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The impossible possible city

How Mexico City’s urban innovation lab tackles the city’s challenges

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Until recently, no map existed for Mexico City’s peseros. The unofficial microbuses, united only by color—nearly all are painted some shade of green—sprout where they’re needed and shift course as necessary. The system is efficient, organic, unruly, and moves about 14 million people through the city every day.

You can see the peseros trawling the city’s transit arteries from the roof of the neocolonial 1948 Jeanne D’Arc building in downtown Mexico City, home of the city’s experimental Laboratorio para la Ciudad. It was here that winners of the lab’s Mapatón CDMX contest—an app that turned the mapping of the microbus routes into a competitive game—met Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera in an award ceremony after the Mapathon ended. Over the course of two weeks in 2016, thousands of pesero riders played their way toward a map of 2,632 rides.

It’s also up on the roof, where the lab has constructed an adaptable event space alongside a low garden of succulents, that it hosts its Roof Sessions: lectures and conferences on subjects from water use in the city to the maker movement to Italian designer Enzo Mari and much, much more. It’s held meetings on the roof that pull together government entities unaccustomed to collaboration to tackle such issues as, say, a particularly dangerous traffic intersection. It’s hosted working groups on community journalism and how to translate data into experience. Like the city below, whose needs direct its initiatives, the lab is sprawling, difficult to pin down.

When the mayor’s office first asked Gabriella Gomez-Mont to envision a city department devoted to “public participation and innovation writ large,” she was intrigued. Gomez-Mont—curator, journalist, documentary director, and artist, who has been a TED senior fellow, a Yale global fellow, one of Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People,” and more—and architect and lab co-founder Clorinda Romo looked to established models for urban innovation. These included labs in Boston, Helsinki, and Denmark, as well as citizen-participation initiatives in Brazil and Colombia.

“It was more of a speculative fascination,” says Gomez-Mont. “What does this look like? A department for a megalopolis that I adore and that breaks my heart? When you think of government as an entry point into the city, what can it be?”

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Speculation became reality and after five years, the Laboratorio has rounded into its final year of existence; whether the next mayor of Mexico City will maintain the office remains to be seen. At the same time, its sprawling initiatives are bearing concrete results.

As the words “innovation” and “design” pepper the strategic wish lists of governments around the world, the lab is in good company. A network of urban innovation labs spreads across the globe: They are directly connected to local government, often experimental, always committed to leveraging the creative and technological in service of the social problems of citizens. Most of those labs are in the U.S., Europe, and Australia.

Mexico’s challenges force the Laboratorio to differentiate itself from its peers. Its home city is significantly larger and poorer than cities like Boston, Helsinki, and Copenhagen, where design-forward urban labs tread similar ground. Extreme poverty, income inequality—Mexico has been rated the most unequal country in the world, though recent statistics suggest that certain U.S. cities are more unequal yet. And with 9 million in the city proper and 20.1 million residents in its metropolitan area, Mexico City’s scale is enormous.

Then again, so is its potential.

In the evenings, when the lab’s rooftop sees most of its use, the sun reflects off of an enormous abandoned building in front, the orange glint off glass studded with dull gaps where windows are broken like wet black eyes. Lean past the rutted and broken adornments jutting from the neo-colonial building’s parapets and you’ll see the highway that stretches to the very south of the city, humming during the daytime lag and clotted with red tail lights at evening rush hour. You’ll see a half-dozen abandoned buildings, some left with cracked concrete after the 1985 earthquake and others deserted after last September’s quake, a market, the rounded domes of three churches above the cityscape, and higher up, airplanes coasting down into the halo of pollution above the city.

From the roof, the city is what Gomez-Mont has called it: the impossible possible city. “It’s a city that is not easy to understand, does not sit still, but is a fascination for many of us,” she says. “Its paradoxical nature drives us.”

The “us” is a team of 20, ranging from designers and artists to political scientists and AI experts and an equally diverse list of collaborators. Though it launched with city funding, which still pays employees’ salaries, 70 percent of funding for the lab now comes from international NGOs like the Hewlett and Omidyar foundations, which enables necessary agility of projects and collaborators. “It’s part of the nature of spaces like this that we change rapidly,” says Romo. “But you can’t call it an experiment.”

Innovative, then. Initiatives have focused on citizen engagement, transparency, data collection and diffusion, transportation, the visibility of refugee communities, pedestrian and bike rights, the tenuous kid-friendliness of the city, and more. The lab has turned city streets into play spaces in poor neighborhoods that it’s determined, through maps devised by its department of urban geography, have a high concentration of children and little green space. The children play street bowling and talk about what they’d like their city to look like. Teaming up with Code for America, the lab paired six programming fellows with city agencies for nine months to build apps and mine for data. The resulting programs monitor air quality, streamline bus routes, and more.

The lab also teamed up with to collect citizen input on the city’s first constitution. At 5,000 signatures a petition earned a response from the constitution’s drafting committee. At 10,000, petitioners could meet with a committee member, and at 50,000, a petition was presented to the entire group. Twenty petitions passed the 10,000 mark; four reached 50,000, says lab member Bernardo Rivera, who came from the city’s general council’s office. Through all of these initiatives, the Lab has focused on stitching together a web of relationships between agencies and actors that will remain if or when it no longer exists.

As innovation has become a buzzword in local and federal government, in the U.S. and around the world, its applications have seemed equally potent and abstract. They’re united by a focus on technology: President Obama signed his Presidential Innovation Fellows into permanence in 2015, luring technologists and designers from industry positions; Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Team grants have dispersed funds across 20 American cities in the last eight years, all directed at City Halls with proposals to use data-driven solutions to address persistent urban problems. Medellín, Colombia, has racked up award after award for tech- and design-forward solutions to urban issues: transportation woes solved with an enormous orange escalator, a public-private joint venture tech complex, think tank, and surrounding ‘innovation district.’

In Mexico, the scale is different. There are nearly as many children in Mexico City—2.3 million—as the total populations of Helsinki and Copenhagen combined. More than the population of Houston, or of San Jose and San Diego together. It’s the same story with the city’s bikers: As a portion of city population, commuters who choose bikes are few—under 3 percent—but the resulting number is half of the urban population of that ultimate biking city, Amsterdam.

Initial criticisms leveraged at the lab dwelled on projects, like a taxi-hailing app, that appeared to glance past the deep and basic needs of many residents. But with input from citizens and that ability to change rapidly, a slight course correction since its earliest years has generated more finely tuned results.

Many of the lab’s initiatives share a deep engagement with basic tenets of human psychology: the power of competition and play, the subversive potential of hope, the way that stating a desire manifests expectation and participation. Some projects, like a commuter schedule for nighttime buses, improve lives in the here and now. Others seem designed for the very, very long game. Rivera referred to another of his division’s projects, “Imagine Your City”—proposals gathered from 30,000 citizens on hopes, fears, and ideals for the city, collected digitally and physically, organized according to subject—as contagious.

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People aren’t always motivated by logic, a fact that Gomez-Mont cites as essential to the Lab’s initiatives. Policy, as we’ve seen in the era of Brexit and Trump, can be shaped as much by instinct as by empiricism. “Cities are emotional beings,” she says. “It’s about physical infrastructure, but also symbolic.” Only half of the Mapatón winners have returned to the Jeanne D’Arc building to collect their physical prizes.

It’s too early to evaluate or quantify the outcomes of the lab’s work. But as far as civic engagement goes, initial indicators are unquestionably positive: 500,000 unique users weighed in on for the constitution’s drafting; 4,000 smartphone users helped map half of the total microbus routes with the Mapatón app; the Peatoniños street-play program will be implemented in Iztapalapa, one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, throughout the summer.

Right now, the excitement in the office is palpable. Each department eagerly reports on initiatives that are coming to a head. If the lab doesn’t continue, staffers will disperse back into private practice and city government. Mexico City’s government leads the nation in terms of progressive politics, and has for years; in many ways, it beats most of the U.S. on essential regulations for trans and reproductive rights and more. Now, collaborations among activists, government agencies, hackers, artists, and bureaucrats that might have been unlikely six short years ago have been set into motion. The relationships will remain, as will the dozens of projects set into motion and the many public-private partnerships the lab has created.

As for Gomez-Mont, the unlikely bureaucrat is not sure where she’ll go next. As her diverse interests have influenced the lab’s range and tactics, her words on its greater purpose can be winnowed down to a more personal note. “It’s more about opening up hungers and desires than having a clear-cut step-by-step of how to get there,” she says. “I think a more powerful force is how to seed possibility.”


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