The Mayors Challenge

Eighty years ago, Justice Louis Brandeis famously described states as laboratories of democracy -- and he was right. Many of the Progressive Era's reforms were first developed in states. But today, many of the nation's most innovative and promising policy initiatives are emerging from city halls. From sustainability and public health, to education and economic development, cities are pioneering new policies and programs that are moving the country forward.

In an era of fiscal constraints and declining federal aid, however, the lack of financing for new ideas is often an impediment to action. Just as banks can be reluctant to lend to entrepreneurs with unproven business plans, cities can be reluctant to invest in untested ideas. Philanthropy, I believe, has a vital role to play in helping to fill that void -- and in spreading the ideas that work best.

This week, Bloomberg Philanthropies is launching a new prize competition called the Mayors Challenge. It will award $9 million to five cities that come up with bold ideas for solving major problems and improving city life. But the prize seeks to incentivize not only competition among cities, but also something that could be just as powerful: collaboration.

Historically, cities have seen each other as competitors in a zero-sum game, with neighbors pitted against each other in a battle to attract residents and businesses. But more and more, a new generation of mayors is recognizing the value of working together and the necessity of borrowing ideas from one another.

Take Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky, for example -- two long-time rivals in attracting business and talent in the Bluegrass region. Today, Mayors Greg Fischer and Jim Gray have established an extraordinary partnership to develop a "build it locally, sell it globally" regional export strategy. In the same vein, the forward-looking mayors of Minneapolis (R.T. Rybak) and St. Paul (Chris Coleman) are working together to enhance entrepreneurship and innovation in their region.

Cooperation among cities is not limited solely to neighbors. In partnership with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Rio, Bogotá, and São Paulo are co-developing and piloting new hybrid electric bus technology. By reducing costs and the time required to test and refine this innovation, they will bring cleaner air to residents in all three cities more quickly.

Cities are also collaborating by sharing best practices. Five years ago, when New York City unveiled our comprehensive sustainability initiative to fight climate change (PlaNYC), we drew on the experiences of cities around the world: Berlin for our renewable-energy and green-roof policies; Hong Kong, Shanghai and Delhi for our innovative transit improvements; Copenhagen for our pedestrian and cycling upgrades; and Chicago and Los Angeles for our plan to plant one million more trees. Over the past few years, I've been thrilled to see other cities borrow our own approaches to sustainability -- as well as to poverty, education, and entrepreneurship.

All cities can learn from each other. Earlier this year, I hosted a gathering of about 20 mayors. Baltimore Mayor Rawlings-Blake shared insights on her innovation fund, an approach for getting city agencies to generate cost savings. Philadelphia Mayor Nutter talked about how he has borrowed Boston Mayor Menino's approach for leveraging outside institutions and entrepreneurs to deliver transformative services to residents. And Mayor Emanuel highlighted his innovative new approach to employee wellness in Chicago -- an issue that got everyone's attention, given the soaring employee health care costs in cities nationwide.

Though still nascent, the spread of municipal innovation has been a powerfully disruptive force that is shaking up the status quo and allowing mayors to create stronger, healthier cities. Ultimately, its growth depends on continued cooperation among mayors. We hope that the Mayors Challenge -- through a little healthy competition -- will help foster a culture where innovation is prized, where collaboration is common, and where success is shared nationally and internationally.

Cities are uniquely positioned to solve our country's greatest challenges. No matter how badly Washington may be beset by gridlock, America's new laboratories of democracy have never been more active or more promising. And for a former engineer like myself, the chance to spur even more breakthroughs is incredibly exciting.