Over the past year, cities have been the source of an extraordinary amount of innovation borne out of crisis — local leaders transformed hundreds of miles of streets and civic spaces, mobilized food-delivery systems, passed eviction moratoriums and procured PPE from every corner of the world in order to protect first responders.
That's because, as Richard Florida and Carlo Ratti recently observed, the pandemic left city leaders "with little choice but to adopt a fast-paced, trial-and-error approach." In other words, mayors innovated as if their residents' lives and livelihoods depended on it — because they did.
But as Covid caseloads, thankfully, begin to fall and the existential crisis starts to fade, I'm now concerned that cities might flatten the curve on bold, public-sector innovation — just when we need it more than ever.
Mayors were ambitious in the face of Covid-19, and they'll need to remain equally so through the next phase of public-sector innovation.
The compounding crises of climate change, economic recovery and racial justice demand big thinking from city halls. That's why we can't allow the pandemic's eventual end to also be the end to a period of bold urban experimentation. Let's instead make sure it's the beginning of a critical next phase of innovation, where cities build upon the momentum of the past year to tackle the major urban challenges to come.
The unofficial beginning of this next phase starts Monday, when Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute raise the curtain on the annual convening of city leaders and urban thinkers known as CityLab. As these leaders gather to share and help spread the best ideas for — and from — cities, I hope they keep three things in mind:
City halls will never have the budgets or power to solve huge problems — like homelessness or affordable housing — on their own. But city halls, uniquely, are able to "crowd in" energy and broad-based support from business, civil society and residents. Economist Marianna Mazzucato notes in her recent book, Mission Economy, that "only government has the capacity to steer the transformation on the scale needed." I'd add that only local governments can steer urban change at a truly citywide scale.
That's a lesson Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi learned while trying to overhaul mental health services, as recently chronicled in Stanford Social Innovation Review. With little funding or authority over the issue, Nenshi convened a coalition of public-sector and nonprofit agencies to coordinate strategy and resources. By working together they yielded far more impact than any of them could have achieved on their own.
Cities have only just begun to build the muscles needed to consistently and deeply engage all the available assets within their communities to common purpose. Last year in New York City, where I live, residents spent many evenings banging pots and pans out their windows in support of frontline medical workers but, otherwise, watched helplessly as ambulances raced by. Imagine all the power that resident energy represents, if only city leaders could readily tap it.
In 2020, Covid-19 became the primary focus of every mayor in America, and each one of these leaders looked at the same, easy-to-understand key indicators: What are my hospitalization rates? Death rates? Test positivity rates? As a result, they did something stunning: They marshalled all the resources of the city around one issue, they talked publicly about the data and they directed unprecedented administrative focus to finding solutions.
While the climate crisis feels far less urgent, it is no less threatening. Cities account for more than 70% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, primarily from the buildings and transport sectors, and they have a major role to play. Yet few mayors direct daily focus to a similar set of key indicators: Where are emissions growing and shrinking? Which neighborhoods are disproportionally impacted by climate pollution? What buildings and streets account for the most pollution? As a result, most of the 600-plus U.S. local governments that have developed detailed climate plans are falling behind their targets, according to the Brookings Institution.
Let's bring the same data-driven urgency to climate change and other critical issues facing cities today. Tough problems like reducing homelessness or homicides are complex and require many actors, across sectors and silos, working toward the same goals. City leaders will need good data and focused attention — along with bolder innovation — to achieve big progress.
Raising Our Ambitions
I can't help but think of San Francisco Mayor London Breed announcing the nation's first large-scale, citywide stay-at-home order. Or Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms standing up to her governor's willful disregard of informed public health guidance. Or Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser's powerful statement to the former president that Black Lives Matter.
Mayors were ambitious in the face of Covid-19, and they'll need to remain equally so through the next phase of public-sector innovation. After all, the private sector isn't going to solve climate change. Civil society won't fix homelessness. And, as Mayor Nenshi knows, local government can't do it alone either. But city leaders uniquely possess the capacity to set big public goals, convene partners, and, as Mazzucato puts it, usher in and guide the transformation we need.
James Anderson is head of government innovation programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement