Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg participates in an “innovation and inspiration” discussion with Berlin-based SoundCloud CEO & Co-founder Alexander Ljung at Bloomberg’s Ideas Camp, held in Berlin. Bloomberg Philanthropies

Pretty well, actually. 

BERLIN—Can a U.S. organization really tell Europe how to run its cities better?

Frustrated by local limitations, Americans can have a rather romantic view of European city governments, imagining them as endlessly generous, proactive bodies that dole out tramlines, bike paths and social housing like so many handfuls of Halloween candy. While this is far from the truth, the decision to transplant the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge from the USA to Europe this year may still have raised some eyebrows. Following a successful inaugural challenge last year, the city innovation contest crossed the Atlantic in 2014, winnowing down European applicant cities to a shortlist of 21*, all of whom attended a two-day Ideas Camp staged in Berlin earlier this month. 

Cities taking part ranged from the big and famous— London, Madrid and Barcelona are all represented— to the smaller and more obscure, such as Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora and the Northern English metro borough of Kirklees.  Their plans include everything from programs to help low-income communities market their own locally grown produce to projects that teach young people entrepreneurship through video games. Each participating city will now resubmit their plans before one grand prize winner and four runners-up are announced in the fall. Curious to see what exactly American private philanthropy could bring to European city innovation, I attended the Ideas Camp to find out.

The most obvious initial answer is that the challenge brings private philanthropy itself. This exists in Europe of course, but no private city-focused organization here has anything like the range and munificence of Bloomberg Philanthropies.  A European organization could not realistically offer anything as substantial as €9 million in prize money (€5 million for the winner and €1 million each for the four runners-up), or host teams from 21 cities* for two days of coaching and masterclasses. Bloomberg has European partners working on the prize— Eurocities, Nesta and LSE Cities—but they are all state-funded in one form or another. Meanwhile, the current closest equivalent to the challenge is the European Capital of Innovation Competition, worth €500,000 to the winner and won this year by Barcelona. The EU funds this, and anything bigger or splashier would inevitably be open to criticism as a prime example of Eurocratic bloat.   The Mayors Challenge isn’t just bigger than this: Part of its strength is that it’s essentially unfettered, a vehicle to promote former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vision of better city government.

Judging by the Ideas Camp, the main component of that vision is that city governments could do better by looking to entrepreneurs and private businesses as their models. Bloomberg himself turned up for an opening address, and his approach comes across as essentially entrepreneurial and anti-consensus building. He declared against:

“…leading from behind, asking people what they want then trying to deliver. It’s better to elect people to come up with ideas, for them to take you where you don’t know you should be going.”

His stage-mate for this address was not a city mayor but Alexander Ljung*, co-founder and CEO of audio platform Soundcloud, a figure whose boosting of Berlin’s tech start-up scene has been in quoted in almost every second article on the subject. Ljung’s take on innovation: “If everyone likes your idea, it probably isn’t very interesting.”

This business-oriented approach certainly provides some excellent tools and perspectives for public servants. One group session with Jonathan Reichenthal, who became the City of Palo Alto’s Chief Information Officer after a career working for PriceWaterhouseCooper and O’Reilly Media, used tech development as a model. Taking the example of the first crude, bulky iPods with which Apple tested its market, Reichenthal encouraged participants to think about what the “minimum viable product” of their idea would look like rather than trying to roll out something complete and perfected. He also stressed the importance of “pivoting,” or changing course following negative feedback. Is it possible that your idea is better at something other than what you initially designed it for?  There were some murmurs at my table that city governments aren’t necessarily licensed by their electorate for speculative inquiries like this, but the idea of looking at your idea critically from the outside did seem to strike a chord.

Winners from the inaugural U.S. Mayors Challenge (L to R: Story Bellows, Philadelphia; Brenna Berman, Chicago; Julie Rusk of Santa Monica, CA and Toby Shepherd of Providence Talks) took questions on their experience in the competition. (Courtesy Bloomberg Philanthropies)

Another masterclass, this time with Sascha Haselmayer of global city innovation network Citymart, also encouraged cities to quantify the value of their idea. It’s an accurate, tangible way, he argued, of expressing a solution’s worth, valuable as a means to get other stakeholders to sign up. Haselmeyer also underlined the importance of “open innovation,” part of which consists of bluster-free honesty. Hearing a participant suggest that their problem-solving idea’s chief virtue is better interaction with an excellent health service, he snapped back, “Right – so you mean there’s no extra money.”

Certainly at times it felt like participants were being ushered into the Church of Bloomberg—prior to a reception, for example, they were all given a single ticket entitling them to have a photo taken with the great Mike himself. Still, general reaction was that the camp was both useful and refreshing. As a participant from Bristol, England, a city working on plans to get lower-income residents to grow, market and buy fresh produce at low rates, told me:

“It’s quite a revelation really. This isn’t just about looking closely at our idea, it’s about creating a viable ethical business model to work with.”

It would be an overreach to see the camp as a simple American muscle-in on European decision-making. Masterclass and coaching session leaders hailed from Denmark, Switzerland and the U.K. among other countries, while past entrants demonstrate that winning the challenge alone isn’t necessarily enough to swing an organization. Story Bellows, from Philadelphia’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, describes her department’s win last year as “a game changer,” but Brenna Berman, the Chicago CIO behind the city’s winning SmartData platform, notes that the prize alone wasn’t enough to gain her the support of colleagues.  Rather than pushing government in a given direction, the challenge seems to be more about the privately funded nudge. As Bloomberg said in his opening speech, it’s about “getting people to focus, using private money to get things going before government takes them over.”

This concept turned out to be the real core of the Mayors Challenge, not the idea of “America” talking to “Europe” per se, the potentially patronizing implications of which the Challenge’s organizers managed to avoid. Sure, an event which hosted a panel of Bloomberg administration alumni explaining how they managed their success assumed that European participants shared their high opinion of the mayor’s record. But overall, the U.S. cities present came across not as instructors, but as colleagues and equals who happened to be a little further down the line in the Bloomberg process. In fact, I got the impression that some of the American guests had a certain wistful envy at the scope of the ideas the European participants proposed, ideas that might be considered too much like social engineering back home. As one U.S. guest told me:

“American cities can be very efficient at the core stuff—collecting trash, maintain roads and so on—and that’s great, but we don’t often get a chance to tackle the bigger social problems that are causing the issues we’re cleaning up after. There seems to be more trust in government over here.”

*CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of finalist cities in the European Mayors Challenge. There are 21, not 22. Also, we had the wrong first name for SoundCloud CEO Alexander Ljung. We regret the errors. 

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