Of the European cities that, by virtue of being home to 100,000 people or more, qualified for the latest round of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, more than a quarter — 155 — applied. That’s not altogether surprising. The contest, a bid by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to spotlight and share solutions to the world’s urban challenges, offers some healthy inducements: €5 million to one winning city, and €1 million each to four others.
But the response rate is still a sign that Bloomberg is forging full speed ahead in his bid to shift from Mayor of New York to Shaper of All Cities. It also shows that cities are listening.
Bloomberg Philanthropies, the umbrella organization that covers all of the former mayor’s do-good work, is holding back any specifics about the bids. The group did release some intriguing details suggesting that cities see the competition as a chance to figure out, and fund, new answers to deep-rooted problems. In the British Isles, for example, applications clustered around food access, obesity and illness. In Eastern Europe, the focus was on government transparency and other civic challenges. In southern Europe, unemployment topped the list.
Coming on the heels of a U.S.-focused Mayors Challenge last year, this contest also gives a useful peek into the model of civic innovation that Bloomberg Philanthropies hopes to polish. Cities, as the group as framed it, are in a tough spot: Obligated to tackle more and more of society’s challenges with less and less public funding. Bloomberg has the start-up funds, and the Mayors Challenge is about isolating replicable solutions.
Here, with context, are the criteria by which European submissions will be judged:
- “Is your approach unexpected and new to your city?” Even projects still in the rough idea stage may be too far along to qualify. Why’s that? The goal of the contest is to prod people into dreaming up especially creative solutions. Limiting the universe to projects yet-imagined forces off-the-wall thinking.
- “To what extent will you be able to say, ‘We are the first city to…?’” From the Bloombergian perspective, mayors are increasingly tasked with stepping in when nation-states have failed to address problems. It’s their responsibility, then, to peer around the corner at the crises yet to come. Valuing ‘firstness’ means nudging local leaders toward looking ahead.
- “Are you using talent, partners and resources outside of city government in a meaningful way?” Few things are more valued by Michael Bloomberg — a man whose personal website describes himself as “Entrepreneur – Mayor – Philanthropist,’ in that order — than public-private partnerships. Tapping assets outside government is needed to get even very good ideas to scale to meaningful levels.
- “Will your idea generate energy and excitement among the residents in your city?” Don’t forget that one of the hats worn by Bloomberg is media mogul. His Bloomberg L.P. owns Bloomberg News, Bloomberg Television, BusinessWeek and more. The press, and the public interest it can generate, is part of the equation.
The U.S. version of the Mayors Challenge produced six winners: Providence Talks, a project in Rhode Island focused on word exposure among children; Chicago’s Smart Data Platform; the One Bin for All trash processing effort in Houston, Philadelphia’s FastFWD, aimed at entrepreneurial collaboration; and the Wellbeing Project, targeted at assessing and boosting social satisfaction in Santa Monica.
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.