The Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University was officially dedicated on the campus of the Kennedy School on Wednesday. Capping off the inaugural event was a discussion titled “The Power of Public Innovation in Cities around the Globe” with Juliette Kayyem, the Belfer Senior Lecturer in International Security, and James Anderson, who leads the Government Innovation programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies.

HKS Dean Doug Elmendorf introduced Anderson, saying that, “Programs that Jim manages for Bloomberg Philanthropies help city leaders solve some of their most vexing problems through evidence-based innovation and collaboration.”

Elmendorf presented Anderson with a framed HKS proclamation recognizing his “compelling vision and tireless efforts to support leadership and scholarship in the service of cities.” Anderson, Elmendorf said, was instrumental in carrying out Michael Bloomberg’s vision and commitment to cities that has “brought to life a vibrant and fast-growing woven community of city leaders and city scholars committed to improving public management, leadership and governance in cities.”

Anderson reflected on the collaboration between Bloomberg Philanthropies and Harvard, especially during the trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dean Doug Elmendorf presenting James Anderson with an HKS proclamation.
Dean Doug Elmendorf presents James Anderson of Bloomberg Philanthropies with an HKS proclamation for “compelling vision and tireless efforts to support leadership and scholarship in the service of cities.”

“During that unimaginable time, we worked well together because of the power of the Bloomberg Center for Cities and the collaboration between Bloomberg Philanthropies and Harvard University, and we brought in Johns Hopkins University as well,” he said. “That was a moment where there was a complete and total lack of federal guidance and leadership happening. There was nothing going down to localities around what to do or how to respond.”

And while there were so many uncertainties at the time, Anderson knew the collaboration between HKS, HBS and Johns Hopkins could get mayors through the pandemic.

“I called on Harvard and asked for eight weeks of your expertise,” he remembered with a smile. “We ran a crisis leadership program for mayors every week for eight months getting the cities through the first and second wave of the pandemic.”

The following excerpts from the conversation have been edited for clarity and length.


Kayyem: What innovation have you seen in cities that is working?

Anderson: The case for innovation in cities I think is undoubtedly clear: every single problem that we have in America today and around the globe is rolling downhill into cities. The climate crisis and the equality crisis, the housing crisis, all of these problems are piling up on the front steps of city halls. What we don't have, and what we haven't historically had, is an expectation, a narrative, to help city halls muscle up innovative responses.

We were always talking about policy and new solutions, new products, and new services. What we’ve been trying to do over the past decade is shift that conversation to innovative capacities—the ability to look a problem in the eye, to ideate, to tap expertise from across the community, to generate new ideas, to test them—to figure out which ones worked and move forward with those that do.

And then to rinse, wash, and repeat to be able to do that when the next challenge comes. What we try to do is shift the conversation from innovation as a ‘what’ to innovating as a ‘how,’ as a process. I think we do incredible hard work there.

Kayyem: What are the top three things that you would recommend a new mayor do in their first 100 days that would set them up for innovation?

Anderson: Michael Bloomberg would say the first, second, and third thing is building a team. There is nothing more important for a mayor to do in the first three months than make sure they have a team. To help, there’s The Program for New Mayors here. It builds on a long history with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Institute of Politics. We're bringing to that program more of a focus around those startup capabilities that you need.

“What we try to do is shift the conversation from innovation as a ‘what’ to innovating as a ‘how,’ as a process.”

James Anderson

Kayyem: What unifies mayors?

Anderson: Mayors everywhere have an unfettered, unabashed ambition for their city’s improvement. That deep, heartfelt belief that their city has a future, that brings people into office. And that charisma and energy to help them build relationships and achieve their goals.

There are a few things that have definitely shifted around being a mayor over the last few years. The pandemic brought new scrutiny and focus from residents on mayors; after all, they were suddenly making decisions that so directly and immediately affected people's livelihoods. A lot of backlash and personal attacks followed. I'd like to think this scrutiny and focus could have a democratic upside—like greater civic participation—but it's not clear we're seeing that.

Kayyem: What are some of the effective strategies you have witnessed mayors use in engaging citizens?

Anderson: I think we have a very traditional model of citizen engagement with open-comment areas on policy drafts, town hall meetings—the squeaky wheels tend to make all the noise. I think the innovation toolbox brings mayors a wide range of new ways to engage citizens: the design process, ethnographic inventory, going into communities, and talking with individuals about the way a policy affects them.

We want mayors to understand the whole experience of governing through the conversations with residents. It’s really about increasing the touch points of residents and creating opportunities to have a different kind of conversation, a more respectful, trust-building one.

Kayyem: We talked about the COVID initiative. Will you describe why you thought that worked and then how we can model it in other areas?

Anderson: COVID was an obvious crisis that few others were going to do anything about. When the White House passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, there was $400 billion going directly to cities. But what we were hearing, particularly from small- and mid-sized mayors, was, "What are we going to do? There's so much choice. There are so many grant applications. Am I going to be competitive against New York City, against New Orleans?"

So we created a technical assistance facility. We raised $50 million from other foundations and we pulled together the best technician-based providers out there. We put them into the service of helping small- and mid-sized cities go through the application process.

Kayyem: What is something you would say to someone thinking about going into city government?

Anderson: I would just say I came to New York as an activist. I came to New York to work for an LGBTQ+ startup organization focused on gay rights. To me, local governments were the problem. School boards were just ignoring these kids. The mayors were not standing up for these kids. I thought the most important way to make change in the world was to be on the outside protesting, burning down the house.

And then bizarrely, I got a call from the Bloomberg administration, and was asked to go into New York City’s services agency. So I did. And you know what? You come inside, you do the really hard work, you have a really hard issue that hopefully gets more attention in front of a really inspiring mayor, and you get to be a part of changing the way that, in our case, the most vulnerable people in our community were coming into the system. There's no experience like it, to have the chance and the opportunity to make a difference in people's lives. It's contagious and compelling, and then you will dedicate your life to it like I have. I strongly recommend it.

Photos by Justin Knight

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