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Bloomberg Putting Money Where the Urban Innovation Is

This morning, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new competition that will award $9 million in prize money to cities that dare to innovate.

Bike-sharing programs have been one of the most quickly replicated urban innovations of the past decade. Photo by Flickr user carlosoliveirareis.

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This morning, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new competition that will award $9 million in prize money to cities that dare to innovate. Called the Mayor’s Challenge, the competition launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies is soliciting creative, effective and replicable solutions to our cities’ most pressing problems. Unlike other initiatives that reward successfully completed projects, the Mayor’s Challenge is honoring bold works-in-progress emanating from city halls arounds the country.

The Mayor’s Challenge comes at a particularly tough time for many city budgets, which are under pressure from pension obligations, reduced revenues and the political unpopularity of raising taxes. In a press release, Bloomberg said, “Every day, mayors around America are tackling increasingly complex problems with fewer and fewer resources.” According to the press release, proposals for the challenge “must improve city life by addressing a major social or economic issue, improving the customer service experience for citizens or businesses, increasing government efficiency, and/or enhancing accountability, transparency, and public engagement.”

Bloomberg Philanthropies is sending 1,300 personal letters to mayors, soliciting their applications due by September 14. Twenty finalist teams will be chosen based on their proposal’s novelty and creativity, potential for impact, replicability and implementation plan. The finalists will participate in Bloomberg Ideas Camp, an experience that James Anderson, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ government innovation director, says will give mayors the opportunity to brainstorm and collaborate with their peers in other cities. The finalists will be whittled down to one grand prize winning team, which will receive $5 million; four runners-up will be given $1 million each.

While the prize money is a relatively small sum compared to most city’s budgets and the cost of implementation for many bold plans, it’s the kind of catalytic capital that can get a pilot off the ground. One imagines that the mayors savvy enough to win this competition will leverage the prize to get more investment from community foundations and the public and private sector. Moreover, the Mayor’s Challenge purse incentivizes innovative behavior at the government level (an interesting twist on Mayor Bloomberg’s attempts to use government to incentivize better behavior from his constituents).

Though smaller in scale, the Mayor’s Challenge seems to share the spirit of the Department of Transportation’s discretionary TIGER grant program. In its fourth incarnation this year, TIGER received $10.2 billion worth of proposed programs to which it could award just $500 million; those grants went toward transformational projects such as removing a highway stub in downtown New Haven, better connecting the city of St. Louis to its famous arch and a lauded multimodal train station in Ames, Iowa. One expects the Mayor’s Challenge will unleash a similarly outsized response from cities and an impact that will extend far beyond the five projects selected for funding.

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Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.

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Tags: new york citygovernancemayorscivic techbloomberg philanthropiestiger grants

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