Mexico City's 'Innovation Lab' Tries Tech Solutions for Urban Issues

Government-sponsored "smart city" initiatives aim to make life safer and easier in the Mexican capital. But will they reach everyone?

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One of Laboratorio para la Ciudad's projects was an outdoor sculpture that invited people in to experience the city a new way. (LabPLC/flickr)

MEXICO CITY, Mexico—Hailing a taxi on the street here can be dangerous. While there are more than 100,000 official cabs roaming the streets, many pirated cabs are painted in the same drab red and gold colors and blend right in. More than 400 taxi-related robberies were reported to police in 2013. Most taxi users with the means to pay have switched to more expensive but safer options such as “sitio” taxis, executive services, or Uber, with rides that come when you call them.

But Mexico City isn’t giving up on traditional cabs. To make the experience of hailing one safer, the city recently launched Traxi, a free smartphone app. Once a cab pulls over, a user may enter the license number on the side of the cab or snap a photo of the cab’s license plate. That queries city data that can instantly say whether the cab is registered or not. If the rider chooses to ride and gets in trouble, the app includes a panic button that sends an alert to the police department.  

Traxi is one of six citizen-focused apps produced by Mexico City’s Laboratorio para la Ciudad, or LabPLC, a new smart-city project begun by Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera. Just as Traxi attempts to improve the chaotic experience of riding taxis in Mexico City, Laboratorio itself aims to help transform this unruly city of 21 million into a well-connected digital metropolis.

LabPLC is one of the latest “innovation labs” to pop up in cities around the world. Launched in February of last year, it joined similar efforts in Boston, San Francisco, Singapore, the UK and other places to create a sort of urban skunkworks where creative people in and out of city government can invent and test new ideas and technologies. As Gabriela Gómez-Mont, the leader of the Mexico City lab, put it in a recent interview, “We see ourselves as the experimental think tank of Mexico City’s government.”

Laboratorio Director Gabriela Gómez-Mont says Mexico City can serve as an example for developing-world cities wrestling with urban problems on a massive scale. (LabPLC/flickr)

Gómez-Mont, who has roots in visual arts and documentary filmmaking, has been at the fore of urban thinking for some time. She was a TED fellow in 2009 and a Yale World fellow in 2012. Before Mancera asked her to start Laboratorio, she founded and directed Tóxico Cultura, a multimedia art laboratory that brought together artists, filmmakers, photographers, and writers to collaborate across disciplines.

Gómez-Mont says Mexico City can serve as an example for developing-world cities wrestling with urban problems on a massive scale. But she also understands that Mexico City’s solutions will need to be uniquely tailored to its own context. “Boston, Curitiba, Paris, all these cities have their own history,” Gómez-Mont says. “We have our own, and we have to grow on our own terms.”

An artistic view of the city

There are echoes of Tóxico Cultura in the way Gómez-Mont structured her latest endeavor. Laboratorio has a multi-disciplinary staff of 17, and includes filmmakers, artists, photographers, urban planners, and lawyers. Most of the staff is under the age of 30 and never worked in government before, although most were involved in citizen-driven activities or some kind of civic activism. Gómez-Mont says having this type of staff guarantees that Laboratorio will come up with fresh approaches to city problems.

Many of their early projects have an artistic bent to them. For example, Laboratorio participated in Mextrópoli, the first Festival of Architecture and the City, where designers built a huge sculpture called Human Artifact, which was like a long worm made out of wooden circles. People could enter through openings and sit inside on small benches. The appearance of the sculpture surprised city dwellers as it was moved into plazas around the historic downtown district.

Another means of community engagement are Laboratorio’s rooftop talks, held atop its offices overlooking Plaza Tlaxcoaque, one of Mexico City’s new premier public spaces. The talks feature presentations by local, national, and international urban experts, focusing on everything from the future of manufacturing to pedestrian safety. Some 40 of these talks have been held so far; they often draw youthful audiences of more than 100 people.

Lately, Laboratorio has been turning its attention to more concrete projects that produce things people can use— like Traxi. Gómez-Mont partnered with Code for America to create a fellowship program for developers under an office known as Código para la Ciudad de México (Code for Mexico City). The six programmers on fellowships worked for nine months with half a dozen city agencies, including the transportation and health departments. They built apps designed to help people find free health clinics and to help car owners figure out what emissions tests their cars require, for example.

Laboratorio’s rooftop events bring in local, national and international urban experts and turn out large crowds of young people. (LabPLC/flickr)

These efforts build on an open-data platform Mexico City has been working on in parallel to Laboratorio’s efforts. Mexico City has never been particularly good at collecting data on government operations or sharing it within government, let alone with the public. The new site was built with the help of international consultants known for building an open-data ethos in their cities, such as Rudi Borrmann (Buenos Aires), Nigel Jacob (Boston) and David Eaves (Vancouver). Traxi works by accessing taxi cab registration from the new platform.

While apps like Traxi are signs of progress, infusing a more open and innovative attitude in city government hasn’t been easy. In January, Laboratorio organized a hackathon called HackDF, open to hundreds of developers, academics, journalists and youths who wanted to create applications with city data. One of participants who assisted the HackDF says he felt Laboratorio was not yet able to get the city to open much of its city data. “I felt we were only seeing a small fraction of what the city offices have,” he says.

Gómez-Mont acknowledges that navigating the terrain of city government can be difficult. While Mayor Mancera’s support helped get Laboratorio off to a quick start, she’s also not looking to pick fights with entrenched corners of the city bureaucracy. “To protect our project,” she says, “we go for things that have already been accepted by the local government and its agencies.”

International flavor

One way Gómez-Mont does try to shake things up is by inviting international influences into government. The partnership with Code for America is one example. Another is an International Residence Program she created. The first fellow was Nicola Twilley, a food and cities expert who spent several months documenting the flow of produce and food into the city at the massive Central de Abastos food market. The second fellow, who arrived a couple of months ago, is Perry Chen, the co-founder of Kickstarter, who is investigating new ways Laboratorio could partner with Mexico’s private sector.

These initiatives help solidify Mexico City’s place on the global stage of cultural and technological innovation. They also help raise money. Laboratorio launched with city government funds but also received funding from the Hewlett and Omidyar foundations.

Hundreds of developers, academics, journalists, and others turned out for a hackathon using city data. (LabPLC/flickr)

While Laboratorio’s work so far has been a hit with tech savvy, artistic, and young residents of central Mexico City, it hasn’t made many inroads with the huge numbers of urban poor who live on the outskirts. Mobile apps can be useful, but only 4 million people in all of Mexico own smartphones. In the capital, eight out of ten commuters can’t afford taxis, either—they ride on crowded buses that have safety problems of their own.

That makes something like Traxi a curious place for Laboratorio to focus its energy, says Martha Ramos, a journalist who has covered city government for decades and now directs the daily newspaper 24Horas. “One of the first steps the city has to take to make this new office effective would be to offer city-wide free Internet, which only exists in hip or expensive neighborhoods,” Ramos says.

As a response to this kind of criticism, Laboratorio has begun a youth outreach project in the community of Milpa Alta, a low-income and indigenous area south of the city about two hours by car from its offices. Milpa Alta is a fast-growing suburb where city services have not caught up with the bursting number of people: Sewage installations are inadequate and there’s a dearth of bus service. Young students, who make up 60 percent of the local population, often get on buses at 4 in the morning to get to school by 7.

Laboratorio is investigating how Milpa Alta handles its lack of city services. It has documented how local residents pool resources to solve local problems. And it wants to help local youth groups to see technology as an option to solve some of their neighborhood's issues. 

A common thread in all of Laboratorio's work is tapping the energy and creative drive of young people. Gómez-Mont believes youth are the key to bringing the best new ideas for building a better future for Mexico City. “We are interested in the younger generation,” she says. “We want to articulate their talent.”

This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site. 

About the Author

  • Ana Arana is director of Fundación MEPI, an investigative journalism project in Mexico that promotes investigations that cross borders with the United States and Central America.