Toulouse is one of several French cities that are joining Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Team program.
Toulouse is one of several French cities that are joining Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Team program. Regis Duvignau/Reuters

Bloomberg Philanthropies teams up with French cities trying to break out of the national mold.

Can an American organization teach the French to run their cities better? This month, Bloomberg Philanthropies are moving into as yet uncharted territory by extending their Innovation Team program to France for the first time, with a mission to make France’s public sector “more inventive, agile, and suited to the needs of citizens”.

The program which already has twenty cities in its network—a far-flung constellation of municipalities stretching from Anchorage to Jerusalem. Now Bloomberg has teamed up with French urban lab 27e Région (“27th Region” in English) to extend the program to its first European outposts.

Some might wonder exactly why an American-based organization is providing advice to European cities. The program in itself is anything but prescriptive in its outcomes. A kind of intense coaching and outreach process where city workers are paired up with consultants, the process comes with no fixed goals beyond the broad one of promoting positive cultural change and deepening citizen engagement. Indeed, it’s kind of the point that participating cities use the innovation teams to pin down and decide independently what kind of changes they might like to implement.

While the goals remain fluid for now, cities signed-up in other countries are already in the process of making changes that are both practically useful and humane in their intentions. An innovation team working in Tel Aviv, for example, has been working on the neighborhood level to find ways to alleviate loneliness among older residents. After a thorough consultation with local people in one area, the team is now piloting several new ideas, such as repurposing underused local synagogues as community centers and a scheme pairing elders with students for daily activities.

There’s something more significant afoot here than the sum of these new projects alone. Bloomberg Philanthropies’ focus on local rather than national governments as focal points for change shows the way the wind has been blowing for a while. Cities are increasingly relying less on national solutions to local problems, looking beyond their borders to similar cities in other countries in order to pool expertise, new approaches, and forge relationships of support.

This new city-focused approach is about more than avoiding national government bottlenecks that hinder action. As the unprecedented presence of sub-national bodies at the 2015 Paris Climate Talks made clear, cities and regions are also aware that many of the most grave issues we face may best be dealt with at a local level. “Whenever we work with innovation teams, we’re not just thinking about a single city, we’re also excited about the network we create of cities and teams around the world, as there's real power in information sharing and best practices,” says Katie Appel Duda of Bloomberg Philanthropies. “We are quite intentional about making those connections and fostering that network, so in adding these French cities and the partnership with 27e Région we are really looking forward to the connections we will make not just with cities in France but between them and cities that are already part of the network in the U.S., Canada and Israel.”

You can arguably see the forces at work in this internationalization of the municipal just by looking at where the program is landing in France. The four cities and regions in the program so far (six more are to be confirmed) all share something in common. Participants Paris, Dunkirk, Mulhouse and the Southwestern Occitanie Region all have an especially strong incentive to form international networks, to partly sidestep national government as a mediator. Paris’ motivation for this is evident enough. It’s a world city, one that may well be poised to become Europe’s unofficial capital, taking over from post-Brexit London as a European New York to Brussels’ Washington.

The other sign-ups are places whose location makes international co-operation especially appealing. Dunkirk, the last French coastal town before the Belgian border, is so close to Britain that you can see its cliffs on the clearest days. Mulhouse already forms a kind of loose tri-city with the German city of Freiburg and the Swiss city of Basel, both less than an hour away. Occitanie, meanwhile, borders Spain and Andorra, and has at least several hundred thousands residents who speak Catalan and its close northern relative, Occitan. These are all places that, by nature of culture and geography, seem singularly well placed to seek out and make the best of international co-operations.

Not that they haven’t started this process already, says Mulhouse’s mayor, Jean Rottner: “In Mulhouse, we have strong influences from the Rhine basin partly due to the proximity of Basel and Freiburg—cities whose mayors I communicate with regularly. We have three different, complimentary cities: Freiburg has developed a name as a green city, Basel is more of a world city. Mulhouse is an industrial city that is bouncing back. We have very close, linked histories, and we have come to a point where we scarcely think of the frontier at all.”

It’s not clear how a program like this will function in a country where cities already have a good reputation for fresh urban thinking; as CityLab regularly reports, there are innovative urban policies coming from across the country. But it’s also fair to say that French local government can suffer from a certain institutional rigidity, especially in the tendency of specific city departments to mark out some issues as their exclusive fiefdom.

This can create a less-than-seamless service from cities and lead to users being having a somewhat hazy presence in the decision-making process. Many cities want to think about breaking this pattern down—Mulhouse’s Rottner, for example, talks about the possibility of less vertical decision-making and implementation. Bloomberg Philanthropies won’t be telling its French collaborators where to direct their efforts, but it might still provide them with the tools necessary to reshape the way they work.

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