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October 09, 2019

Imagination in policy-making: Q&A with Summit keynote, Gabriella Gómez-Mont

Gabriella Gómez-Mont was the founder of Laboratorio para la Ciudad (2013 - 2018), the award-winning experimental arm of the Mexico City government. She now directs Experimentalista, a new type of nomadic and creative office that specializes in cities and constantly shifts shape to accommodate high-level, transdisciplinary collaborations across the world.

Named one of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company magazine, she is referred to as a “professional problem solver.” Gómez-Mont holds fellowships at several institutions such as MIT and Yale, and is a Fabrica Alumni and a World Cities Summit Young Leader. She has lectured and given talks at Harvard, The Obama Foundation Inaugural Summit, The Atlantic's + Bloomberg's CityLab, and the Rockefellar Foundation, among others.

The session card from Gabriella Goméz-Mont's keynote at the Future Cities Canada Summit 2019 taking place November 7-8, 2019.

Laboratorio para la Ciudad has been referred to as the city’s “Ministry of Imagination.” What is the role of imagination in policy-making?

If you read many linguists, political scientists, neuroscientists and beyond, it turns out that the metaphors we use and the mental constructs we create have a very palpable way of forming our belief systems; which in turn, ends up being the foundations of our collective life, of our urban, social and political realities. 

I believe that the prevalent metaphor of cities as machines, or as factories, has led us astray in many ways. I don't think the implicit idea that efficiency and productivity are at the very heart of urban – and hence, human – endeavours. Not to say that they are not important – they are – but I don't think they should be the end-game of cities, nor their governments. We would then need to ask: efficient and productive for what? We already saw that throwing tech at any and every subject is not enough, as many theorists have spelled out in their scathing critiques of Silicon-Valley type solutionism. We are also seeing democracy itself in crisis across the world, which gives us good reason to believe that we need to return to essential questions and first principles, and come up with reinvigorated answers that better fit the times at hand.

Given these scenarios, I do believe that the heart of our public and political life needs to return to collectively imagining what type of cities and societies we want to create – and then advancing the necessary policy and public programs. I would advocate that urban inquiry needs to shift. ‘What is city for?’ is a deceptively simple question that will lead us into very philosophical discussions of what we want out of life itself. We need to reinvent the civic commons around that, and for this day and age, make participation in our collective life fascinating again. We also need to figure out ways of having difficult conversations to deal creatively with the inherent tensions of democracy. Perhaps the things we considered "fluffy" and inefficient – urban culture civic life, writ large, deepening political and public imagination – are actually at the very core of who we are to become together, either deliberately and creatively, or in the quasi incoherent rush of our tumultuous, unfinished and biased ideas and imaginings.

Many governments and organizations are trying out labs to develop new ideas. What were you hoping to accomplish when you created this experimental arm of government? 

In echo to your first question, from the very beginning, the DNA of Laboratorio para la Ciudad was bringing back the importance of experimentation, political imagination and social creativity into the heart of government – the inherent belief that imagination is not a luxury, that citizen talent is one of the most valuable and underutilized resources a city has, and that many of the urban challenges we are facing could be addressed more ingeniously and systemically, through transdisciplinary, hybrid, teams and diverse perspectives. 

Governments – I quickly realised – are caught in a big conundrum. On one hand, they are expected to be solid and sure-footed; on the other hand citizens feel they are lethargic and beaurocratic, lagging behind the times. That is where Gov Labs can find their place: specializing in the gaps between things, moving with more agility and designed to take risks.

So the Laboratorio para la Ciudad – officially the experimental and creative office of the Mexico City government from 2013 to 2018 – was a meta experiment in and of itself. The Lab´s team is composed of a motley crew: philosophers, artists, graphic designers, industrial designers, filmmakers, social scientists, policy experts, data analysts, internationalists, architects, urban geographers, journalists, historians, experts in social innovation, civic tech and artificial intelligence, etc. Most without prior experience in government, but many were running foundations or important activists. The average age was around 29, the same average of Mexican citizens.

And the Lab's slightly strange and fluctuating composition was not without purpose. The Lab, since its inception, has been exploring the possibility of synthesising the means and mechanisms creative practice with a wider range of disciplines, while also questioning how different fields – from art to artificial intelligence – can help create new social blueprints that could inform urban life in positive ways. 

Why do labs work? Do they have any limitations?

It was quite an adventure to open a creative office within a gargantuan public institution, which at first  seems to be almost at odds with its bureaucratic nature. But perhaps when things seem most ill-suited for each other is when the interesting combinations happen. A creative ethos gives a city is the possibility to see things anew. Even laws. Even bureaucracy. And suddenly, with just one small mental flip: government can turn into a city-making-machine, a way of conjuring up other (more imaginative) forms of collective realities. It’s also an impressive thing to see how citizens show up in huge numbers when they feel you are speaking their language, are tapping into both their concerns plus their sense of possibility. 

That said, of course Labs have a huge series of limitations: small teams with small budgets and large challenges; the need to hand over projects at some point so they can scale, and that sometimes the government partner does not have a full grasp on the project or agenda; changes in the political scenario; the need to build new capacities within and without government; the mistrust between civil society and public institutions; the lethargic and labyrinthine, almost Kafkian, bureaucracy. I could go on. But still, all in all, when I look back I am happy with what we managed to achieve in 5 years. 

The theme of this year’s Summit is showcasing solutions that were built for, by and with communities – ‘community solutions’. What are some of your favourite community solutions right now?

  • Sharing City policy in Seoul: a government-led, city-funded and share-based policy for improving citizens’ quality of life in Seoul by creating new economic opportunities, restoring reliable relationships and reduce the wasting of resources with a view to resolving urban economic, social, and environmental problems all together. 
  • Cause Ciudadano in Mexico City: led by a former ex-gang member, this program seeks to decrease gender-based violence by encouraging young people to question the values and practices that lead to such violence
  • Participatory City in the UK: a hybrid of goverment and community-led, the program works with tens of thousands of residents across a borough to create over 250 neighbourhood-led projects and form more than 100 new businesses over five years.

The Summit explores how to build capacity for getting innovation right. We believe that innovation for positive change requires risk, experimentation, and sometimes, failure. Does an example come to mind when a setback lead to a greater possibility in your work?

Oh, there are so many examples! I will be taking about that in my workshop on the possibilities and perils of participation. Come! 

6. What excites you most about this year’s Future Cities Canada Summit?

I am excited to find out more about participatory practices in Canada and beyond. I'm the newest member of the advisory board for MaRS Solutions Lab, and it delights me to both share notes from Mexico City as well as continuously learn from all that is happening a couple borders away. The Summit will be a great way to dive right in. Cities need to learn together, and to learn quickly, which will be the focus of Experimentalista and The Urban Task Force, my new organizations that are now working with cities across the world, hand-in-hand with both citizens and local governments.