BERLIN — Michael Bloomberg may no longer run America’s biggest city, but that hasn’t stopped the former mayor of New York from thinking big to find solutions to the problems facing cities around the world.
The billionaire businessman turned politician came to Berlin on Thursday to support the work of his Mayors Challenge initiative, which encourages municipal officials to come up with fresh ideas that can improve the lives of urban denizens everywhere.
“I believe cities are the solutions to most of mankind’s problems,” Bloomberg told representatives from 21 European cities gathered in the German capital to vie for 9 million euros ($11.8 million) from his philanthropic foundation.
“It’s about whether the garbage gets picked up and the kids are educated,” Bloomberg said. “State and federal governments are too far removed from the day-to-day issues.”
After making the cut from an initial 155 cities, the participants of the two-day workshop in Berlin hope to hone their proposals for the final round of a competition designed to spark innovation in the normally stodgy public sector.
Private money for public projects
“Governments don’t innovate because you can’t spend the public’s money without knowing what the result will be. People will complain if you try to innovate,” explained Bloomberg. “That’s the great thing about private philanthropy — you can prove it works first.”
Often touted as a potential U.S. presidential candidate, Bloomberg told Yahoo News in an exclusive interview on Thursday why he considers city-level government so crucial to tackling the most pressing problems of the 21st century.
“People ask me: ‘Do you want to be president?’ I suppose it would be a great job, but most of the time you’re stuck trying to convince Congress to do something,” he said, stressing the frequently overlooked effect of municipal policies. “New York has a strong mayor. ... It’s easier to affect people’s lives.”
From his citywide ban on smoking in New York to a war on oversized soft drinks, Bloomberg never shied away from controversy during his mayoralty. But with his time in City Hall over, Bloomberg has turned his attention to helping other civic leaders come up with creative approaches to urban issues.
The European edition of his Mayors Challenge comes after last year’s inaugural round for U.S. cities, which addressed diverse topics. Winners included projects for improving the vocabulary of children from poor families in Providence, Rhode Island, large-scale data analysis in Chicago, and the “well-being” of the citizens of Santa Monica, California.
“I could say that Europe is more staid or hidebound towards innovation, and you see that perhaps with things like Uber,” Bloomberg said, referring to the popular American ride-sharing app hated by many taxi drivers and regulators. “But then you look at something like energy and it’s way ahead with things like windmills and solar power.”
Space to take risks
James Anderson, who heads the government innovation efforts for Bloomberg Philanthropies, said U.S. cities taking part in the competition had generally placed more emphasis on government efficiency and customer service. European participants, in contrast, have put a greater focus on social issues such as aging societies and youth unemployment.
“We’re trying to inspire a wave of public innovation,” Anderson said, adding that many of the projects never would have seen the light of day without outside funding. “We’re trying to create space to take some risk.”
It’s easy to see why a billionaire entrepreneur such as Bloomberg — who made his fortune in the financial information business — would be keen to fund the competitive public innovation program. It essentially combines his experience running America’s largest city with his strong belief in the power of private enterprise and philanthropy to improve the lives of people around the world.
However, it is unlikely to dilute widespread criticism that during his 11 years in office he let New York become an unaffordable place to live for middle-class families — something the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has vowed to change.
“I give my successor the luxury of not commenting on what he does,” Bloomberg said. “But I live in the city and my daughters live there, so I have a vested interest in him doing well.”
Perhaps it was in part Bloomberg’s recent relinquishing of power in New York last year that has spurred his desire to have a bigger influence globally, including by taking Mayors Challenge abroad to Europe.
Local problems, global solutions
One candidate this year, the British city of Bristol, brought an idea that is sure to resonate with a public health advocate such as Bloomberg: bringing affordable and healthy organic food to poor neighborhoods by creating a new market for locally grown produce.
“We compare it to living in a food desert. But it’s not just about hunger — you need to have healthy citizens to have a healthy city,” Mark Goodway from the Bristol delegation explained. “Our socially responsible food retail model would have positive knock-on effects for both the local economy and environment.”
And if Goodway and his colleagues can persuade a jury this fall to fund their pilot project, it could end up having an effect far outside Bristol. Because regardless of regional diversity, Anderson said a core principle of the program is cultivating good ideas that can be transplanted to other cities.
So there might eventually be a British solution for the “food deserts” found in many economically depressed U.S. inner cities that sorely lack supermarkets and options to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.
And for the former mayor, it’s the practical success that eventually vindicates a bold idea.
“Someone will always complain when you try to innovate, but if it’s the right thing eventually they’ll say they supported you,” said Bloomberg. “These days, everybody tells me they were with me on [banning] smoking.”