Bloomberg Mayors Challenge: Should SF Jump Into the Ring?
By Christine Johnson, San Francisco Director
July 31, 2017
Photo by Sergio Ruiz.

At the 2017 U.S. Conference of Mayors, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that Bloomberg Philanthropies is launching a $200 million, three year commitment to funding innovation in American cities. The 2017 Mayors Challenge, a centerpiece of the effort, calls on city leaders to propose innovative ideas that ultimately could be implemented.

As the San Francisco Director for SPUR, I regularly look for creative ways to move the city forward. San Francisco, led by the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, was a finalist in the 2013 version of this competition. The announcement of the 2017 challenge made me wonder: Should the city join this latest effort?

The 2017 Mayors Challenge is the latest in a long history of challenges and competitions, sponsored by both the public and philanthropic sectors, to spur innovation in government. Bloomberg Philanthropies has sponsored previous Mayors Challenges in 2013, 2014 and 2016. Other representative efforts in the philanthropic sector include the XPrize Foundation’s multiple prizes, Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge, Rebuild by Design and the Knight Foundation Cities Challenge. In 2010, Congress passed the COMPETES Act, which allowed any federal agency to stage prize competitions to stimulate innovation in their area of operation. Since then nearly 100 federal agencies have issued challenges and prize competitions worth more than $250 million through the challenge.gov website.

Although they can be sexy, challenges and competitions have also attracted some criticism. A provocative 2013 blog post from the Stanford Social Innovation Review posed a sound critique of urban innovation by competition, particularly the tendency toward gimmicky ideas that have no hope of broad implementation. The post sparked a round of responses, the majority of which supported competitors and challenges as a tool for catalytic change. In many of those responses, however, was the tacit admission that there hasn’t been extensive study on the long-term impact of these competitions. In 2009, McKinsey & Company issued a report on the state of philanthropic prizes, which acknowledged that “sponsors still need to do more work on making prize-driven solutions ‘stick.’” Despite these critiques, competitions continue to hold our collective imaginations as a way to spark the next generation of urban innovation. The collaboration and creative energy needed to apply to these competitions is often productive in itself.

What, then, should San Francisco consider if it wants to jump into this latest competition? The winning concept will need enough innovation that a Bloomberg Philanthropies prize can be considered catalytic — but enough realism that it can actually be implemented. In addition, San Francisco should seek to tackle its biggest problems.

What fits the bill? Below are a few issue areas and concepts for consideration:

  1. Homelessness continues to be a major political and quality of life issue within San Francisco (and the Bay Area). There seems to be little consensus on how to help people who are living on the streets, as has been demonstrated vividly by ballot results in November 2016, when a new initiative to address homelessness passed, but the companion measure needed to fund the program did not. What is less widely publicized is that in 2015, more than 71 percent of homeless people were most recently housed in San Francisco before becoming homeless, and nearly half (49 percent) were housed for more than 10 years before becoming homeless. Often these people were in danger of losing their homes well before they began touching city support systems. There is likely an opportunity to innovate on how to detect who is in danger of losing their homes before it is too late to help.
  2. Economic stability for individuals and families continues to be a challenge for many. What solutions can we develop and implement to improve economic security by improving wages, benefits and working conditions and expanding access to high quality child care, education and other support networks? What solutions can help more people get on a pathway to higher-wage work, through apprenticeships, career networking and improved workforce training?
  3. Private transportation network companies (Uber, Lyft, Chariot, etc.) have infiltrated San Francisco and, barring some major unforeseen economic or cultural shift, are here to stay. Already public agencies like the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency are mulling profound shifts to what our public transportation network will look like. The process will involve major equity considerations: How will we continue to make sure all communities are connected to our transportation network in this new public/private future? What innovations can give everyone access to all options for how to get around?

Cities have until August 18 to decide whether to apply, and final proposals are due in October. A select group of 35 cities will each receive an initial $100,000 to develop their ideas, and the winning proposal receives $5 million to bring it to life. Along the way, the cities will meet to refine and improve their ideas through a year-long series of workshops. With this level of directed energy and support, the competition ideas stand a real chance of being implemented — and being effective. My answer to whether San Francisco should apply is a resounding yes.   

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