It is approaching dusk in São Paulo, and in the Auditorio Ibirapuera, a grand opera house set amid the sprawling Brazilian metropolis, mayors from around the world are crowding together, taking pictures of one another. In the middle stands Michael R. Bloomberg, the mayor of New York. He is a man who is used to people asking to have their picture taken with him, and he seems very glad to oblige. Time and again, he asks his longtime companion, Diana Taylor, who's wearing a khaki dress and a sweater tied smartly around her shoulders, to use each person's camera so he or she might carry home a digitized piece of him.
Bloomberg has come here for a summit held by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group—a global coalition of cities banded together like a mayoral Justice League devoted to stopping global warming. Bloomberg not only serves as chairman of C40; he has essentially taken charge of its funding through his own charitable foundation. In fact, even as New Yorkers have seemed to tire of their mayor as his third and final term slogs on, Bloomberg has found a warm and welcoming audience in C40. He delights in fielding questions about his city and the larger issues confronting America. Storms and tornadoes ravaged the Midwest in the weeks leading up to the summit in late May, and someone asks about the difference between the resulting devastation and Hurricane Katrina's. While describing the latter, which crippled New Orleans for a time, Bloomberg says it provided an opening for the city's school system to try something fresh. And he says it in a way that reflects his unnerving blend of arrogance and unsentimental intelligence. "In some cases, it was the best thing that happened," he says, "because in some cases it was a new beginning."
For some time now, observers have questioned whether Bloomberg—who brought unexpected innovation first to the world of financial information and then to the New York City mayor's office—has another new beginning left in him. By Forbes's account, he is the 30th richest person in the world, a politician whose ambitions for public office, by his own admission, have reached their end. Close advisers pressed him to run for president in the 2008 election, but as political analyst Larry Sabato recently pointed out, the idea of a Bloomberg 2012 bid, even as an independent, is "a complete nonstarter." It is also clear that Bloomberg will never return to the day-to-day machinations of the financial services and media company he built, Bloomberg LP. He's already been there, done that, and moved on.
So what comes next? For a man who made his fortune through the fluid dispersal of information, Bloomberg has always been reluctant to talk about himself. That fundamental contradiction is evident in his unwillingness to discuss his own future, publicly or privately. More than a dozen interviews with Bloomberg confidants, colleagues, and advisers—as well as a disarmingly intimate one with Bloomberg himself—reveal no professed master plan. Yet between the lines (and in the details of what he says he won't do), a vision of the Bloomberg of tomorrow can be glimpsed. The possibilities are vast when you're a self-made billionaire and world-renowned public figure. But true opportunities for impact and relevance are, it turns out, more limited.
On a white couch outside a conference room at the Sheraton in São Paulo, during a moment of private calm when the cameras stop clicking, I sit down with Bloomberg. He is dressed conservatively, in a blue suit and green tie, the look of a Wall Street master of the universe. He is relaxed, at ease away from the throngs of newspaper and TV reporters who incessantly press him about every controversial detail in the vast metropolis that is New York. We talk instead about big-picture issues, long-term challenges, and the opportunities that only someone in his position can address. "The public," Bloomberg says, "insists, and arguably has a right to insist, that it knows where its money's going. [They] have a very high expectation of results." He is talking about how the government spends its funds. "That is not the way innovation works. Innovation—the essence of innovation—is you don't know what you're going to build, what it's going to be called, how much it's going to cost. You cannot use public monies unless you can answer virtually every one of those questions, which is why government tends not to innovate. The public wants that accountability in advance, that justification in advance. But that's not going to work for certain things."
Among elected officials, Bloomberg makes clear, city mayors can have more freedom than most. "The mayor's job is very different from the chief executive's at higher levels—state, federal, county, however you want to put it," he remarks. "What state governments and federal governments do is reallocate funds. They take from the wealthy parts and use them in the less wealthy parts. But they don't have an awful lot of their own employees delivering services. And when they do, they tend not to be very efficient about it." He believes cities can do better and that mayors are in a particularly influential position. Throughout his South American trip, in fact, Bloomberg has been railing against national governments, casting them as unwieldy organizations that promote actual good but unwilling or unable to do it. At a press conference the day before, he declared, "It is not the mayor's job to survey the public and see whether or not the public thinks that climate change is something to worry about. It is the mayor's job to point out today—forget about 50 years from now—that our water is getting less pure, that our air is getting dirtier, that our congestion is getting worse. We're doing a lot of things that don't make any sense."
In Bloomberg's view, a better global future is a matter of urban innovation. In many respects, his belief rests on simple logic: When virtually all demographic projections for the coming decades assure us that the vast majority of humanity will soon reside in cities, it makes sense to conclude that our problems and solutions will reside there too. (According to the United Nations, by 2050 the global urban population will rise to about 6 billion, while the rural population will hover around 3 billion.) As Bloomberg sees it, urban innovation depends on mayors with both clear ambitions and autonomy. Also, improvement and measurement are often one and the same. New York, Bloomberg offers by way of example, is halfway to its goal of planting a million trees. The energy needed for air-conditioning has fallen after a citywide program to paint rooftops white, which can reduce energy costs for buildings by between 10% and 50%. He rattles off more facts: Crime has fallen, even with fewer police on the street. After being closed to traffic, Times Square is teeming with tourists at 11 p.m.
Bloomberg wants to activate cities as hubs of global change. And C40 is a perfect fit for him in that pursuit. Before Bloomberg, C40 was a well-meaning group founded with the help of Bill Clinton, with a skeletal staff and even scarcer resources. Its power remained largely symbolic. Bloomberg's ascension to chairman last year came with an influx of capital—$6 million annually from his foundation. Then, early this year, C40 absorbed the urban climate-change efforts of the Clinton Global Initiative. With Bloomberg's urging, World Bank president Bob Zoellick announced a financial commitment to cities that reduce carbon emissions through initiatives like cleaner public transport and retrofitting buildings. With C40, Bloomberg can guide like-minded mayors who he believes struggle with the same issues he faces in New York—and have the same kinds of opportunities. Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club and an ally of Bloomberg's, says he envisions Bloomberg "helping other mayors succeed by giving them a global voice that can compete with heads of state." Bloomberg is "almost a Greek city-state guy," Pope adds. "He believes cities are where you can make the most change. He's really the first urban global diplomat we've had."
In conversation in São Paulo, Bloomberg mentions in passing a recent announcement from General Electric about a new thin-film solar panel that reduces the cost of solar power to "not quite the cost of natural gas but almost." The significance, in his view, is that it would be "enough to start getting competitive, and you could generate a lot of energy within cities." Dependence on foreign energy sources—or state utilities—could be greatly diminished.
Eventually, would cities even need states?
If Bloomberg is styling himself for a future as urbanity's great ambassador, then he has much at his disposal to make that happen—in particular, his own foundation. Bloomberg has in the past remarked that he intends to distribute all of his money before he dies. As Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, explains, "If he's going to give his fortune away while he's alive, he'll be moving at a faster pace than Bill Gates [because he is older]. He'll have to shovel so much money out the door, it's ambitious."
Of course, ambition has never been one of Bloomberg's limitations. During our time in São Paulo, Bloomberg pulls a card from his wallet that he says he carries "just in case" anybody asks what his foundation is working on. There are five things written on the card, and he ticks them off one by one: "public health, the arts, government innovation, the environment, and education." Needless to say, that's a lot.
Last year, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Bloomberg ranked second among all Americans in total giving—donating $279.2 million to groups that include the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Metropolitan Opera Association. He has received high altruistic marks for this largess, but his philanthropic activities are surrounded by the kind of secrecy that has defined his life both in business and as mayor. "It's really hard to see the philosophical underpinnings of the grant giving," says Palmer. In the past, Bloomberg has been unwilling to specify how much he has given to each beneficiary or whether any conditions exist for the gifts. His family foundation on Manhattan's Upper East Side does not even have a publicized address.
What Bloomberg makes clear in our discussions, though, is that his foundation will play a major part in his future endeavors. "What our foundation's trying to do," Bloomberg explains to me, "is fund things nobody else is interested in. So smoking cessation—I've given [about] $65 million a year, with a six-year commitment. Smoking will kill a billion people this century. It's an enormous thing." His support of C40 is yet another example, one that may bear additional philanthropic fruit. In New York, he's used the mayor's office as a bully pulpit to help raise money for not-for-profits and he's also deployed the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City to garner millions from private donors for public projects the city can't afford on its own. (In mid-July, Bloomberg gave $24 million to five U.S. cities to help mayors create "Innovation Delivery Teams" that can deliver vital city services amid pressing financial circumstances.) "Private philanthropy cannot replace public expenditures on the big things," Bloomberg says. New York City's whole budget is about $66 billion annually. "Even Gates-Buffett doesn't give away that kind of money." On the other hand, he adds, private philanthropy can do some important, even radical, things.
Bloomberg seems almost eager to demonstrate that by marrying his vision of private-sector efficiency with philanthropy, he can eclipse the impact of Gates. "Nobody knows why people die in Africa," Bloomberg says. "There are no good statistics. We allocate a disproportionate amount of resources to certain diseases that catch the public's fancy. Dengue fever is not something on people's list. It kills a lot of people. Malaria is not something on people's list. It kills a lot of people. Why? Because there is no malaria in the Western world. We drained all the swamps, got rid of the mosquitoes, and so there's no malaria. But we've done nothing to cure it.
"Gates is working on insecticide-laced mosquito nets," Bloomberg continues. (Gates's foundation is also working on a malaria vaccine.) "It does save an enormous number of lives," Bloomberg says of the nets. "You use them, you don't get bit; if you don't get bit, kids in particular don't die from malaria. On the other hand, you're doing nothing to get rid of malaria." At the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, he says, "we're trying to build a better mosquito. Literally a mosquito that will drive out the old mosquitoes but does not carry the parasite. Whether it will work or not, I don't know. I've put well over $100 million into it so far. It has potential to change the world."
While Bloomberg may not become the biggest philanthropist in the world, he's set his sights on being the canniest and most effective.
For his entire life, in business and in politics, Bloomberg has been underestimated. In 1981, when Bloomberg left Salomon Brothers with a $10 million severance package, he was an undistinguished creature of Wall Street. But he thought he knew what traders needed: a single terminal to communicate with peers and access real-time data. The data had always been out there but never packaged in one place. The Bloomberg box was, as media analyst Alan Mutter describes it, "an iPhone for Wall Street." Bloomberg's genius, says Mutter, "is that he recognized this huge market. Those terminals well preceded the Internet, and they leveraged the best technology and the organization of information."
Thanks to the success of the terminal, Bloomberg amassed the means to finance his mayoral campaigns. Giving away those means, of course, will fuel his philanthropic future. What's more, even as he divests nation-leading sums, the size of his estate continues to swell. Bloomberg LP throws off considerable cash flow, producing $7 billion in annual revenue—85% of which is directly attributable to the terminal—with 300,000 users across the world. Dan Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor who now runs the LP, told employees last year that he expects company revenue to hit $10 billion by 2014. The LP's purchase of BusinessWeek in 2009—later renamed Bloomberg Businessweek—is gauged as much to enhance and expand the reputation of the company in halls of power as it is to earn revenue directly. Indeed, the prime beneficiaries are likely to be the core terminal business and the mayor himself, both of whose credibility and reach will expand if the magazine succeeds. (According to one well-placed source, it was Bloomberg who personally pushed for the BusinessWeek purchase, despite objections from other more financially oriented advisers.)
Then there are the LP's new and expanding web-based products for nontraders, particularly the Bloomberg Government site bgov.com. Launched a year ago and already boasting a staff of 260, BGov provides reporting and data on Washington, D.C., agencies and lobbyists, bureaucrats, and elected officials. The business is geared to both feed new info to terminal customers and sell direct subscriptions, which at $5,700 per year would yield about $300 million in revenue with 50,000 subscribers (the company will not disclose its target). BGov will also, of course, extend the reach, reputation, and influence of all things Bloomberg, especially Bloomberg himself, in our nation's capital.
So it may prove to be the case that in his third act as a public figure, Bloomberg will again beat expectations. Of Bloomberg's future, Kevin Sheekey, another former New York City deputy mayor who now works at the LP, says, "I've been very clear with him. I think being mayor holds him back from making greater changes across the world." Sheekey has no doubt that his boss will exert as much influence over the next 10 years as he did in the past 10. "I often think that when they write his obituary, they'll write as much about what he does after he leaves office as what he did before."
Perhaps. One of Bloomberg's most admirable characteristics is how he can make the solutions to intractable problems sound simple. Just one example that Bloomberg shared in São Paulo: He believes he can solve Detroit's problems "overnight." "And I can do it at zero cost to government," he adds. His idea is to give visas to qualified immigrants who are willing to live in Detroit for seven years. "Then they will become citizens. [They] have to agree not to take any money from the federal, state, or city government—any kind of aid whatsoever—because you don't want people to say, 'Oh, they're just here for welfare.'" As he sees it, the chance to become a citizen of America is still so valued across the world that talented, ambitious people would rush to populate Detroit. "They would create businesses. They would take these old houses and fix them up. They would create jobs."
Detroit aside, the problems Bloomberg will now face in his urban and philanthropic efforts (halting climate change, or curing malaria) are far more difficult than anything he has yet encountered. Lest we forget, Gates built a far larger company than the LP before embracing philanthropy, and he has found himself sometimes humbled by the challenges of the latter. And even some of Bloomberg's signature issues—such as smoking cessation—are thornier than he makes them out to be. As Melissa Berman, president and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (and herself a Bloomberg fan) points out, smoking cessation is a different issue beyond the boundaries of the five boroughs. You can work with local officials and post advertisements declaring cigarette smoke harmful. You can change the packaging for tobacco products. But to strike against smoking in the developing world, where cigarettes can be seen as a sign of affluence, takes a concerted, ongoing effort that might last a generation. "In the U.S., it took many years to convince people to wear a seat belt while driving a car," she remarks. "It's much more complicated than convincing people to take a vaccine for polio. When you're dealing with behavioral changes, there's a whole level of complications on the macro and the micro levels that you have to deal with."
Changing the world, as everyone knows, takes time. But then, that's another thing Mike Bloomberg disagrees with.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.