Bogota Mayors from the past

BFP Magazine

Antanas Mockus

Bogota Mayors from the past

By Jamais Cascio,

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Bogotá Experiment
March 25, 2004 Issue
Wesley Roe and Marjorie Lakin Erickson

Bogotá, Colombia, circa 1995, was a city "choked with violence, lawless traffic, corruption, and gangs of street children who mugged and stole. It was a city perceived by some to be on the verge of chaos." Enter Antanas Mockus, an eccentric mathematician and philosopher with no political experience just resigned from a top tier professorship at Colombian National University. Looking for a challenge, he finds it in politics, or, as he describes it, being in charge of "a 6.5 million person classroom." Colombians desperate for change and for a moral leader elect him as mayor, thus beginning an uplifting chapter of Colombian history marked by innovative creative leadership and inspired social change.

During his two terms as mayor of Bogotá (1995-97 and 2000-04) his initiatives focused living standards and on the sanctity of life, using creativity and humor. To encourage Colombians skeptical of his ability to tackle the chaos and disorder of the city, he publicly donned a superman costume and renamed himself "Supercitizen". During a drought, Mockus appeared in a commercial taking a shower and asking citizens to turn off the water as they soaped --within two months, household water use was down 14% and is now 40% less than before the shortage. In a now famous move, Mockus hired 420 "traffic mimes" to gently mock people who break traffic laws." Traffic fatalities dropped by more than half, from an average of 1,300/year to about 600.

Mockus says that "transforming Bogotá's people and their sense of civic culture was the key to solving many of the city's problems". "Knowledge empowers people," he says. "If people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change."
-- Eliza Thomas

Go there>> The Bogota Experiment WorldChanging: Another World Is Here
« Doing a Worldchanging | Main | Ingenuity Gap »
March 20, 2004
The Bogotá Experiment
Big Systems - Global Institutions, Governance and History

What happens when you elect a mathematics and philosophy professor mayor? You get mimes on the street. And, it turns out, that's a good thing.

The Harvard University Gazette recently ran a lengthy article about Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, after his visit to the campus. If you're not familiar with Mockus, you should definitely read the piece; as mayor, he actively sought out unconventional approaches to solving Bogotá's enormous social problems, and, to a surprising degree, he actually succeeded. (The Atlantic Monthly had a good article about him in late 2001, which is also worth checking out.)

During his two terms as mayor (from 1995 to 1997, when he dropped out to run for Vice President, and then from 2000 to 2004), Mockus's initiatives focused both on the standard of living and sanctity of life. He used creativity, art, and humor as his tools for getting his messages out. He's infamous for hiring mimes to work street corners, gently mocking and parodying those who break traffic laws. But not all of his approaches were satirical:

"In a society where human life has lost value," he said, "there cannot be another priority than re-establishing respect for life as the main right and duty of citizens." Mockus sees the reduction of homicides from 80 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1993 to 22 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2003 as a major achievement, noting also that traffic fatalities dropped by more than half in the same time period, from an average of 1,300 per year to about 600. Contributing to this success was the mayor's inspired decision to paint stars on the spots where pedestrians (1,500 of them) had been killed in traffic accidents.

He also sought ways to improve Bogotá's environment, including a drive to reduce water consumption during a shortage (water use is now 40% less than before the shortage) and the encouragement of car-free days in the city to encourage the use of public transit and bicycles. He also championed efforts to bring drinking water and sewage services into every home in Bogotá; sewer hookups went from 70.8% in 1993 to 94.9% in 2003, and water provision went from 78.7% to 100% in the same period.

Mimes on streetcorners and occasional men-only curfews may not work in every city, but Mockus's success in Bogotá is a good example of the value of trying innovative approaches to solving seemingly intractible problems. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome. It's a good thing, then, to try something new, even if it looks a little crazy.

(Thanks, gmoke!)

Posted by Jamais Cascio at March 20, 2004 11:32 AM | TrackBack

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