Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Talking and listening is as important as a bright idea.
What’s the most effective way to change a city? By talking to people.
That’s the big theme that has emerged from the past ten winners of the Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge, whose experiences are detailed in a new report from the challenge’s organizers, Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The Mayor’s Challenge is an ideas competition that seeks out cities with innovative methods for improving services, then offers them funding and expert mentors. The program is currently fielding its third round of applicant cities, this time from Latin America and the Caribbean. In the run-up to choosing the next round, Bloomberg Philanthropies has published a timely retrospective of the key lessons its previous ten projects have learned after winning the challenge.
Time and again, they sound the same note: “Open your doors,” says Athens. “Engage citizens and users in the design of your project early,” suggests Warsaw. “Let others see how passionate you believe in your idea,” advises Stockholm. In sum, building healthy relationships may be even more vital than having a bright idea in the first place.
This isn’t to downplay the importance of smart thinking. But clearly, how you communicate an idea is in itself a central component of the change it can bring.
A classic example of this is a winning project from 2014 from the Northern English borough of Kirklees. Called Comoodle, it’s a public platform that, following its soft launch this December, will give voluntary and other organizations access to unused resources belonging both to the city and each other. City property that stands temporarily idle—such as, say, a fleet of delivery vans—can be freed up for community use by volunteers or charities.
In its developmental phase, the project has conducted over 140 trades already. Project Leader Duggs Carre says the stuff-sharing program has yielded “more than just lawnmowers.” Kirklees residents have traded time, space, materials—even a live pig, used by a local theater company for a photo shoot.
This alone is promising, but as Carre explains, the project has also kick-started a rethink of the way Kirklees Council interacts with the public. “Local governments tend not to trust people” he says. “They tend to be very bureaucratic, very risk-averse and procedural. We have all the worst traits for entering into that more human way in which you might treat your neighbors and friends. Council workers also know that they're custodians of public assets, so they're worried about their responsibility to be extra careful.”
Getting public departments to participate in an asset exchange scheme, Carre says, requires a wholesale cultural shift. An apparently modest project like Comoodle becomes a way of reforging links with the public; once the project is fully operational, it should offer not just streamlined public services, but also an improved contract between the city, volunteer organizations, and the public. “We're trying build a new relationship model, where we trust first and ask questions second. We know that people aren't really going to share things unless we find a way to connect them to each other—and unless we deal with this issue of trust.”
This enhanced partnership between government and public isn’t just desirable—it’s necessary in a country hit by harsh austerity cuts, where authorities are struggling to deliver services and public mistrust is growing.
Athens’ Synathina project, another Mayor’s Challenge winner from 2014, approaches that skepticism head-on. Like Comoodle, it’s a public platform with a simple idea: to map and boost communication between the Greek capital’s active community groups. The project tackles an important disconnect. Athens is a hive of grassroots activity, but these efforts often don’t join up well with public services. Battered by the 2008 financial crisis whose negative effects show little sign of abating, the city is partly hanging in there thanks to community activists, who pilot street cleaning drives, help refugees, and restore historic buildings (and also conserve street art). Synathina maps all these different groups, not just to connect with each other, but also to start a healthier, more open dialogue with the municipality.
This approach is already starting to bear fruit, as can be seen in a recent Synathina-powered community discussion about a market hall in the city’s central Kypseli neighborhood. As Athens’ Vice Mayor for Civil Society Amalia Zeppou tells CityLab, the Synathina network helped the city to go beyond the usual suspects when it comes to consulting the public about the market’s future.
“Public consultations can be extremely boring and quite hypocritical things, because they are usually question sessions where only elected representatives would come,” she says. “These people do not represent other parts of those neighborhoods, who are now more dynamic, more result-oriented than the traditional groups the city usually talks to.”
The Synathina platform allowed the city to reach out to these non-traditional groups, gaining over 470 proposals for the market hall. The ideas, however, were not in themselves as important as the new connections, often between groups at different ends of the political spectrum. As Zeppou explains:
“We could have almost predicted the ideas that came in. What was more significant was that Synathina broke the ice, and the tension among community groups in that area, helping them to collaborate. These groups saw that even though some of them didn't know each other—or if they did, they kind of didn't like each other—that their ideas for the neighborhood were actually quite similar."
What appeared to be a discussion about what to do with a vacant building turned into a community-building exercise that could leave the neighborhood more cohesive and resilient. Its approach has also spread elsewhere in the city, which is now running an “open schools” program that allows schools to open after hours for evening lessons and other activities.
This is what seems to be at the heart of the Mayor’s Challenge winners’ successes. If projects like Comoodle and Synathina thrive, the borrowed pigs and unused market halls may well be soon forgotten. What will remain, hopefully, is a stronger bond between institutions and the citizens they serve—put simply, a new, improved way of talking and listening to people.