Bloomberg Offers $5 Million Prize for City Innovation

The "Mayors Challenge" will award "breakthrough solutions" to urban problems.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new competition he says will inspire "breakthrough solutions" to many problems facing American cities. The "Mayors Challenge," run by Bloomberg Philanthropies, will award a $5 million grand prize and four $1 million secondary prizes to innovative ideas that improve urban life across the country.

"American cities, where roughly 70 percent of the population is going to live in a couple decades, are really uniquely positioned to inspire and foster innovation and creativity," Bloomberg said in a conference call this morning.

Any city with a population of 30,000 or more — there are 1,300 of them in the United States, based on the 2010 Census — is eligible to participate in the challenge. Applications must be submitted to the Mayors Challenge website under the auspices of the mayor. The submission deadline is September 14, 2012.

Twenty finalists will be named toward the end of the year, and representatives from these cities will then attend a two-day "Ideas Camp," where various experts will provide feedback. The winners will be announced next spring, and the prize money must go toward implementation of the idea. (New York is not eligible to compete.)

The selection committee (co-chaired by Shona Brown of Google.Org and Ron Daniel, former Managing Partner at McKinsey & Company) will be looking for "the boldness, strength of planning, potential for impact, and replicability of your idea," according to the Mayors Challenge site. Ideal entrants will not only demonstrate a novel approach to a city problem but will design a program that could be copied across the country.

Projects can address problems that pertain to social or economic matters, customer service, government efficiency and accountability, or civic engagement. The winning entry can be a "back-of-the-napkin" vision or an improvement of an existing innovation, Bloomberg said.

"A great idea is that something nobody else thought about," he said. "It's an idea that has impact — that not just sounds good but would change the world if it worked."

One example of an existing idea that would be a strong contender is the 311 number that gives residents one-stop access to information about various city services. Implemented in 1999 by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, 311 is now used in at least 70 other cities. (Baltimore had the 311 idea first, back in 1996, but it was intended only as a non-emergency crime number.)

Of course, Bloomberg himself is no stranger to innovation. While New York won't take part in the Mayors Challenge, Bloomberg believes an idea like PlaNYC, which increased the amount of public space across the city, would also be a competitive entrant.

"The thing that's important here is that all cities, whether they're 30,000 people or 8.4 million people like in New York City, they fundamentally have the same problems," Bloomberg said. "We're all in this together. I think that's something people tend to forget."

You can learn more about the Mayors Challenge in this video:


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