Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

To achieve big results, sometimes you have to start small. Every industry experiments with new ideas that have the potential to improve performance. Ideas that work are scaled up; those that do not are dropped. But for too long, this approach was largely absent from the public sector. That is now changing, as a burst of innovation takes place in city halls around the world.

Take Tulsa, Oklahoma. There, in the 45th largest city in the US, mayor Dewey Bartlett has implemented innovative incentives for municipal employees to find ways to save the city money. If it works, it could be replicated in even the world’s largest conurbations.

In cities large and small, municipal governments are generating new strategies to address local and national challenges, whether it is congestion charging in London or Singapore, or a budget contest in Tulsa. Increasingly, these efforts are filling the void left by national governments and international bodies unable or unwilling to solve serious systemic problems.

Some of that failure is understandable. When you are cutting social services or pensions, it is difficult to justify spending on experiments that may or may not yield results. But this risk-averse approach leaves government fighting the most persistent problems – from low education achievement levels to poverty – with the same old tools.

The real impediment to innovative experimentation has less to do with money, though, than with campaigns and elections. An example is climate change. The US federal government has failed to implement a comprehensive strategy that would reduce the nation’s contribution to global warming. And the international treaty process has had difficulties even agreeing to the setting of carbon reduction targets.

Contrast that with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which comprises the world’s largest cities. Collectively, the cities’ 59 mayors have implemented policies and programmes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by almost 250 megatonnes a year by 2020.

Groundbreaking initiatives have had concrete results, from Bogota’s rapid transit bus network to Tokyo’s municipal cap-and-trade system (which has been shortlisted for the FT/Citi Ingenuity awards). New research estimates the C40 has the potential to further reduce emissions by more than 1bn tonnes a year by 2030 – an achievement equivalent to making both Canada and Mexico entirely carbon-neutral.

Cities are meeting other challenges head on – because they have to. I have said before that mayors are the world’s great pragmatists. We don’t have the luxury of simply talking about progress – we have to deliver.

Of course, we are not immune to budgetary constraints. Still, the lack of global leadership has left city governments with no choice but to innovate.

That is why Bloomberg Philanthropies has issued the Mayors Challenge, a competition to inspire US cities to generate innovative ideas that solve major challenges and improve city life, and that ultimately can be shared with other cities.

The Challenge gives cities with as few as 30,000 residents the opportunity to see their innovation become a reality. We are providing technical assistance, an opportunity to collaborate with other top city innovators and, of course, funding to address a wide variety of issues, from government accountability to socioeconomic challenges.

In total, 394 cities have entered the Challenge, and 58 per cent of them have fewer than 100,000 residents. The response has been more than encouraging, and the ideas generated and supported by the Challenge cannot come soon enough.

A 2009 report by McKinsey, the management consultants, estimated that China’s cities alone will add 350m new residents by 2025. Accommodating the needs of that mass of humanity will be a serious environmental, social and political challenge. We need solutions, and we need them now.

Michael Bloomberg is mayor of New York City and chairman of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group

Get alerts on Urban planning when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article