The most depressing definition of a city he had ever heard, said Harvard Kennedy School Lecturer Jorrit de Jong during a recent JFK Jr. Forum on cities as innovation leaders, was “the absence of physical distance between people and buildings.” He preferred a more inspiring alternative: “concentrations of human potential.”

At the event, de Jong spoke with the mayors of three cities—Sly James of Kansas City, Missouri, Sharon Weston Broome of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Peter Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana – about  that potential and about not just “how mayors can make cities better, but how cities can make the country better.”

The forum was co-sponsored by the Institute of Politics, Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, of which de Jong is faculty director, and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. It kicked off the two-day Seminar on Transition for Newly Elected Mayors of large cities which the IOP and the U.S. Conference of Mayors have co-sponsored every two years since 1975. This year more than 28 mayors from across the country participated in sessions.

Cities as laboratories for innovation: What the country can learn

Jorrit De Jong

“Cities are where many of our problems are, but also where many new solutions are created. Cities are indeed laboratories of innovation. ... We all know that there is no abundance of financial resources in cities and therefore most mayors are not innovators by choice, they are innovators by necessity.”

Sly James

“There’s this tradition of mayors working with each other. That tradition just keeps rolling on. We’ve learned that the easiest way for us to succeed is to share ideas. ... The interesting thing is I don’t remember anybody ever telling me no because ‘you’re a Democrat and I’m a Republican.’ I don’t even remember ever asking if anybody was a Democrat or a Republican, because nobody really cares. At the mayor’s level, the snow doesn’t care if you’re Democrat, Republican, Independent, or fascist. It just needs to get picked up or removed.”

Sharon Weston Broome

“If you see my door open, that’s an invitation for you to come in. It’s very important as a mayor that I cast a vision. I spend time going to our department leader meetings to make sure that they understand the vision that I have for the city, and that they are a very integral part of that. So, having that open line of communication is vitally important.”

Peter Buttigieg

“Leadership is about making yourself vulnerable. And that doesn’t just mean talking about your feelings. One of the ways that you can make yourself vulnerable as a leader is to commit to a goal that can be very obviously and very publicly missed.”

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