondence, all of the communication around the campaign, will be happening in those two languages, which is obviously a big difference than the U.S. and the European competition. There are also 900 cities that are eligible to compete, and more details can be found at our site at Mayorschallenge.bloomberg.org.
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