What “Bloomberg Cities” Wished They Had Known

Santa Monica used Mayors Challenge funding to launch a project focused on residents' wellbeing. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

This fall, five cities from Latin America and the Caribbean will be chosen to receive funding and support to implement a new idea in the third round of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge. In preparation, Bloomberg released an update Monday on the first 10 winning cities’ projects — five in the U.S. and five in Europe — and their advice to other cities looking to implement bold new projects.

Santa Monica, a 2013 winner, embarked on what it called “The Wellbeing Project,” an effort to quantify residents’ satisfaction and happiness. To do so, the city identified the most locally relevant aspects of wellbeing for its 92,000 residents, and launched its first wellbeing survey in English and Spanish in 2014. About 2,200 Santa Monica residents responded, a rate four times higher than previous city surveys.

The goal is to measure government progress differently, relying more on the factors that directly impact people’s lives — like health, sense of place, education and economic opportunity — rather than on broad measures like GDP. The survey results were used to create a wellbeing index, a public, online portal that attempts to map indicators of wellbeing down to the neighborhood level. The mass of data also contributed to the city hiring a chief data officer and hosting its first data hack. Now Santa Monica is working to embed the wellbeing findings into city departments.

According to the report, 35 cities have already contacted Santa Monica about replicating the project. The city offered advice to other cities looking to implement similarly big ideas: “Make it easy to do things differently. Telling people to introduce big changes into their way of working will often fail, whereas an offer of resources and support that help people do their work better is harder to refuse.”

Stockholm, which won the mayors challenge in 2014, mobilized around an issue that’s very important to its residents: climate change. Eight in 10 Stockholm citizens report they want to do more to fight it. The Stockholm Biochar Project aims to do so by converting garden waste into biochar, a charcoal that sequesters carbon during production and improves plant growth when mixed with soil. A city official had been using the material on public trees for years, and after seeing dramatic improvements in health and growth, recommended other departments adopt the practice.

With the Mayors Challenge funding, biochar will spread to the public. The city will soon open a shipping-container-sized biochar plant. Stockholm plans to collect plant waste from residents and recycle it into biochar, which residents can then return to their gardens, and the city can use for public green spaces. In the Swedish climate, its shown to improve plant growth by up to 30 percent. If the pilot works, Stockholm is aiming to open two more plants in 2017, and up to five in 2018.

Reflecting on what they wish they’d known at the beginning of this project, Stockholm’s biochar team wrote about the challenges of “purchasing and installing a technology that is entirely new to the city.” Setting expectations was difficult, because even the team leads were working with start-ups and university labs, groups still experimenting with the technology themselves. Establishing an open, ongoing dialogue was critical, they said.

The five 2016 winners will be announced this fall. The finalists, which include Medellín, Colombia; Santiago, Chile; and São Paulo, Brazil, can be seen here.

Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.

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Tags: mayorsclimate changebig data