It’s a little weird, a little anti-climatic, a little difficult to perceive — this whole government shutdown thing. I flew into New York City last Wednesday from Mexico City and I kept expecting to notice something, some signal, that demonstrates that we don’t have a federal government. 800,000 federal employees are staying home, unpaid. National parks are closed. I heard a woman cry on NPR because she couldn’t visit the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. 19,000 children in 11 states have been left out of the Head Start program. This is all to say that I don’t want to minimize the effects of the federal government shutdown, but in New York City, life kept ticking without a hitch.

It’s a fitting scenario for the release of Benjamin Barber’s new book If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. For a taste of the book, you can watch Barber’s TED Talk, which argues (convincingly) that federal governments haven’t made progress in addressing the major 21st century challenges to global prosperity: migration, global warming, rising obesity, inequality, terrorism, public health, food security.

But cities increasingly are. Federal governments weren’t able to come to agreement on how to address climate change with the Kyoto Protocol or at Rio+20, but the C40 — a coalition of cities addressing climate change — is cited as a rare success story of international collaboration.

As I have written previously, cities are re-imagining how residents are represented and involved in decision-making while federal governments are locked in political partisanship. As Barber observes in his TED talk:

To be a prime minister or a president, you have to have an ideology, you have to have a meta-narrative, you have to have a theory of how things work, you have to belong to a party. Independents, on the whole, don’t get elected to office. But mayors are just the opposite. Mayors are pragmatists, they’re problem-solvers. Their job is to get things done, and if they don’t, they’re out of a job. Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia said, we could never get away here in Philadelphia with the stuff that goes on in Washington, the paralysis, the non-action, the inaction. Why? Because potholes have to get filled, because the trains have to run, because kids have to be able to get to school. And that’s what we have to do, and to do that is about pragmatism in that deep, American sense, reaching outcomes.

Cities are innovating in public service delivery and democratic participation as no federal government could ever get away with. Participatory budgeting, which gives citizens control over the allocation of their tax revenue, began in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 and has since spread to hundreds of cities throughout Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. Throughout the developing world, the same is true of bus rapid transit (BRT), which originated in Curitiba, Brazil and has since spread to Bogotá, Jakarta, Santiago, Johannesburg, Mexico City and dozens of other cities. Or public bike sharing programs, which began in Europe but have spread most rapidly in China (and just arrived to New York City).

The Center for an Urban Future, a think tank based in New York City, has catalogued 40 of the most innovative urban policies that could be adopted by the next administration of New York City after Mayor Bloomberg’s impending departure. Among my favorites:

  • In San Francisco, every new kindergartner automatically gets a college savings account. The city puts in the first $50 and various corporate sponsors and community foundations offer matching funding to encourage parents to add more money to the account. Low-income families that enroll in the program and make monthly automatic deposits of at least $100 receive as much as $300 in return. (If their kids don’t end going to college, then the parents can withdraw all of the money they put it, but they won’t get the matching funding.)
  • In London, Spacehive has secured government matching funds to support crowdfunded community projects like community gardens, research, and even communal kitchens. Granted, there is always a risk that such platforms will bring more resources to middle class neighborhoods at the expense of working class neighborhoods, but this can be addressed with effective outreach.
  • Philadelphia, Providence, and Chicago have introduced digital badges that allow students both inside the K-12 system and outside to earn credentials for skills they learn in a wide variety of educational settings, from digital tools workshops at public libraries to art classes at museums. If you’re interested in learning more, check out this post from the Hive Learning Network about creating a city-wide badge system in Chicago.
  • In Chicago, Foreign-born and low-income parents serve as teaching assistants in elementary school classrooms. They receive workforce experience and language training, and a modest stipend.
  • In Riverside, California, residents can drop off their old computers — so called “e-waste” — to a center where disadvantaged youth are taught how to refurbish computers and all low-income residents can receive a refurbished computer with software, a modem and eight hours of instruction.

Most of us have given up on expecting innovation from federal governments. Even bold plans for renewable energy or efficient healthcare usually fall far short of their potential. But cities are asserting themselves as “the nation’s drivers of policy innovation.”

Above are just five of the forty innovations described in the Innovation and the City reports by the Center for an Urban Future. Many of the innovations seem so obvious in retrospect that it’s difficult to understand why they haven’t already spread to every city in the world.

To address the lack of replication across cities, Benjamin Barber has proposed the creation of a World Parliament of Mayors to “give city leaders more opportunity for international collaboration and a stronger presence on the world stage.” Indeed, mayors around the world are beginning to demand greater autonomy from their federal governments. At a recent event on cities in Brazil, the mayors of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Recife all demanded greater autonomy from the Brazilian federal government. São Paulo’s mayor, Fernando Haddad, made similar comments at this year’s New Cities Summit. The Mexico City Legislative Assembly has launched the Wiki-Constitution platform in order to build support for a constitutional reform that would grant one of the world’s largest cities more autonomy.

It is difficult to envision the ideal political relationship between cities and nations for the 21st century. As Emma Green writes in The Atlantic:

Glocalism attempts a complicated dance, trying to tie policy to what happens in neighborhoods across the world but stopping short of cries to dissolve the United Nations. It’s still slightly unclear what lies between bike-shares and global revolution, but the theory is appealing, especially for Americans frustrated by Congressional gridlock. A subtle shift toward city-level leadership seems to be underway, and this may only be the beginning.

Whether Barber’s World Parliament of Mayors ultimately takes off, there are increasing opportunities for innovation to spread across cities including the World Conference of Mayors, the C40 Cities Group, Code for America, City Protocol, City SDK and last week’s CityLab, a networking event organized by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Aspen Institute, and Atlantic Cities.

The list of challenges facing cities in the 21st century — from rising rents to rising seas to rising inequality — is daunting. However, in our era of political cynicism, there was a refreshing can-do attitude that cities are up to the task. I came away convinced that, if democracy is going to be redefined in the 21st century, it’s going to happen first within cities.

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