Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York has a lot of empathy for the challenges his fellow American mayors face nowadays. “Every day, mayors around America are tackling increasingly complex problems with fewer and fewer resources,” he said. Fortunately for these mayors he’s not just a nice guy that cares about their problems, but also a billionaire that can do something about it. And indeed, he does – this time it’s a competition between mayors of cities with populations of 30,000 or greater, challenging them to come up with innovative ideas to “solve major challenges and improve city life” for the chance to win a $5 million grand prize or one of four $1 million prizes. Welcome to the Mayors Challenge.
Launched last June by Bloomberg’s philanthropic arm, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Mayors Challenge is aimed first and foremost at encouraging city halls around the country to adopt an innovative approach, using creative problem-solving to address their problems. It is looking for bold ideas that address serious social or economic problems, improve customer service for residents or businesses, enhance accountability to or engagement with the public, and/or create efficiencies that make government work better, faster, and cheaper.
It’s not surprising that Bloomberg, with his entrepreneurial approach, is seeking ways to propel innovation among cities. However, Bloomberg also wants to advance collaboration between cities through the competition. The idea is not just that all cities can learn from each other, but also that “more and more, a new generation of mayors is recognizing the value of working together and the necessity of borrowing ideas from one another,” Bloomberg explained. As a result, the ideas submitted to the competition will be challenged not only by their vision, implementability and impact, but also by their replicability.
To those mayors who are positive that their bold ideas have all the required components, but are still not sure if this is what the judges will be looking for, the Mayors Challenge provides 3 examples that show what it looks for. One of the examples comes from Tulsa, OK, where the mayor, struggling to cut costs, encouraged public and private workers to bid on city contracts. The mayor’s initiative allowed groups of employees to bid on projects and then share in additional cost savings (i.e. receive bonuses for generating cost savings if they won the bid). This strategy, according to Bloomberg Philanthropies, engaged city employees in city solutions, using competition to leverage employees’ insights to drive cost reductions.
Another example, this time a green one, comes not too surprisingly from New York. This is the PlaNYC 2030, a plan that was launched by Mayor Bloomberg in 2007, in an effort to make the city more sustainable, efficient, and livable, as it prepares to grow by 1 million people by 2030. A key element of PlaNYC was a commitment to create or re-imagine 4,000 acres of New York City land, so that all New Yorkers live within a ten-minute walk of a park. The Bloomberg Administration’s idea, the Mayors Challenge explained, responded to a real problem in new, creative ways that were both ambitious and achievable, without requiring massive public capital expenditures.
Basically, you have in these examples all the keys to winning one of the prizes – creativity, vision, applicability and replicability. And let’s not forget the costs. My guesstimation is that there is a preference for projects that are not too grandiose in terms of costs and have a reasonable payback period – after all, the prize might not cover all the required funding and Bloomberg’s wish is to benefit taxpayers, not to increase the burden on them.
So far 394 cities from 47 states have submitted their ideas to the competition. Entries are accepted until September 14 and some mayors are still working hard in an effort to find the idea that will win them one of the prizes. In Milwaukee, for example, Mayor Tom Barrett is searching for ideas focused on local food systems. According to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, he is inviting proposals “that build on the success and leadership of urban agriculture programs such as Growing Power, Milwaukee Urban Gardens and Sweet Water Organics, while also addressing issues related to poor nutrition, obesity and the need to revitalize neighborhoods with foreclosed properties.” The hope is that more efficient delivery mechanisms and perhaps a central “food hub” would make locally grown foods more accessible to more Milwaukeeans, Barrett told the newspaper.
Some mayors also hope to benefit from the competition even if they don’t win. In Lexington, Kentucky, for example, the mayor, Jim Gray asked the citizens to submit ideas to City Hall. It is not just the winning bid he is hoping for, he explained to the Economist, but any good idea which may be implemented to help his city.
While not everyone might be happy with the idea that you need a billionaire’s philanthropic organization to help improve the life in America’s cities, it’s still an opportunity that might help at least 5 cities implement bold ideas that otherwise would just stay in the drawer.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.