Mexico City’s Secret Planning Weapon? Building Bridges

Is the ninth largest city in the world ready to be hacked from the inside?

Story by Nina Feldman

Photography by Marcos Gibran Mena

Published on

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As the rain drew nearer, I tried to get myself back to shelter. Finding my way out of the Bosque de Chapultepec was easy enough — I wove along the evenly paved paths, past the teenagers with no place else to make out and over a majestic bridge across a major highway, announcing the eastern entrance to the park. But back on the streets, I was confronted with a jumble of crisscrossing arteries and unpredictable traffic. I suddenly felt like I had never crossed a city street before in my life. Then it started to rain. At the intersections of Avenida Chapultepec, Sonora and Leija, the streets come together like a child’s first attempt at tying her shoes. Buses and bicycles move in unmarked traffic patterns that require remarkable intuition on the part of all drivers. Crosswalks at precarious angles invite pedestrians to take their chances. I sprinted across the street, narrowly missed by a taxi that appeared out of thin air. Only when I was safe on the other side did I realize I had crossed in the wrong direction. Soaking wet, I tried again.

I am not the only person to have faced danger at that intersection. When Mexico City’s then-mayor Marcelo Ebrard Casaubón announced in 2010 that the capital city — the metro area’s population is 22 million — would introduce a bike-sharing program, most people thought it was a municipal death wish. But the system turned out to be incredibly popular and safe. According to Mexico City daily El Universal, by 2013, Ecobici was averaging over 400,000 riders a month. But in the last year and a half, there have been two deaths. One of them was at that intersection.

Mexico City’s public transportation system is enormous and unwieldy. Its subway alone transports 4.6 million people a day. No digital map exists for its bus route, and most buses are owned privately, the way taxicabs are. So despite the tragedies and the broader design flaw they highlighted, traffic flow at the intersection was not exactly the transportation department’s first priority.

But there’s one city agency that can afford to focus on such problems. The Laboratorio Para la Ciudad, or Laboratory for the City, was started in early 2013 by Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera. Part of an emerging worldwide trend of creating municipal offices focused exclusively on civic innovation, the Lab takes it upon itself to work across government departments and involve the public in coming up with creative solutions to urban problems. Gabriella Gómez-Mont runs the Lab in Mexico City. She says the climate is right for this type of effort.

Gabriela Gómez Mont sits in a co-working space on the Lab’s terrace.

“One of the things we’ve seen in Mexico City particularly is a new generation of people who want to be more active politically,” she said. “Not necessarily stepping into government like us at the Lab, but definitely not thinking that you have to be a sofa citizen.”

The Lab occupies a makeshift office on top of a downtown municipal building. Soon after moving in, its small staff transformed the building’s rooftop into a garden, where they hold public meetings and forums for the creative design community Gómez-Mont has come to know well. They also host working groups to solve problems like dangerous intersections.

Pedestrians dodge traffic at the intersection of Chapultepec Avenue, Lieja and Sonora streets.

I sat in on a meeting about the Chapultepec/Leija/Sonora crossroads the day after I almost died there. Humberto Fuentes Pananá is the director of open government for the Lab and was running the meeting.

“We were worried about pedestrian safety so we started with this spot, because there’s a story there,” he told me. But the Lab wasn’t the only one thinking about this intersection.

“Eight different agencies were looking at this spot, but they weren’t in contact with one another,” he explained. “Each of them has a different checklist.”

The Lab used the rooftop to bring together representatives from ministries across the government. Among them were the representatives from the departments of public security, environment, public space authority and Ecobici. At the meeting, someone from the ministry of urban development gave a presentation on the city’s three-year plan to build pedestrian tunnels under the intersection. A private consulting firm, hired by the Lab, argued for a more immediate solution: stoplights. If they just prohibited cars from turning left, the traffic patterns would be simpler and safer. Fuentes Pananá says that many of the ministries think about these issues on their own, but they’re not used to being at the same table.

“I’m not saying they’re doing it the wrong way,” he clarified. “It’s just not the Lab way.”

Humberto Fuentes on the lab’s terrace.

Creative Push

Municipal offices charged solely with generating new ideas are a recent phenomenon but the concept is one cities are getting used to. Among the earliest and most well known is Denmark’s MindLab, which started in 2002. MindLab was the first cross-government innovation office to engage community members and businesses in rethinking education, jobs and government services.

Nigel Jacob runs Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, which was established in 2010. He says that, in a bureaucracy designed to preclude innovation, it’s all the more important to have someone who’s specifically dedicated to it. In Boston, Jacob says they try to be an additive to the different departments who can’t afford to be creative or think outside the box.

“They love us in the sense that they don’t typically have the resources. They like having an external partner who can help push them,” he explained.

The Office of New Urban Mechanics has done everything from digitize city services to create a mobile fleet of trucks that travel to areas with less Internet access and offer those same services from a window, like a food truck.

“The menu,” said Jacob, “instead of burritos and hummus is: ‘do your taxes,’ ‘pay your water bill.’”

Jacob says they work with social entrepreneurs, startups, universities and community members to come up with ideas. From there, they turn ideas into prototypes and test them out to see if they would work on a larger scale.

Gómez-Mont and her team in Mexico City are excited about similar projects, and have looked to Boston as a model. Yet there are limitations to how much they can learn. Mexico City is many times the size of Boston and economic disparities run deeper. There isn’t much of an infrastructure for widespread civic engagement.

Democracy, after all, is not exactly a longstanding tradition in Mexico. For decades, the PRI party controlled the federal government. Known as the Perfect Dictatorship, elections were more of a gesture than any sort of meaningful avenue for political participation. On top of that, there was no city government in the capital until 1997.

A view of Mexico City’s downtown business district.

To cultivate young entrepreneurial talent and brainpower, the Lab organizes events, like Maker Faires and hackathons. At the most recent hackathon, more than 500 coders worked together over two days, mining an untapped heap of city data. The idea, said Clora Romo, who also works at the Lab, is not just to come up with apps and solutions. The process is just as important as the results and a big piece of the Lab’s process is developing the avenues for data sharing.

“Our work has more to do with pursuing the different ministries to give us their data,” she explained. At the same time, she said, “it’s important to demonstrate to coders that working with government is possible.”

Emmanuel Hernandez is an architect with the nonprofit Planeación y Desarrollo Sociedad Civil. He is working with a number of organizations, including the Lab, to develop a digital map of the city bus system. He says that before he got involved, he wasn’t sure how the Lab’s focus on technology would benefit the poor and working-class communities served by his nonprofit.

Emmanuel Hernández is working with the Lab to develop a digital map of the city’s sprawling bus system.

Since he’s started to work with them more closely, Hernandez appreciates that some of the Lab’s most impressive and sustainable accomplishments might not be visible from the outside.

“I know they’re working on training government and improving government processes,” he said, “and those are the projects that are really going somewhere.”

Still, Hernandez says the Lab’s focus should be broader. The biggest issues, he says, exist on the outskirts of the city. So far, that’s been beyond the reach of the Lab.

“I know they want to expand outside of the center of the city but for now, that is where their projects are concentrated,” he said.

Still, Gómez-Mont and the Lab are doing what they can with the populations they can access. She says the Lab has hosted workshops with more than 600 of the city’s civil servants (there are 300,000 total) on best practices in IT — basically, how to keep city records in a way that allows the data to be publicly accessible. She says the trainings sessions are working. “I think bureaucracy is not just paperwork. It’s also, most of it, in people’s minds.”

While it might not be the sexiest form of progress, Gómez-Mont says getting public officials on board with open data is some of the only work she’s confident will outlast the current administration.

“We try to work with systemic change, understanding how interventions in very specific places in the bureaucracy can actually further the conversation,” she said.

Precedent shows that Gómez-Mont is right to be thinking about durability. Political scientist Fonna Forman and designer Teddy Cruz ran the equivalent office in San Diego, and were shut down with a shift in municipal leadership. Forman says that while it can be poorly received, at times part of the job of these offices is to shake things up.

“We’re here to step on toes,” she said.

But for an office that’s a sole directive of a mayor, demonstrated success is key to longevity. Teddy Cruz says that, on the one hand, being positioned within the mayor’s office is critical. “To be successful we had to be located within the mayor’s office to be able to create conversations across departments.” But, he says, that dependency on the individual makes it precarious too.

It’s tricky for offices tasked with taking chances to also show that they’re worth keeping around. That’s why, says Nigel Jacob in Boston, every project can’t be a risky one.

“You have to mix them with slam dunks,” he said of creative ideas. “At the end of the day we’re still political organizations.”

Gómez Mont at Plaza Tlaxcoaque, a space the Lab worked with other offices in the city to rehabilitate. Once a place to solicit prostitutes and buy drugs, the plaza is now popular with young people.

There are already some slam dunks in Mexico City. Manuel Alcalan is a multimedia artist who works with kids. He was solicited as a part of a recent Maker Faire, an attempt to curate and highlight local talent. From there, the city liked what they saw and partnered with him to teach in the public schools. Alcalan’s project, called Tinker, helps bridge the digital divide for students by blending hands-on experiments with technology. With his first initiative, The Secret Life of Plants, he works with students to build sensors that attach to plants and measure different variables like sunlight and soil quality. The sensor is linked to software that students can monitor and interpret themselves.

Tinker is a groundbreaking program for Mexico City’s tradition-minded public school system. Alcalan says the program would have been impossible without the Lab. He has worked in private education for the last four years, because there was no easy way into the public school system.

“You have to stay within the texts and the course structure according to [the federally mandated] program,” he explained. “So to be able to have access to a public school system, through a special project of the city gives us an access that I would never have anywhere else.”

This circumvention of bureaucracy is exactly what the Lab for the City is going for.

Back on the rooftop, young Lab employees with design degrees and old suits from the city departments debated diplomatically about the dangerous intersection at hand. Some wanted to rethink the government’s long-term plan completely (“What will happen to the street vendors when pedestrian traffic goes underground?”). Others just weren’t sure if stoplight redesign was a creative enough solution. They mused on whether it was foolish not to capitalize on this opportunity to do something more innovative. After all the discussion, the most concrete takeaway seemed to be the next scheduled meeting date. And while it might not seem like much was decided, when distinct players who aren’t used to communicating within a bureaucracy commit to be in the same room at the same time, that can be its own form of victory.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Nina Feldman is an independent journalist focused on audio production. She worked as a regular contributor to NPR member station WWNO in New Orleans and as editor at American Routes. Her work has also appeared on Marketplace, Morning Edition and PRI's The World.

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