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5 Million-Dollar-Winning Projects To Improve Our Cities

From making fuel out of garbage to predicting the city’s behavior based on 911 calls and the weather, the winners of the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge are striving to change urban life in America.

With Washington gridlocked, cities are the place to look for innovation in government. And, if it’s innovation in cities you’re looking for, then the Mayors Challenge—a competition organized by Bloomberg Philanthropies—is a pretty good showcase for it.

Launched last year, the contest attracted 305 ideas from cities across the country. In November, we wrote about 20 finalists. Now, the field has been whittled down to five winners, including one main winner (Providence). It receives $5 million to carry out its initiative, while the other four get $1 million each.

Providence, Rhode Island: "Providence Talks"

A study conducted in 1995 found that children living on welfare hear a third less words per hour than more fortunate kids. By the age of four, they will have heard a total of 32 million fewer words than their peers. The difference is known as the "word gap," and it’s seen as a significant reason why kids from poorer backgrounds start life at an educational disadvantage. Providence’s program addresses the problem by recording what kids hear on a daily basis (using devices hidden in their clothing), and then offers specialized coaching based on what they missed.

Chicago: "SmartData Platform"

Chicago’s "open-source predictive analytics platform" will offer real-time pattern detection gleaned from multiple types of data, including 911 and 311 calls, weather forecasts, and the location and speed of trains. Some of the system has already been built, allowing officials to start connecting dots. They found, for example, that when lights fail in the city, garbage cans are more likely to disappear.

Houston: "One Bin For All"

Rather than relying on residents to separate their recyclable trash, officials in Houston want to send the whole lot to a plant for sorting into organic, valuable, and genuine-garbage streams. To do this they’ll create a "one bin for all" (we wrote about the plan here). The plan could raise recycling rates from 14% currently to 75% (the average in U.S. cities is 35%). "I believe that technology can do a better job separating trash from recyclables, and am working on creating a public-private partnership to construct and operate a high-tech recycling and sorting facility," says Houston Mayor Annise Parker, in the city’s submission. "The technologies (shredders, sensors, density separators, and optical scanners) have been used previously in the waste, mining, or refining industries, but will be combined in a new process which will yield a much higher diversion rate."

Philadelphia: "Social Enterprise Partnership"

Philadelphia’s plan is to reform the way the government delivers services, by opening up its procurement process to entrepreneurs and social innovators. Working with a social enterprise accelerator called GoodCompany Group and the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, the hope is to create partnerships "to develop more effective solutions to some of our most intractable challenges." Philadelphia says it will set aside two to three issues a year to be part of the new approach.

Santa Monica, California: "Wellbeing Project"

Santa Monica’s idea is an alternative measure of urban success: an index that tracks not only economic vitality, but also health, education, and social connection. The city plans to chip in $750,000 of its own, and for the research to take two years. "We know that well-being can be measured, and what is measured can be managed," says the submission. "We will team up with top economists, behavioral scientists, and psychologists working in the field of well-being theory to develop the Local Wellbeing Index—the ruler that’s been missing from the toolbox of good governance for far too long."

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  • peteraltschuler

    Santa Monica's conclusions should be interesting. The city has, for generations, been a small town resort community that combined the lure of the coast with the allure of Hollywood and, for the last half century, pop culture (theme parks) and art. Since the '80s, however, Santa Monica has never met a developer it didn't like, and community-generated and approved plans for land use and "circulation" (traffic) are regularly ignored by the city's planning commission and the city council.

    Now, with the construction of the Expo Line light rail system heading toward a 2014 completion date, an explosion of new residential and commercial properties promises to make long-time residents' well-being far less well. With no likelihood that new residents will rely on Santa Monica's busses to get around or that all employees in new commercial space will arrive by light rail, the growth in the number of cars on the street will make downtown completely inaccessible to residents. Add tourist and beach traffic and gridlock is a certainty.

    From a desirable family community, Santa Monica is becoming Manhattan-by-the-Sea with none of New York's transportation infrastructure, landmark protection, or neighborhood political clout (City Council members do not represent specific areas of the city and are not full-time employees). So it will be interesting to see whether well-being is interpreted as being primarily about economics or about the health of, educational opportunites for, and social connections available to residents.

  • rockfish66

    Nice contrast between the glimmering Hong Kong skyline (the image of "city" that you obviously think lures viewers) and the elegant, first-principles problem-solving that won gritty, decidedly un-sexy Providence the top $5M prize.
    Would it have killed you to put a picture or PROVIDENCE on your post? You could barely stand to (parenthetically) report that they won!