Five months ago, Gabriella Gomez-Mont launched Mexico City’s Laboratorio para la Ciudad, or Laboratory for the City, under the auspices of recently elected mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera. The Laboratorio, as its name suggests, is an experimental program to foster civic innovation and urban creativity, which Gomez-Mont hopes can heal the social divisions in her city. Techonomy spoke (in English) with Gomez-Mont, who is speaking at Techonomy 2013 about her incipient efforts to harness Mexico City’s youth and energy to improve civic life.
How do you define civic innovation and urban creativity?
Civic innovation is about reimagining platforms where government and civil society can collaborate differently. We’re proposing that government is a platform that belongs to everyone where we do together what we cannot do alone. A lot of young people don’t feel that politics is relevant to the way they view their city. If we want to live in the urban space that we all imagine, we have to do it together.
Urban creativity is about how we invent spaces for ingenuity beyond the usual places like museums and art schools. Mexico City has more museums than any other city in the world, and a thriving creative community. Creative industries account for eight percent of our national GDP. We’re trying to further the idea of social creativity and urban ingenuity beyond a narrowly defined creative class, and implement public policy and projects that promote a creative society.
Is Mexico City ready for this?
The left wing government has made Mexico City one of the most progressive cities in Latin America—even, I daresay, on the continent. We passed gay rights before New York did. We have abortion laws in place. We have a limited form of euthanasia, and some interesting social programs as well. Mexico City has started defining itself as a progressive space that wants to further individual and social freedoms.
We have all the problems of an emerging city, but we’re also the eighth-largest urban economy in the world. Fifty percent of the world’s population is already living in cities. It’s predicted to become 75 percent by 2050. Less well known is the prediction that 90 percent of the cities that will be born from now until 2075 will come from the emerging world, and many will be megacities. Places like Mexico City give us the opportunity to start exploring and experimenting with solutions for this new urban age. We can find out [by] prototyping in the present what cities of the future will look like.
How did the Laboratorio come into being?
In 2012, I helped organize a TEDxCentroHistorico event, and invited Miguel Ángel Mancera to speak about his plans for the city should he become Mayor. When he accepted, we invited some talented people from different disciplines to talk on stage about their ideas for Mexico City. It was an amazing opportunity for him to hear voices from civil society proposing projects that showed how madly in love they were with Mexico City and that they wanted to be part of its transformation.
To my surprise, once Mancera was in office, I was called to propose a project for the city government. I have been a huge promoter of the power of working outside of institutions, but they offered me carte blanche and said, “Hey, just give it a try—invent a city department.” It was too fascinating a challenge to say no, even as a speculative exercise.
I had six months to work out a scheme, so I investigated what was happening in other governments. I found out what Boston is doing with Boston New Urban Mechanics, and they have become great allies of ours. I tried to incorporate the lessons that I’d learned from the private sector and started to realize that, despite its bureaucracy, government has huge potential if you inject the right ideas, the right conversations, into a network that covers the whole city, that molds citizens’ day-to-day interaction with the urban environment.
Was it hard to adjust to the bureaucracy of government?
There are many rules in place that supposedly guarantee very important things, such as transparency, but many obstacles are in the way of becoming agile and quick-footed. One of the things that we’ve been trying to work around is how to stay completely within the law and be completely transparent at the same time that we offer up an experimental space. We’ve always asked our governments to be solid and surefooted and to go forward with certainty and security. But, when you want to innovate and take some quantum leaps, you need to experiment and take risks and sometimes fail. I feel optimistic that we can start playing and reinventing some of the rules of engagement around us.
What outcomes have you seen so far?
I’ve only been in office for five months, and the first three months were spent creating an administrative-legal structure and building a team. In the last two months, we partnered with Code for America to create Code for Mexico City. We asked for proposals to solve city problems from people with programming backgrounds. We got 253 applications. There’s not a civic innovation movement in Mexico City, but it turns out there are a lot of people who feel that government and civil society are completely isolated from each other and want to find ways to promote change from within. There are 253 young people with atypical backgrounds who want to work for city government. We picked six programmers and 16 additional volunteers, and they’re starting to work with five different ministries—environment, health, economic development, tourism, and transportation.
How has your thinking about government changed since starting the Laboratorio?
I confess I had absolutely no relationship to my government. I voted once every six years, and that was about it. As silly as it sounds, one of my epiphanies when I stepped into government was that government officials are also citizens. So many times we talk about citizens as one group and government officials as another, but we all live in and suffer in and enjoy the same city. I thought that there would be a lot more internal resistance, but I had a lot of prejudices about government. I’ve been flabbergasted by the potential impact the city government could have.
What kind of problems do you think you can start to address?
Many of the things that we thought were Achilles heels are going to become benefits if we frame them properly and if we know how to use resources that we have not necessarily thought of as resources. Mexico City is the largest and oldest city on the continent. We’re 22 million people. Half our population is under age 26 and half work in the informal economy. Ten years back, these things were huge hindrances. But nowadays we’re realizing some of the beneficial implications. If you think about 22 million mouths to feed, it’s absolutely daunting. If you start thinking in a different paradigm of 22 million minds, it becomes another thing.
We still have a ways to go because we’re still geographically and socially divided. We can start mending those wounds and own up to the immense social gaps. We need to give new parts of our society the right tools for social mobility to truly happen, because it’s not in a healthy state right now.
In the developed world as well as the emerging world unstable spaces can often reinvent themselves much more quickly than those with solid structures. In the first world, it seems you have to become a so-called “failed city” like Detroit to truly have people wanting to reinvent the state of things. But the emerging world already has that instability; we have to continuously reinvent ourselves, because there is no way that we can escape our paradoxical diversity, for better or for worse.
Gabriella Gomez-Mont will speak about urban evolution at the Techonomy 2013 conference, Nov. 11-13. Follow conversations about the event @Techonomy and #Techonomy13.
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