Mexico City – Ranking fourth in the world in terms of population, Mexico City stands geographically and socially divided. With a reputation for corruption and crime, it derives around eight per cent of its GDP (and rising) from the creative industries, with over half of its population under the age of 26.
This megalopolis is one of the world’s most exciting and progressive cities; passionately redefining itself to further individual and social freedom. So how does a government, chained by bureaucracy and shackled by poor public image shift from being an unbending, impenetrable beast to becoming agile and relevant? Enter Laboratorio para la Ciudad, Mexico City’s urban skunkworks and creative think-tank of the local government.
The lab is led by Gabriella Gómez Mont – previously a journalist, documentary film maker, experimental curator and visual artist – who has strong hopes that it will heal social divisions by harnessing the city’s youth and energy to improve civic life. The modus operandi is to assemble diverse minds and apply fresh approaches to frame and crack existing problems in new ways.
With mayoral support, Gómez Mont was charged in 2012 to propose a new type of city department that would support an urban experimental lab to harness diverse perspectives, applying them to real city problems. She recalls, ‘I’ve always worked in a multidisciplinary way but it was just related to the creative fields. This time, the challenge was trying to figure out what happens when you bring in scientists, city people and other disciplines into a conversation that was related to one of my biggest artistic desires: Mexico City itself.’
One of the most underutilised resources in a place like Mexico City is its citizen power
Today, Laboratorio para la Ciudad (which translates as ‘laboratory of the city’) is living up to its incipient dreams: to foster civic innovation by reimagining platforms where government and civic society can collaborate differently and harness urban creativity. With 54 per cent of the world’s population in cities (predicted to rise to almost 70 per cent by 2075), 90 per cent of the cities born now will be from emerging cities such as Mexico City, so the work here is profoundly important.
The lab applies creative methodologies – in the form of experiments – to thinking about the challenges and the possibilities of Mexico City. Every experiment always includes input from both government and citizens, along with people from different ministries and industries, as Gómez Mont explains, ‘we bring in fantastic people from different fields and we also bring different types of citizen talent to the discussion on the projects. We work with the premise that one of the most underutilised resources in a place like Mexico City is its citizen power.’
The lab becomes a facilitator, creating a link between government and civil society; being an experimental entity and working across so many different problems, possibilities and with so many options, the lab’s specialism itself is in exploring the gaps, ‘not necessarily a specialist in a certain subject but rather a specialist in methodologies, thinking about things from different objectives and figuring out what the gaps are and being able to explore that.’
On the one hand we expect governments to be very solid and sure-footed and on the other we often feel that they are behind the times
Home to a young, disciplinary team of about 20 people – made up of designers, artists, historians, journalists, urban geographers, artificial intelligence experts, international relationships, civic tech, social innovation, humanities and film makers, etc. who ‘try out different things and slightly quirky methodologies’ and ‘start conversations that are not necessarily happening in government’ – the lab is in a unique position to host such a varied audience.
As the team leader explains, ‘one of the conundrums I figured out quite quickly is that on the one hand we expect governments to be very solid and sure-footed and on the other hand we often feel that they are behind the times. There are possibilities out there, in academia or in companies, but they’re often very slow. So this is where the lab comes in. We are designed to be more agile and take risks – to let the government care about itself and the city to be able to experiment itself.’