Complex-Cities: The View from Mexico City

September 22, 2014


“City labs,” set up explicitly to advance progress, sharing, and a digitally-enhanced economy, are emerging around the world. Defined by cross-sector collaboration, they are harnessing creativity, innovation, civic entrepreneurship, and tech to re-build, re-vitalize, and re-think solutions to crucial urban issues.

Kirkpatrick: I’d like to now bring up one of my close colleagues, who is totally responsible for the program and everything that’s happening in our company. There are two people who—and you will meet another one later—who are really co-leading Techonomy with me. One is Simone Ross, who I’m about to introduce, and the other is Josh Kampel, who you’ll meet a little later. So Simone is the co-founder of Techonomy and the program director for all of our programs, so it was her idea to come to Detroit originally, and she is going to introduce the next session. So Simone.

Ross: Thank you, thanks David, thank you panel, for a great start to this year’s conference. I’m really excited about the first interview for today. I met Gabriella I think a couple years ago in New York, and I pretty much immediately knew I wanted to bring her to Detroit, for Techonomy Detroit. She is the director of the City Laboratory for Mexico City, which is a place I need to get to. I will let her and Justin get into the details, so please welcome Gabriella Gómez-Mont and Justin Fox.

Fox: So Gabriella, you are the director—and I’m not going to call it the La-BOR-atory of the City like Simone—the Laboratory of the City. What is that? How did that happen?

Gómez-Mont: Well, we had been around for a little bit over a year, so it’s a very recent creation, and so Laboratory for the City basically is the experimental arm/creative think tank of the Mexico City government. I report directly to the mayor, and basically this happened when he was still running for mayor. We created an event—we knew he was going to win by a landslide, he is part of the left-wing government that has made Mexico City into one of the most progressive cities, I daresay, on the continent. So when he said he would be a speaker at our event, I must say is—

Fox: This is a TEDx conference?

Gómez-Mont: Yes, a TEDx conference. I am a TED senior fellow, and the only thing that they ask you for is to create one TEDx for a very generous fellowship. So I got together with a few friends, and when he said, “Yes,” I must say that we cheated a little bit, and we curated the conference around him, you know, because we knew that we were going to have the next mayor of Mexico City sequestered for an hour and a half in a chair. So we picked people who are incredibly passionate about Mexico City, as we are, and that have amazing ideas and would not necessarily find government interesting to work with at all. So it was an amazing event—full house, great speakers, and I think he got a little bit of a feeling of—just like this very passionate, very talented crowd that lives in Mexico City and that the government doesn’t necessarily have much contact with.

So when he won I got a call. I was about two weeks—in two weeks I was taking a plane to Yale because I had a fellowship for a semester there, and he made this very provocative offer of saying, “Invent something for my term.” It wasn’t going to be a sure thing. I never in my life wanted to work for government. The mayor is my second boss.

Fox: What is your background?

Gómez-Mont: I am a documentary filmmaker, have done a lot of projects dealing with excellence, creativity, multi-disciplinary projects for several universities, companies, etcetera, and also led our cultural foundation in Mexico City.

So basically it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up. Like, if the major of the largest city on the American continent comes up and says, “Invent a new type of department.” And to be honest I thought I would make it just outlandish enough that he’d say no, and then he said yes to everything, so here I am, a bureaucrat, government official.

Fox: So what is a City Laboratory? I mean, do you have a bunch of people in white coats with test tubes and…?

Gómez-Mont: It is kind of like a mad man’s lab. So first of all, I think one of the things that makes the Lab unique is the composition of my team. I have everything from experts in artificial intelligence to sociologists, urban psychologists, a bunch of artists, filmmakers, designers, architects, editors, historians. So basically two of the main objectives of the Lab is furthering civic innovation, which basically means how can you hack government and how can you reinvent the way that government and civil society work together and collaborate together? And the other one is urban creativity, which basically means how do you hack the city itself, how can you do urban interventions and really propose things that make the city itself into this traveling surface for ideas?

So between these two poles it’s been very exciting, because as you probably know in government many times mandates in Mexico—as well as in the U.S.—actually are very constraining, because if you are Minister of Health you have a list of things you can do, and anything that is not on that list is actually not allowed, it’s illegal. And I’m still waiting for the day that somebody comes up to me and says, you know, “That’s not urban creativity,” or “That’s not civic innovation.” So funnily enough language has been our first Trojan horse, and I think that that comes from coming from completely different disciplines. And what I thought was going to be our Achilles heel is not having a lot of experience in government—it has actually been one of our strong suits. So being able to first create a neutral area, as well as really having opportunity and bringing all these other viewpoints into creating city and creating projects that will hopefully impact the city positively.

Fox: So what are some of the projects that you have done?

Gómez-Mont: So we have started—it’s a whole range of experiments, we call them, because again, the language is—

Fox: You’re a lab.

Gómez-Mont: It’s a lab, exactly. And one of the things that we think is very important for the government is to really create these spaces where government can experiment, you know? Because there is this irony or paradox, if you will, that on one hand we want government to be solid and sure-footed, obviously, and make the right choices, but at the same time many times we complain that it’s not innovative enough, and we are, you know, lagging ten years behind the best ideas. So the Lab in Mexico City, as well as the other six labs that are part of other governments worldwide, that is what we do—we give government the space to be both. They can go on sure-footed and secure, and we can actually experiment, have things blow up in our face.

So we have about 30 experiments that we’ve been going through in this first year, everything from, for example, embedding programmers in different city departments, basically thinking that there is a very interesting combination between having the knowledge that these ministries are steeped in, but then having very fresh viewpoints on the same city problems. We had six programmers working with five different ministries, and especially two of those apps that were created, and those digital platforms, have been highly successful.

We’ve also started—

Fox: What were they?

Gómez-Mont: One of them—they are so particular to Mexico City, but I’ll explain one of them. One of them is—I don’t know if you’ve heard of this but we have a problem with security when you hail down a cab in Mexico City. And you have cabs everywhere, more so than New York, I believe, but mostly people are starting to call taxicabs that come from what we call ‘sitios,’ which are private companies, but they take longer, and in a certain sense it’s hard to deal with the fact that you can’t necessarily just go out in the street and hail a cab. So we’ve been working on a whole open data strategy for the Mexico City government, and we’re prototyping what they call interoperability, which is ministries being able to share information amongst themselves and then make it public.

So this app lets you go out into the street, quickly type in the license plate for the cab, or even take a picture of it, and then it automatically checks with different ministries to, first of all, see that it’s actually a licensed cab, because that’s the big problem—pirate cabs. So most of the things that happen in cabs are—they are actually not cabs, they are just painted like cabs. So for the first time ever you can check that it actually is licensed, and then you can check that it has everything in place—that it’s paid, it doesn’t have any—multas?

Fox: Fines?

Gómez-Mont: Fines, exactly—thank you! It doesn’t have any fines, that it’s paid its green tax and all of these things, and it starts making an algorithm that tells you how reliable the cab is And then it starts a historical storage space.

Fox: How long does this take?

Gómez-Mont: Oh, it’s just a second, so it’s very quick. We’re launching it in January, but just that has been huge, because we really do think that this can put a city resource back into play. Because when you think about it, Mexico City has the most painful commute in the world, so if I could leave my car at home and leave my meeting and just hail a cab—as I mentioned they are incredibly common—and feel safe, that would greatly disincentivize the use of one’s own car. Because it takes 20 minutes to find a parking lot anyway.

So these types of—in terms of digital solutions—what we’ve been trying to do is reframe the conversation and say, “Okay, maybe this would not work in San Francisco or in New York” because you don’t have the need, so what is this optic that we can look at Mexico City through and really solve problems that cities such as ours are facing or will be facing in the near future.

Fox: In terms of—obviously there are huge differences between Mexico City and Detroit, I think the population of metro Mexico City is twice the population of Michigan—but it’s still a city that has gone through, over the last 20 years, at least from the outsider’s perspective, it’s gone from being seen as this complete disaster to being this sometimes disastrous, very, very interesting place. First of all, I’m curious. Why is that happening? And second of all, are there limits to—technology can be helpful here and there, but I imagine most people in Mexico City aren’t walking around with fancy Android or iPhone phones. Is there some limit that you run up against? And I think Detroit has these issues too, when you are saying, “Oh, technology solves things.” Who doesn’t it solve things for?

Gómez-Mont: It’s a great point. I remember being at the Venice Biennale about 20 years ago, and Mexico City was a poster child of everything a city should not be. It was, “Look at this world and keep away.” But now I think this number that has been repeated many times in the last few years about humanity having reached its breaking point—50 percent of the world now lives in cities, and by the year 2050 I believe it is it’s going to be 70 percent, which is huge. I think we are coming to terms with what city living means, as well as these mega-cities as well, no? Funnily enough, Latin America already reached the 70 percent breaking point, so I believe that there is a lot to learn from what has already happened in Latin America and Asian cities for the rest of the world.

I also believe we have come to terms with our size, and actually one of the things that we are trying to do from within the Lab is when, under a certain paradigm you think about Mexico City and you think about 22 million mouths, and you think about the huge problems that this entails, but—just to make even a cursory sweep of one year—we have found that there are so many underutilized resources in Mexico City that you cannot believe. Because a city that size has, first of all, 22 million minds for starters, so when you start thinking about technology and being able to tap into collective intelligence it becomes very exciting. And then again we have—I visited one of the departments, we have 10,000 underutilized spaces that belong to the government. In a quite dense city—there are actually 22 million in the metropolitan area in Mexico City, as you mentioned—so there is an overabundance of possibility if you start thinking about public resources as well, and really shifting the paradigm so that they become true resources for the city instead of just these hindrances.

So then on one end I think that places like Mexico City nowadays have huge potential, because of the diversity, because of just the density of population, which also makes the scale of possibilities almost endless in their combinational possibilities. And at the same time I do think we have to deal with very important issues such as transportation, health, etcetera, etcetera. It becomes ever more urgent to solve them in places like that.

So going to your question, first of all, it’s interesting how Mexico City can defy many of the stereotypes. So we have 100 percent phone penetration. We’re still doing a study on how many people own cell phones, like smartphones, but I’m sure that the numbers are going to be quite surprising, the number of people who earn less than minimum wage, which is all too painfully low in Mexico in general, that own a smartphone. So first of all, how do you really rethink the stereotypes and truly make a survey of what is happening? And then another interesting thing is that we have so many spaces that have free internet as well. There are subway stations that have free internet. We also now have a new program in the Mexico City government that has free Wi-Fi in more than 10 public plazas, and when I mean 10 public plazas it’s like Chapultepec Park, which is twice the size of Central Park.

It’s actually really interesting thinking about a digital agenda for the city, and once you really have all these people tapped into this other layered digital realm, the other possibilities that will then ensue. Because I think one of the huge problems in Mexico City, still, is that it’s a disarticulated giant, no? You have a head here, an arm here, we have—just our public university has 350,000 students, one of them, the other public university has 300,000. There is not only a social divide but there is also, I think, a painful gap between disciplines, between academia and businesses. So we’re trying to pilot the type of society that we want, if you will, really bringing these things together and stitching these things together, a city narrative, if you will.

Fox: If anybody wants to come up and ask anything or say anything, just come to the mics and I’ll keep looking. We don’t have—this isn’t an ultra-long conversation so we don’t have time for a lot, but we would love if anyone wants to ask anything.

So to bring it to Detroit—I’m not asking you to be a Detroit expert, but you did sit across from the mayor at dinner last night—is this your first time here? Any reactions, things like, “Oh, that’s similar,” or, “That’s so different,” from what you’ve encountered?

Gómez-Mont: My first time here was about six years ago. I was invited to speak at Cranbrook, and the organizer deemed Detroit too dangerous to actually come visit, so this is my first time actually here. I have friends who have been living here for a decade who are absolutely in love with the place. And I do believe—funnily enough we have probably some of the opposite problems, like Detroit is going through a dwindling population instead of a growing population such as Mexico City. But at the same time I do believe there are certain similarities that are very interesting to reflect upon, basically in spaces of possibility. I believe that, for example, in the first world in very solid, consolidated cities, economies, etcetera, etcetera—let’s say the New Yorks and the Londons—they’ve reached a point where everything is very solid, where it’s very expensive to actually try out new things.

I think that is where places such as Mexico City, even though it’s the eighth largest economy in the world it’s still an emerging city, right? It still has so many spaces to reinvent, and one of the things that is very exciting for me is how quickly the city has been able to go through drastic changes. Like we passed gay rights before New York did in a year. We have abortion laws in place, even though it’s an incredible religious country, limited euthanasia, we did amazing work in opening up public spaces as well. We had a Justin Bieber concert recently with 300,000 people in our main plaza, which is fortunate or unfortunate, I’m not sure yet.

So anyway, I have the feeling that these are the places where we have to figure out this burning question, which is, what is a city for? I think the modernist days are past, and I think Detroit, funnily enough, is both a—it’s just like a very painful poem to the type of city we thought the world needed, and that now has shown to not necessarily be true. So I think these are the types of places where we can still answer very actively and go different ways. I think one of the things that we need to have very clear is that we don’t need to be the New Yorks or the Londons. We need to be the Detroits and the Mexico Cities, and truly think about what that entails and add on to the urban DNA of the world, if you will, instead of going the easy path–that is what I think we need to be very conscious of. We are different types of cities, we have different types of possibilities, and we should just really try to keep that space open for a new sense of possibility for what a city could become.

In terms of Detroit, I think one of the things that I was very excited to see in these past two days is: in a certain sense there are blank slates here and there. I think that civil society has really come—really thought that it was their place in the world, since they saw that government was not necessarily stepping in, to step in themselves. So what happens is if you really try to keep that space open for your society to still have a place to reflect upon the future of the city, to bring ideas, to bring solutions. Because for different reasons I think these types of places, Mexico City, Detroit, government cannot go alone. These are not places where government can do everything. We really need for a civil society to step in. So I think the drawing of possibility and keeping these spaces open, and not necessarily closing the conversation too quickly and saying, “Okay, let’s do what these other cities did,” but still—just sifting through the un-comfort a little bit more is going to be important to how things develop in the future.

Fox: Introduce yourself first.

Molthrop: Hi, I’m Charlie Molthrop, I’m a new Venture for America fellow here in Detroit, and I’m interested in—you know, Mexico City brought in someone creative like yourself to run an institution that is part of the city. How is the problem-solving that you do at the City Laboratory different, and how do you approach it differently than traditional government?

Gómez-Mont: It’s a great question. One of the things that we’ve tried to do is really have the whole mechanism—all of the mechanisms that surround the lab become swift and agile, which is not necessarily two words that usually go with government, at least not the government of the largest city on this continent. Everything from the funding mechanisms—like I now have, even in our first year more or less 35 percent of our funds come from other—they are not only public funds, let us say, so 35 percent are foundations that are supporting, for example, our open government work. We’re lucky enough to have a millionaire who decided to fund government directly for the first time in their life, which for us is very exciting, because it’s tiny yet historical. So that’s one. Reinventing the funding mechanisms, as well as—and know this is a slightly dangerous word in government, but hopefully it will work for the best—which is creating a state of exception. A little area that can also cut across silos in government.

For example, open government is one of the things that we have advanced quite quickly on, and only eight months into our work we are now changing legislation and have involved more than 13 ministries, and really actually advanced quite quickly. So I think one of them is functioning as this go-between with the ministries, being able to instead of react to everything that happens on the city level—that as you can imagine in a place like Mexico City there is a lot, if it not like it is this huge protest, it’s—there is always something there to react to quickly. We can kind of hover above all of these and decide what the strategic conversations are, and then go with the different ministries and bring them together at the same table and say, “Maybe this is an interesting agenda for Mexico City.” So that is our serious work, I think, on one side.

Then as a creative think tank I also think that possibly what we bring to the table is a completely different view on the same problems, and being able to open up the door for other really interesting actors, be it at Mexico University, like the man that I just mentioned that we’re partnering with, be it other types of discussions. We have what we call rooftop sessions.

Fox: I know you said something before about not wanting to cut off conversations, but I’m going to give you 15 seconds to wind it up.

Gómez-Mont: So basically we get to articulate as well the institutional framework of how people can come to government and loan us their ideas and have their ideas incubated by a city-making machine, if you will, that is government.

 

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