Twinkling chandeliers, twisting and twirling trampolinists, and a room full of mayors and government officials, set the scene for CityLab in Paris, where I spent the first part of this week. It is an annual event convened by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Aspen Institute, and The Atlantic. Year on year it grows in scale and stature. This has year has left me thinking, what next?
Anyone who has been to CityLab can’t fail to be impressed. Hundreds of mayors from Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Barcelona, Milan, Quito, Helsinki, Manchester, Durban, Kingston, and beyond, alongside government officials, and other leading minds in the world of city government innovation, milling around a stunning hotel by day, and the Musée d'Orsay by night, sharing ideas and stories, and listening to an array of speakers. CityLab is a conference rivalled by no other.
The discussions rapidly moved from climate change, to health, to art, to innovation labs, and on and on. From Michael R. Bloomberg kicking off proceedings heralding the rise of city networks, to former US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy interviewing Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike who has impressively shattered the glass ceiling in Japan, Economist Raj Chetty highlighting the staggering divides in social mobility in the USA, England’s new metro mayors Steve Rotherham and Andy Street discussing the devolution experiment, to authors Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discussing cities and identity.
It is an amazing event, and one that has managed to elevate the city government innovation debate to new levels of sophistication. No longer is the discussion, can we innovate, but how can we institutionalise innovation in every facet of government decision making? How can more and bigger challenges be tackled? How can more lives be saved and transformed?
It left me thinking, where should we go from here? I had three thoughts.
Firstly, what happens to those cities which are not the “best in class”? They may not necessarily have the best ideas for others to learn from, but how do we ensure that they don’t get left behind?
Secondly, what happens to the “innovation losers”? Now that the rallying calls for innovation in government is won, do we now need to extend the focus to think through, and be explicit about, who could lose out, as much as who could benefit from innovation efforts?
The third thing that CityLab left me mulling over was, what about life beyond the city? What about the city fringes or rural area? Who is supporting these areas? Is there similar resource, methods, and events focusing on non-urban areas and the people who live there? If the answer is no, are we at risk of sleep walking into a future of issues and challenges bubbling up outside of our cities? This is obviously beyond the role and remit of CityLab, but is something those in the innovation space could think about.
Back to CityLab, where one of the closing sessions involved the Good Chance Theatre, a group of Brits who set up a tent in “the Jungle” in Calais as a space for refugees “to escape or confront the situations they were in”. One of those who visited the tent was filmmaker and refugee Majid Adin. As an illustrator, he created a video to Elton John’s Rocket Man, re-imaging a new story of adventure, loneliness, and hope.
The story of the Good Chance Theatre encapsulates all that innovation is about. Collaborations, new ideas, and new ways of working to support people and improve lives. And I can’t think of a better ending to CityLab.
I look forward to seeing what happens next year in Detroit…
You can find out more about CityLab here https://www.bloomberg.org/program/government-innovation/citylab/