Contrasts, Comparisons and Creativity: Mexico City and St. Louis

There are nearly as many civil servants in Mexico City (280,000) as there are residents in St. Louis (308,626). The metro area’s population (20.5 million) is greater than the number of residents in Missouri and Illinois combined (18.9 million). Yet both St. Louis and Mexico City—and every other city around the world—face common questions. What kind of city do we want to live in? How do we get there? What role does government play? And how can it shape interactions with its citizens for mutually beneficial outcomes?

Within the Mexico City megalopolis, for the past five years, a tiny office called “Laboratorio para la ciudad” or “Laboratory for the City” has been experimenting with fresh ideas involving everything from transportation to the federal constitution. Its leader, Gabriella Gomez-Mont, presented a bizSESSION on Jan. 15 as part of COCA’s ongoing series of arts-based education for business professionals.

“Mexico City attests to the sheer power of imagination,” Gomez-Mont said as she set the stage for her presentation, titled “Creativity Unbound: The Need for Urban Experimentation,” at Venture Cafe’s Innovation Hall. She believes that to understand any city, one needs to think about both the build environment and the public culture—and so she began with descriptions of daily life, of festivals and protests, markets and dances, extreme poverty and incredible wealth.

Contrasts, Comparisons and Creativity: Mexico City and St. Louis

Gabriella Gomez-Mont, image courtesy of COCA.

Likewise, when she set up the “laboratory for the city” five years ago, Gomez-Mont—a professional journalist and filmmaker—had her new staff of 20 start by gathering information from all kinds of sources. They used visuals and photos to understand how the city lives from an individual perspective. They surveyed 31,000 residents. And they used “big” data about infrastructure, economic disparities, greenspace distribution and more.

Then they set to work experimenting. They intervened in public spaces. Wrote books. Hosted data festivals. Reframed pubic conversations. Facilitated digital debates. Crowdsourced solutions. Tested out simple new technologies. Forged new partnerships and alliances. One of their showcase projects was developing the first public transportation map of the sprawling region, as part of a larger goal of addressing traffic congestion and improving safety for pedestrians and cyclists.

Because it was the first urban lab of its kind in Latin America—and the first anywhere in a megalopolis—Gomez-Mont’s experiment with a model that began in Europe has been followed closely around the world. What they learned can be applied universally to specific issues faced by individual cities. Some of the highlights include:

  • When engaging people on different sides of an issue, it’s important that all participants feel they are benefitting from being in the conversation. Governments often need information (because without it, data-driven solutions aren’t possible), and citizens always want to feel respected and appreciated for their perspectives.
  • Subjective realities go side by side with data in understanding historic and current issues as well as planning for the future.
  • As a public leader, even if you don’t agree with citizens’ belief systems, you must approach them with respect and humility, without trying to change their minds.
  • Arts and culture are the way we make meaning in society—it’s impossible to overestimate their importance.
  • People are enticed to interact with projects not by money or rewards but by collaborations and sharing information and ideas for a purpose they believe in. They also like to celebrate at the end.

In December, Gomez-Mont and the Laboratorio para la ciudad journeyed into uncharted territory yet again when the newly elected mayor of Mexico City took office. The project’s website talks of the laboratory in past tense, but it’s clear that the impact of its work will continue to be felt, both in the huge metro area and around the world.

The next COCAbiz event, an interactive workshop on Feb. 13, features Diana Chapman, author of The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Success.”

Featured image courtesy of Cesareveles.

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