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Country in Crisis: Looking to America's Mayors to Rise to the Challenge

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On Wednesday, I'll be speaking at the winter meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors in Washington (a winter meeting in Washington? Doesn't Miami have a mayor, too?). Given the state of politics these days, going to Washington to give a speech about anything having to do with national affairs would normally be a depressing prospect. But, in fact, while the conference might be in Washington, what's being discussed, explored, championed, shared, and imagined is all about what's going on outside of Washington.

And by "Washington" I mean our broken national political system, not Washington's local government, where, as it happens, there are some exciting things going on under Mayor Vincent Gray.

The juxtaposition between our national leaders and our local leaders has never been more stark. On a national level, we're paralyzed and polarized. The institutions whose failure led to the biggest economic crisis since the Depression are still broken. And the chance, at least for the foreseeable future, that any innovative thinking or real solutions or meaningful change will be coming out of Washington seems laughable.

We're now in the midst of a battle to see who will sit atop the pyramid in official Washington. This battle will dominate the media in the year ahead, but what the last year showed is that the more important story is what's happening outside Washington. It was a year in which Time declared "The Protester" its Person of the Year and "Occupy" was named Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. It was a year of solutions and energy and activism from the bottom up. And given that top-down thinking not only brought us a Depression-level crisis, but also shows no signs of getting us out of it, it's bottom-up innovation that will be more relevant.

That's why I believe the solutions the country is so desperately looking for are going to come at the local level -- from our mayors and engaged citizens working with their communities. It's our cities, not the nation's capital, that are the real idea factory of our country. It's the Mayor's Mansion not the White House from which bold decision-making is likely to originate. It's from any house on your street not the House of Representatives where projects that will make your community a better place to live in are more likely to surface.

And as our nation becomes more polarized at the national political level, it becomes all the more important to nurture the commonality we have at the local level, where people care about what they've always cared about: their children, their families, their schools, their communities. And it's our mayors who are best positioned to take advantage of these bonds -- especially given that many of our national leaders have given up even trying.

It's at the local level where we are still able to fulfill President Obama's exhortation last year "to sharpen our instincts for empathy" and "constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American Dream to future generations." It's increasingly clear that for that circle to be widened nationally it will have to be widened locally first.

And all across the country, there are mayors working hard to do just that. They are at ground zero of where the struggle is. And as more and more people lose trust in national institutions, they're turning more and more to what is local, to what they can see and touch and feel. This gives our mayors a great opportunity, but also a great challenge.

Many of them are meeting this challenge head on. And, much like their constituents, they're increasingly using technology and social media to problem-solve, coalesce, scale-up great ideas, and get the word out on innovative programs. In a recent post on TechCrunch, Jon Bischke, founder of RG Labs, argued that mayors should look at their cities as a startup:

The ingredients for a successful startup and a successful city are remarkably similar. You need to build stuff that people want. You need to attract quality talent. You have to have enough capital to get your fledgling ideas to a point of sustainability. And you need to create a world-class culture that not only attracts the best possible people, but encourages them to stick around even when things aren't going so great.

One of the mayors best known for his entrepreneurial use of social media is Newark's Cory Booker, recently named one of Rolling Stone's "12 Leaders Who Get Things Done." During the big blizzard of 2010, he put his network of over a million Twitter followers to good use, personally responding to pleas about un-shoveled driveways and streets -- and even showing up with diapers for a tweeter who said she had none. He also used social media to stay in constant communication with his city during Hurricane Irene, and uses Facebook and YouTube to organize night patrols, which he often joins. And recently he used Facebook and Twitter to challenge his city to get in better shape, asking residents to participate and tell about their fitness resolutions for the New Year.

In Portland, while our national leaders are paralyzed on climate change, Mayor Sam Adams declared in his first State of the City address that he would make Portland "the most sustainable city in the world." To that end, he's put forward a Climate Action Plan, which by 2050 would cut carbon emissions by 80 percent, launched a pilot program for green retrofitting, and budgeted $20 million for "bicycle boulevards." He also took a $2.4 million federal grant and used it as venture capital for a Clean Energy Works program. "We could have doled it out to individual facilities and buildings, which would have been more direct and politically expedient," he said. "But instead, we wanted to create a return on investments in a new industry."

In Tampa, a city in which tourism is a major component of economic vitality, Mayor Bob Buckhorn innovatively uses Foursquare to make lists of things for visitors to experience there.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa earned himself a spot on Rolling Stone's list by getting almost 70 percent of Angelenos who voted in 2008 to vote in favor of Measure-R, which would use a half-cent sales tax to fund $35 billion in transportation projects, including rail and subway. Yes, in a place known as the ultimate car city, instead of pandering Villaraigosa is thinking outside the two-ton rolling box -- and citizens are responding.

In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg offered $100 million and land on Roosevelt Island (which sits between Manhattan and Queens) to universities to bid to build a high-tech campus focused on engineering and applied science. The deal, ultimately won by Cornell University, also includes $150 million of venture capital funding for start-ups that agree to stay in the city for three years.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a $20 million Innovation Loan Fund, open to any city department that has ideas for streamlining their services -- especially shortening wait times for constituents to receive services or have permits approved -- that can't be funded from current budgets.

Another bright spot on the local horizon is the fact that, for mayors eager to come up with solutions, there are an increasing number of innovative organizations to help. One is Code for America, which, following the Teach for America model, embeds young tech professionals within city governments that have plenty of data but not enough resources to organize it in a way that's useful to citizens. As founder Jennifer Pahlka, who was one of HuffPost's 2011 Game Changers, says, "We're like a Teach for America or a Peace Corps, but for geeks."

So far, Code for America projects include "Adopt a Hydrant," which allows people to volunteer to keep a fire hydrant free of trash and snow, and "ClassTalk," which lets teachers communicate instantly via text and email with their students. "It really signals a new relationship between government and the technology community," says Pahlka, "but it is also about the government being useful to you in your daily life and engaging you in your daily life."

There's also Civic Commons, a non-profit that, as its website says, "helps governments build and use shared and open technologies to improve public services, transparency, accountability, citizen participation, and management effectiveness, all while saving money." The group's goal is to allow cities to "take advantage of the same technologies that have generated such enormous efficiencies and innovative services in our lives as citizens and consumers" by letting cities "pool their resources -- their talents and ever-shrinking budgets -- to build shared technologies, save money, and innovate." One of their projects is Open311, a collaborative way to track civic issues.

Similar work is being done by OpenPlans, a non-profit that helps cities use data to improve their transportation systems through open-source software. Already the group has been behind New York City's growing effort to provide real-time tracking for the entire city's bus system. And, as the blog techPresident recently pointed out, because the code is open-source, it's available to both cities and developers to share and improve upon:

It also means that software improvements made in New York at the MTA's expense could be used by Portland, Ore.'s TriMet public transit authority, were it to adopt real-time planning -- and the work that TriMet is paying OpenPlans to do on open-source trip-planning software could find itself being useful to MTA riders.

The Mayor's Innovation Project, co-founded by Madison, Wisconsin Mayor Dave Cieslewicz in 2005, is a "learning network among American mayors committed to 'high road' policy and governance: shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, and efficient democratic government."

And it's not just mayors and local organizations responding to our need to "widen the circle of our concern" -- individuals all across the country are on the front lines as well. Like SeeClickFix.com's Ben Berkowitz, a Connecticut web developer whose site invites users to post non-emergency problems in neighborhoods, such as broken street lamps or potholed roads. Other members then chime in with solutions, and sometimes neighbors reply with fixes within minutes.

If real change is going to happen, the solutions are going to come from our communities and our cities. And it's our mayors who are best positioned to galvanize, champion, and take those ideas to market. If we're to get out of the multiple messes we're in, it's our local communities that will lead us.

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