On October 29, Bloomberg Philanthropies will announce the winners of this year’s Mayors Challenge, a competition for the best ideas to solve some of the toughest urban challenges. For the past eight months, 35 Champion Cities across the U.S. — all winners of $100,000 and coaching from innovation experts — have been testing their ideas with residents and refining their final applications. They’re competing for a share of $9 million worth of prize money.
As the countdown to the announcement closes, we checked in with winners of previous Mayors Challenge competitions in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America and the Caribbean, to see how their programs are developing.
Santa Monica, Calif., a 2013 Mayors Challenge winner
Santa Monica recognized something that not many cities in America had come to terms with in 2013: that income or poverty levels alone don’t determine the success of a community. City leaders wanted a more holistic measure, one that takes stock of the overall wellbeing of residents, to track the city’s progress.
So Santa Monica invented one: The Wellbeing Index. It’s a set of cross-cutting indicators that takes stock of things like the city’s sense of community, health, or opportunities to learn. Julie Rusk, who led the effort and now serves as the city’s Chief Civic Wellbeing Officer, said the emphasis was on making the data something the city and its partners in the nonprofit and business sectors could act on. “We were focused on not only understanding the research,” she said, “but also on what city government’s role was in coming up with a way to implement the findings.”
For example, Santa Monica has integrated the Wellbeing Index into its budget process to help set priorities. Findings have also informed a number of pilot projects aimed at learning what interventions can improve resident wellbeing. When the Index showed that levels of physical activity were lower in some neighborhoods than others, Rusk’s team forged a partnership with FitBit and gave free step counters to 150 residents. Now, community members actively share data from their FitBits with the city as they exercise. They’re also sharing the data with neighbors who are reaching for similar fitness goals, on the theory that such interpersonal connections are key to overall wellbeing.
In 2016, Santa Monica won another prize, from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The city put the funds toward a series of wellbeing microgrants, worth $500 each, to encourage residents and community organizations to facilitate social connections and mitigate loneliness in their neighborhoods. One of the first grants will give elementary school students the opportunity to interview local seniors in Spanish in order to ensure their stories get passed down to future generations — a gratifying interaction for both sides. “We launched these microgrants to focus on how we can source and elevate good ideas that come from residents,” Rusk said.
As Santa Monica works on the 2019 version of the Wellbeing Index, Rusk is aiming to roll out a new, more user-friendly, web platform. “We’ve really found that people want to be able to get into the indices, filter information, and overlay different data to get better insights into how people are doing,” Rusk said. “So we want to have a more dynamic and interactive tool for them to use.”
Athens, Greece, a 2014 Mayors Challenge winner
While Athens was still suffering the worst effects of the Greek economic crisis, a silver lining emerged in the vibrant civil society that sprang up in response. Community members began working together to clean up trash, provide free medical care, feed the hungry, and mend other tears in the social fabric. Athens had the idea to buttress these groups by building an online platform to connect people who wanted to find a way to help others in the community.
The result was synAthina. Since the site launched in 2013, 389 groups have been added to the platform, and citizens have logged 3,321 activities to support each other. In addition to the online platform, the city of Athens worked on peeling away regulations that might get in the way of good deeds community groups might want to do.
One recent success was the restoration of a crumbling market building that had been threatened with demolition. Not only was the city able to consult with the community through synAthina to decide on a new purpose for the structure, but it also was able to find partners to help run it. The market building reopened this month as a new collective space for nonprofits who aim to foster social and cultural innovation in the city.
The synAthina model has attracted attention across Europe. In May, Athens released the source code for the online platform so that other cities can use it. Athens also won a €5 million grant through the European Union’s Urban Innovative Actions initiative to address one of the most pressing issues currently facing the continent: How to integrate refugees and migrants.
Athens aims to use synAthina to empower refugees and migrants as they build their new lives. For example, the city will provide them with housing in formerly abandoned properties. In return, refugees and migrants will be expected to engage in community service and participate in a skills development program.
“SynAthina is already a place where a lot of stakeholders are coming together to deal with problems,” said synAthina Program Manager Haris Biskos. “[Now] we’re bringing together what was already happening and expanding our capabilities to address a new problem.”
Santiago, Chile, a 2016 winner
Chile has one of the highest obesity rates in the world. And in Santiago, more than half of the children are considered to be obese or overweight. City leaders had the idea to start turning this around and to do it in the schools. They set out to turn exercise and healthy eating into a game, which they called Juntos Santiago.
Santiago started with a pilot project last year in three schools, generally targeting 10- and 11-year olds in the 5th and 6th grades. In the game, students can earn points for choosing to eat healthy snacks. They also can log points for completing healthy activities, which can be anything from going on a walk with family to cooking a healthy meal. Students who earn enough points during the challenges earn individual rewards, such as a trip to a theme park. Classes with the most points can earn rewards for their school, such as a rock climbing wall or table tennis equipment.
It worked. On average, the children who participated in the six-month pilot experienced a measurable reduction in waist circumference, along with a reduction in body mass. “The results were better than we expected,” said project manager Macarena Carranza.
This year, Juntos Santiago has expanded to 15 schools throughout the city. While the experiment is still ongoing, consumption of healthy snacks such as fruit and vegetables is up and unhealthy snacks such as chips and cookies are down. “The move in snack choice indicates that we’re on the right track,” Carranza said. Those changes, however, have not yet produced reductions in the students’ waist circumference or body mass. One hypothesis is that students regressed to unhealthy eating habits over an extended winter break.
The Santiago team is learning and making adjustments as they go: They’re working on an incentive to keep kids on track during future breaks, for example. As Juntos Santiago continues, public health officials not just in Chile but around the world will be watching what they learn.