5 Big Ideas To Make Cities Better

Take a look at the creative ideas–from Warsaw’s beacon system to help the blind to Lisbon’s plan to capture the kinetic energy of commuters–that could earn cities 5 million Euros for their urban innovations.

5 Big Ideas To Make Cities Better
[Image: Singapore via Shutterstock]

Barcelona thinks it can create a city-wide “trust network” to take care of elderly residents. Lisbon wants to turn kinetic energy from commuters into electricity for the city. Schaerbeek, a city in Belgium, hopes to use 3-D geothermal mapping to help residents conserve energy. These ideas are just a handful of the proposals from the 21 European cities selected as finalists in the Bloomberg Philanthropies latest Mayors Challenge.


In 2012, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced the first iteration of the Mayors Challenge: A call for U.S. cities with at least 30,000 residents to come up with innovative ideas addressing social issues, government accountability, economic problems, customer service, and more. Ultimately, Providence, Rhode Island beat out 20 finalists with Providence Talks, an early education initiative for kids in low-income households. Providence took home $5 million for its efforts.

This time around, Bloomberg Philanthropies challenged European cities with at least 100,000 residents to enter the competition, which has a grand prize of €5 million and four runner-up prizes of €1 million each. Below, check out some of our favorite finalists:

  • Schaerbeek, Belgium’s plan to use flyover and 3-D geothermal mapping technology to generate “personalized energy guides” for each home in in the city, and to offer an incentive system to motivate citizens to take action. The reasoning: Lots of people in Schaerbeek are dealing with high energy prices, but few are making energy-saving upgrades.
  • Warsaw, Poland’s Urban Information System for Visually Impaired–a proposal to make life easier for the blind and visually impaired by scattering thousands of beacons around the city. The beacons communicate with visually impaired users via mobile apps, helping them find their way.
  • Lisbon, Portugal’s plan to save energy by capturing kinetic energy from commuters and turning it into electricity.
  • An initiative from Kirklees, U.K., to deal with government budget cuts by leveraging unused local resources–everything from trucks to lawnmowers to human skills–and making them available for trading, borrowing, and time-banking on an online sharing platform.
  • Bologna, Italy’s proposal to address rampant youth unemployment by launching entrepreneurship training and skills-building initiatives in schools and youth centers, and by opening pop-up education labs to teach coding and related skills.

James Anderson, head of government innovation programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies, says that there are some distinctive patterns and themes in this year’s batch of finalists. “[The finalists] are less about government going it alone and more about government moving together with citizens and civil society,” he says. “There’s also a huge emphasis on making big data personal and showing the value of these technological advances in the lives of individual citizens.”

In Krakow, Poland, for example, the city is proposing a unified transit incentive program that will offer personalized incentives to citizens. And in London, the local government wants to leverage sensors, apps, and websites to help citizens track their health and assist the city in finding at-risk patients.

Major themes among the applicants include youth unemployment, energy efficiency (there was a bigger focus on this in the European entries than in the U.S. entries), obesity, economic growth, and social inclusion and aging.

The winner and runners-up of the competition won’t be announced until the fall. In June, all the finalists go to Ideas Camp–a two-day bootcamp in Berlin where cities are expected to strengthen their ideas. They continue to work with individual coaches until the end of July, when they re-submit their ideas for judging.


Bloomberg Philanthropies hasn’t yet decided whether it will launch another Mayors Challenge when this one ends. “We’re optimistic, but we haven’t made any plans,” says Anderson.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.