U.S. Conference of Mayors and Mayors Innovation Project are meeting next week and it’s got me thinking again about how cities learn. It’s at events like these that one thing becomes incredibly obvious: cities learn from their peers. While I originally wrote this article almost exactly a year ago, I’m even more convinced today that if we are to transform cities into safer, smarter and more sustainable places, we must make city learning more efficient.
Last week I spoke to dozens of mayors from around the country about a new way to finance resilience infrastructure projects at the Mayors Innovation Project Winter Meeting. Mayors are always a lively and engaged bunch — they got elected, after all — but the group last week was particularly enthusiastic about creative strategies for financing their cities’ infrastructure projects. Because mayors’ offices are responsible for everything in their cities, it is rare to get the chance to engage city leaders in deep-dive discussions on very specific topics. Upon reflection this morning, I am struck by what I saw last week at Mayors Innovation Project: city learning, in progress.
Cities prefer to learn from their peers because at the end of the day, only other mayors, public works directors and city managers — not federal agencies, think tanks, or academics — can understand the hopes, fears and frustrations of other local leaders.
The way city-to-city learning happens now is largely haphazard. One popular option for city officials is to attend massive city conferences.
At these annual meetings, the most valuable learning happens during coffee breaks and prearranged side meetings, not during organized workshops.
And despite the fact that innovative municipal technology and service companies sponsor these conferences, city officials are reluctant to even walk on exposition floors because they feel bombarded by vendors.
Another option for city officials, which has become more popular lately, is to participate in a city-learning network. But these learning networks tend to be narrowly defined by topic and limited to those cities who have an active membership in the learning network, which is often only a couple of dozen cities. Small and medium-sized cities are often left behind. Furthermore, these learning networks frequently fail to enable the type of practical learning necessary for implementation of a creative solution, not just vision or strategy.
As cities are being called upon more and more to be at the front lines of a wide range of important challenges — upgrading infrastructure, defending human rights, addressing mental health issues — we need to be sure that cities are able to efficiently learn from their peers.
We’re beginning to do just that. The Mayors Innovation Project is moving the needle with its small group setting and deep learning on just a handful of carefully chosen topics. And we’ve developed The Atlas explicitly to facilitate city-to-city learning about modern infrastructure solutions. If we continue to build upon this progress, I’m hopeful that cities will be better positioned to take on the world’s biggest and most overwhelming challenges with the dogged enthusiasm and creativity that characterizes mayors and other officials from cities around the world.
A copy of the slides I used while presenting to Mayors Innovation Project are available on the Mayors Innovation Project website.