It was a day of firsts at the opening celebration for the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. The center is the first of its kind in uniting cities-focused expertise and providing opportunities for cross-Harvard collaboration.
It’s the first in the world to focus on strengthening hundreds of local governments and their leadership on a global scale.
And it was the first time at Harvard that the president gave out an honorary key to the university, in a nod to the “keys to the city” that mayors habitually award.
The key was a way to recognize Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies and 108th mayor of New York City. The University-wide center was founded in 2021 with a gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies.
“If only I had this key when I was a student,” Bloomberg joked during his keynote remarks on Tuesday. “When I attended Harvard Business School, around one-third of the world’s population lived in cities. Today, it’s a little more than half. This demographic shift in history presents all kinds of opportunities to build a healthier, more prosperous, more equitable world.”
Accomplishing that goal, Bloomberg said, will require everything the center is focusing on—innovation, collaboration, idea-sharing, and the tools that make for effective leadership.
The center’s mission is to equip current and future leaders in cities around the world with the knowledge, skills, and practices to take on complex challenges and improve the lives of city residents.
The event was hosted at Harvard Kennedy School, home to the center’s new full floor of workspace. The center occupies approximately 12,000 square feet and has been designed to support the collaborative and multidisciplinary curriculum, programming, and research.
“The center serves the public good through scholarly work and engagement with current and future public servants,” said Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow. “We hope they will follow in Mayor Bloomberg’s footsteps.”
Jorrit de Jong, director of the Bloomberg Center for Cities, stressed the importance of building networks and fostering multidisciplinary research.
“In a rapidly urbanizing world, it will take the expertise from all academic disciplines to navigate challenges in cities,” said de Jong, the Emma Bloomberg Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Management. “We’re deeply fortunate to have a large community of scholars, from schools across Harvard, who have already committed their expertise to the mission.”
The celebration was attended by current and former mayors from nearby and across the country. They included Boston Mayor Michelle Wu; Steve Benjamin, former mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, and now the senior advisor and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement; two Connecticut mayors, Luke Bronin of Hartford and Caroline Simmons of Stamford; two New Hampshire mayors, Joyce Craig of Manchester and Jim Donchess of Nashua; two Pennsylvania mayors, Paige Cognetti of Scranton and Matt Tuerk of Allentown; former mayor Michelle De La Isla of Topeka, Kansas; and former mayor Jorge Elorza HLS 2003 of Providence, Rhode Island, all of whom took part in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, the center’s flagship program, which equips mayors and senior city officials to tackle complex challenges.
Also present were two former mayors, Setti Warren, former mayor of Newton, Massachusetts, and director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School; and Stephen Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis, Indiana, and deputy mayor of New York, the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard Kennedy School and founder of Data-Smart City Solutions, one of the center’s inaugural programs.
The panel, moderated by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, also included Kathy Sheehan, mayor of Albany, New York; Elizabeth Linos, the Emma Bloomberg Associate Professor of Public Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School and faculty director of The People Lab; and Nicolas Diaz Amigo MPP 2020, chief innovation and data officer for Syracuse, New York.
Despite the many challenges cities are facing, the panelists focused on the power of data-driven techniques and transformative research to drive innovation and create solutions.
Sheehan established a new citizen engagement strategy, including creating a Neighborhood Services Department to help residents access the services they need. She said an approach that recognized the differences between adaptive and technical challenges was crucial for the project.
Diaz talked about improving Syracuse’s permitting process around the themes of the center: innovation, data, and collaboration. Diaz and other city leaders designed a system around resident need, thoughtfully selected key data metrics to measure progress, and worked across departments to identify and solve bottlenecks.
Linos also emphasized the importance of using data to unlock behavioral trends, citing a study her team conducted in Denver which found that using de-stigmatizing language to describe government rental assistance increased program take-up. She said research like this can help inform local leaders’ outreach efforts.
As part of the opening celebration, the center announced a new conference series to bring renowned and emerging researchers and scholars together to bridge the gap between ambitions for city progress and the capacities of local governments to achieve them, beginning in 2025.
The center also plans to name additional affiliated faculty from schools across Harvard University in the weeks ahead.
With these commitments, the center aspires to have a widespread impact on the future of cities, spurring progress for residents. As Bloomberg said, there is much at stake.
“The work happening here couldn’t be more important,” he said.
Photographs courtesy of the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University