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Europe's Mayors Rise to the Challenge

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What if a city figured out how to capture wasted kinetic energy from cars and re-inject it into the electrical grid? Or if a city used high-tech auditory alerts that enabled the visually impaired to easily navigate city streets? Or if a city empowered citizens to direct their tax dollars into the specific programs that mattered most to them?

These are just a few of the 21 concepts that are finalists in an ideas competition, called Mayors Challenge Europe, that invited leaders of European cities to devise bold solutions to major urban problems. Winning cities will receive monetary awards, totaling €9 million, to help them implement their ideas.

The issues the 21 cities are tackling -- from energy inefficiency to unemployment to government transparency -- are not unique to those cities. And we hope their solutions won't be, either. The purpose of the Mayors Challenge is to help stimulate -- and spread -- innovation.

Mayors around the world are coming up with new ways to tackle difficult challenges because mayors understand the needs of their communities -- and they are responsible for delivering results. But it is not always easy to justify spending scarce public dollars on untested programs. That's where the Mayors Challenge comes in. By funding promising experiments, we hope to encourage cities to innovate in ways they otherwise might not.

For instance, last year, as part of the U.S. Mayors Challenge we created, the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island developed Providence Talks, an early education program designed to increase the number of words that young children hear. Studies show that the more words children hear, the better prepared they are to succeed in school.

Unfortunately, children in low-income households hear 30 million fewer words by their fourth birthdays than other children, putting them behind academically before they even start school. The new program -- which uses a small recording device to track how many words children hear and provides families with strategies they can use to help their children -- aims to transform early childhood education by closing the "word gap."

In Europe, our Mayors Challenge attracted 155 applications from cities in 28 countries, and we couldn't be more excited about the cities that are moving forward as finalists.

Take Barcelona, Spain, which seeks to combine high-tech and low-tech strategies to create trust networks of friends, family, volunteers, and social workers to ensure that elderly residents can remain in their homes with a high quality of life for as long as possible. As elderly residents communicate their needs, the networks will respond immediately and coordinate delivery of services. This concept has the potential to change the way we think about caring for our aging citizens.

In Italy, Bologna is tackling another of Europe's top problems: staggering levels of youth unemployment. The city proposes creating entrepreneurship labs and integrating entrepreneurship curricula into the education system. These programs, to be created in partnership with local entrepreneurs, seek to foster business creativity at early ages and help ensure that students have the skills they need to start their own businesses.

In Poland, Krakow is taking on another major global issue -- protecting the environment - by implementing personalized transportation incentives and a fully integrated public transit payment system. This idea could improve the way we pay for (and use) public transportation in cities around the world -- making urban transportation more sustainable.

Our finalists are addressing some of the most pressing issues facing their citizens, and they have not shied away from completely re-conceptualizing government processes. It's an exciting competition -- a World Cup for cities. And unlike the World Cup, we can cheer for every contestant to succeed.

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