A Few Hundred Innovative Ideas for Urban Governance

The five winners of the Mayors Challenge are the cream of a bounteous crop.
by | March 27, 2013 AT 5:00 PM

Strong leaders understand the importance of creating a culture of innovation, one in which government takes a bit more risk to address what it's been doing a passable job at but could do better, faster and more cheaply. There's no better evidence of that kind of culture at work than the flood of entries into the Bloomberg Philanthropies' Mayors Challenge, a contest for innovative proposals to address challenges in urban governance.

The five contest winners announced last week were drawn from an exhilarating array of innovative responses submitted by 305 cities. All five of the winners will receive funding to help test out their solutions, with the goal of sharing recipes for success and replicating working solutions in other cities. An early childhood education intervention program from Providence, R.I., "Providence Talks," took the grand prize, $5 million, with Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia and Santa Monica, Calif., also winning recognition and $1 million each.

Officials in Providence are seeking to close the literacy gap between high- and low-income students through a program that intervenes in the home rather than the classroom. Studies have shown that lower-income students have on average heard 30 million fewer words by their fourth birthdays, contributing to less developed vocabulary and putting these students at a disadvantage when they enter school. The voluntary program would supply families with a recording device to track the number of words a child is exposed to each day, combined with monthly coaching sessions for parents. Just knowing their children's exposure and benchmark averages has been shown to help parents do better, and the stream of data from the recording devices can be geotagged and processed to give officials a better idea of how to target their childhood education interventions throughout the city.

Chicago's SmartData Platform is a way to aggregate the thousands of data streams now available and relevant to city officials and citizens and process them in real time through an open-source framework. The idea is that decisions could be made more quickly, and in a more informed way, than ever before and that better-targeted services could be delivered. The city hopes to be able to anticipate problems--such as weather emergencies and car accidents--before they happen, rather than waiting and reacting after the fact.

Houston's "One Bin for All" seeks to rebuild the city's approach to its waste stream, no longer buying into the old dichotomy of "trash" and "recyclables." Instead, the program aims to treat waste as a valuable resource that technology can do a better job of sorting than a human can, while eliminating that cumbersome responsibility for residents. Citizens will only have to deal with a single waste bin, one fleet of trucks will perform pickups, and a high-tech facility will sort waste to be sold as valuable recyclables, composted, converted into fuel or diverted to a landfill (at a much lower rate than before). In short, Houston is seeking to look at waste not as a burden but as an asset.

Philadelphia's Social Enterprise Partnership represents a systemic change to the way the city government seeks to solve its problems. The city is setting up a process to bring in citizen innovators to address city problems as opportunities, providing them with the support and cooperation they need to develop their ideas and testing their solutions in a consistent, structured way. Fresh ideas would be combined with the efforts of multiple city departments, and private, nonprofit and academic partners would be engaged to combine multiple sources of expertise and knowledge.

Santa Monica's Wellbeing Project aims to consistently measure and track the wellbeing of its citizens in an effort to understand what services and interventions can improve their quality of life. Taking on an aspect of governance traditionally difficult to grasp and improve in a targeted way, the city plans to combine new types of data with understandings from economics, behavioral science and psychology to develop a local "Wellbeing Index."

All of these programs, as well as the hundreds of others that were submitted, show the potential for experimentation in local government and the range of untested solutions that are ready to be tried out. Programs like the Mayors Challenge help provide the funding and support for these out-of-the-box solutions to be tested, and, more important, for successful pilots to be replicated and improve the way cities everywhere do their work.