With national politicians showing themselves incapable of tackling key challenges such as climate change and air pollution, it is being left to cities to showcase practical solutions to many of the world's problems.
But it is tough going for progressive mayors to challenge established bureaucracies that value the status quo and are often fearful of new technologies that can improve issues ranging from road gridlock and energy efficiency to ensuring effective health treatment.
It can be just as hard trying to convince local government employees of the need to be more transparent by opening up their data and sharing power by encouraging the people they serve to help innovate solutions.
I have just been at a summit of 35 mayors from across the U.S. and other countries who have been sharing the most effective ways of driving change. The event, called CityLab, was organized by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.
Greg Fischer, who is the 50th mayor in Louisville, Kentucky, says those who lead cities nowadays need the heart of a social worker, the leadership qualities of a CEO and the mind of an innovator. Below are 25 of the practical actions they shared which they believe will bring real change to their communities:
- Have a vision and make the direction of change crystal clear if you have a hope of breaking vested interests.
- Make it known that you will protect those departments that are prepared to take risks. There is nothing worse than throwing innovators under the proverbial bus when the going gets rough.
- Don’t be swayed off course by a minority of vocal critics who complain of short-term disruptions, and trust that they will thank you down the line when projects have been completed.
- Be wary of conventional wisdom that advises listening unquestionably to your customers, as they are often not thinking imaginatively about future possibilities.
- Recruiting the best people is difficult in cities, as those in business judge government workers as being lazy and dumb, while those in government believe corporate executives are crooks interested only in money. These judgments are unhealthy and unfair. The way to bring in new private sector skills is to showcase the benefits of being in service to communities and offering recognition and respect.
- Be effective in communicating the benefits of challenging outdated notions such as "the car is king." Showcase how reducing car usage means better air quality and fewer cases of asthma, and point out that there are more jobs in new energy sources than fossil fuels.
- The digital age can transform how cities are managed, but most mayors are of an age where technology can be confusing. Admit what you don’t know and get help.
- Don’t let technology get out of control and take over from good old-fashioned human contact. There is nothing that can replace having someone on the end of a helpline and staff chatting round the water cooler rather than communicating via a screen.
- Develop innovation teams to act as catalysts and facilitators because it is so easy to get sucked into the constant daily needs of running a city.
- Be prepared to experiment and develop a culture where failure is part of the learning journey, but make sure you fail quickly.
- Use experiential workshops and innovation labs to help employees become dissatisfied with the status quo and think through how services can be delivered more effectively.
- Test new ideas early on within communities to get effective feedback rather than spend enormous time finessing projects in an office environment.
- Give creative empowerment to front-line workers. They really know up close what is going on in communities and how to make a difference.
- Rather than rely on how regulators assume people act, apply ideas from behavioural sciences to public policies so that it's possible to really understand why people make decisions. Most policies are designed with the false idea that people reflect on what decisions they are taking, but much of the time they act automatically through habit.
- By giving citizens equal access to your data and maintaining it regularly over the long term, you give developers the ability to create effective solutions to problems that local government just does not have the capacity to do.
- If you have a university in your district, then join forces with it to drive innovation. These institutions normally have enormous practical and research resources available.
- When you create goals, make sure they are specific, measurable, actionable and verifiable.
- Celebrate success but also reorientate your thinking around what is not working. If buses are running 95 percent on time, be interested in why 5 percent are late.
- Don’t confuse data with design. It’s not just the quality of the information that matters, but it also needs to look beautiful -- and ordinary people need to understand how it relates to their lives.
- Sometimes you have to dig deep and redesign the institutions of local government, as they are not built with the new digital age in mind. We no longer can work in silos and have to start becoming system thinkers. That means everyone working together to find common solutions.
- Use sustainability as a core organizing principle. It’s a terrific tool for managing resources efficiently.
- You rarely need to create new data, as so much exists already. You just need to learn how to get it easily out of the system and organize it efficiently.
- There are always going to be a minority of people who resist change. If you cannot convince them, you need to isolate them.
- Don’t hire expensive consultants to find answers to problems. Learn from other cities that have already been working on solutions to similar issues.
- Incentivize employees who are making a real difference. If your building manager is driving efficiencies, allow him or her to plough back some of the money saved to become even more effective.