Innovation labs have become de rigueur for many city governments, but Mexico City’s Lab for the City (Laboratorio para la Ciudad) was one of the first and it cut a unique figure—putting design and creativity at the center of urban innovation and expanding upon the role of government in society. The Lab, led by artist Gabriella Gomez-Mont, had a multi-disciplinary staff who set out to create and moderate new spaces (whether physical, virtual or political) where difficult issues could be discussed, new ideas could surface, and new tools could be developed and tested. (It closed in December 2018 after city leadership changed.)
Governments are inherently risk-averse—and rightly so, given the fact that millions of people rely on their essential services. To ensure that ‘disruption’ does not happen, institutions erect rigid bureaucracies with clear lines of authority and detailed rules and procedures. It is not surprising, then, that would-be innovators find it difficult to respond nimbly to rapidly changing economic, social and technological realities through experimentation and collaboration. Instead they may encounter legal prohibitions, turf wars, resistance to change and large gaps in communication—qualities that erode staff morale and public trust and contribute to perceptions that democratic government is not fit for purpose in the 21st century.
"The Lab assures that Mexico City residents have the right to be part of policymaking."
Gabriella Gomez-Mont, Director,
Lab for the City
How’d They Do It?
In 2013, Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera asked artist and filmmaker Gabriella Gomez-Mont to create a new city department. She created Lab for the City (Laboratorio para la Ciudad) as an experimental think tank inspired by the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston. Most of the Lab’s early staff was under the age of 30 and had never worked in government before, although most had been involved in some kind of community work or civic activism. This creative outsider lens gave the Lab a unique profile among city innovation offices.
The Lab was a creative office within government that worked the gaps between urban, political, social and cultural issues and looked for productive ways to ‘disrupt’ the status quo. This meant facilitating connections between siloed departments within the government, as well as opening a space for civil society to engage—recognizing that activists have plenty of interest in urban issues but limited (if any) interest in government.
It played a lead role in expanding the concept of what government can and should do—looking beyond service provision toward a convening and mediating role for society at large. As an active manager of a new civic commons, Lab staff worked to reduce tensions, to offer ‘translation’ services between different communities or professions, and to develop new urban languages and political forms.
In short, the Lab played the role of the artist--challenging people to see in new ways, speak with new tongues, and create new forms together.
The Lab had 20 staff members as of mid-2017, with a notably diverse palette of backgrounds: political scientists, social scientists, civic technologists, artists, designers, activists and historians. They reported directly to the Mayor’s Office. The city paid staff salaries, but the bulk of the Lab’s funding came from foundations, including Hewlett and Omidyar.
Strategy & Tactics: How They Work
The Lab’s early projects often injected art and design into civic spaces, and the Lab maintained a focus on design thinking and engaging designers in civic problems. But the Lab also came to serve as a more general commons where the Mayor’s Office could send (a) problems or ideas without an obvious home or starting place—including those that are complex, interdisciplinary, daunting or simply uncharted—or (b) problems or ideas which have fallen through the gaps between government departments. The Lab was a place where these issues could be approached thoughtfully, creatively, and with broad participation.
Once the Lab took on (or was tasked with) tackling a particular issue, it started a conversation, bringing in stakeholders early and working alongside them as they navigated whatever ideation, design and implementation phases are necessary. The Lab also created or entered partnerships to tackle specific policy issues, including a partnership with Code for America to support six programmers who created apps for city agencies. Its ‘rooftop conversations’ (so named because the Lab’s office was an airy space on the roof of a city building) launched policy dialogues on creative industries, water management, mobility, politics and more.
The Lab played a lead role in a wide range of projects, including:
- Crowd-sourcing a constitution
- Digital debate
- Open Contracting
- Design for the City: a guild for civic-focused designers
- Pedestrian City design challenge
- Playful City: games as catalysts for urban experiences (see Juguetetes Urbanos)
- Peatoniños: turning streets over to children’s play
A working-group model was used frequently, and the Lab strived to share ‘joint custody of the kids’ as much as possible, meaning that the agencies or organizations represented in the working group are just as proud and boastful of results as the Lab was.
How’s It Going?
- Seeding an ecosystem. As of mid-2017, 3,000 government officials had passed through Lab trainings, and six coders and volunteers had been placed with various ministries through a partnership with Code for America. This has created, from scratch, a distributed civic-technology ecosystem within city government.
- Opening and leveraging data. When the Lab was born, Mexico City government was a completely closed information space in which civil servants could be held personally liable for any misuse or disclosure of data by third parties. The Lab worked with the mayor to adopt open-data policies and began hosting a Data Fest, which doubled in size from the first to second year. Recognizing that the city also needed to build an apparatus for data-driven policymaking, the Lab developed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with five academic institutions to make use of the vast wealth of information held by city government. “Can you imagine the information that is locked up there?,” Gomez-Mont said. Projects included creating a ‘digital health file’ for citizens.
- First among equals. As one of the first innovation labs housed inside a Latin American government, LabCDMX forged a path for others to follow. As of May 2018 there were at least nine city innovation labs, part of a larger movement to embed innovation and agility within all spheres of government. In 2016 this rich field allowed the Inter-American Development Bank to examine Latin American labs to identify key factors for success in driving the adoption and scaling of innovations on central issues.
- Finding passionate people. A key challenge has been finding and matching the right people to projects, knowing that an emotional connection to a subject makes all the difference. “We believe what drives more organic work is the passion and desire of the team members,” Gomez-Mont said. The Lab’s challenges included designing better incentives for city employees to engage with its initiatives, and reaching employees who feel isolated within the bureaucracy.
- Managing expectations. The Lab had 20 creative people, working in an institution employing 240,000 people, in a metropolitan area of over 20 million people. What could they reasonably achieve? One common expectation of innovation labs is that they should serve as R&D shops, with the flexibility and risk tolerance to hatch ideas, design new programs or build and test products which are then mainstreamed across government. But even if product generation is the explicit goal, disseminating innovations is neither simple nor automatic, and it often depends on building person-to-person relationships of trust. This relationship-building is the real work of many government innovation labs, and the Laboratorio excelled at it. In results-focused political environments, however, it may not be enough to win over skeptics and critics who expect to see new programs and products spinning off regularly. Therefore, labs must communicate and manage expectations about outcomes while continually cultivating relationships with supporters.
- Surviving changes. The Lab is one of several first-generation innovation units which did not survive a change in political administration. Being closely linked with a powerful political figure can make a lab effective, but it comes with risks to the project’s long-term sustainability.