The Art of Changing a City

Antanas Mockus in the New York Times: “Between 1995 and 2003, I served two terms as mayor of Bogotá. Like most cities in the world, Colombia’s capital had a great many problems that needed fixing and few people believed they could be fixed.

As a professor of philosophy, I had little patience with conventional wisdom. When I was threatened by the leftist guerrilla group known as FARC, as hundreds of Colombian mayors were, I decided to wear a bulletproof vest. But mine had a hole cut in the shape of a heart over my chest. I wore that symbol of confidence, or defiance, for nine months.

Here’s what I learned: People respond to humor and playfulness from politicians. It’s the most powerful tool for change we have.

Bogotá’s traffic was chaotic and dangerous when I came to office. We decided the city needed a radical new approach to traffic safety. Among various strategies, we printed and distributed hundreds of thousands of “citizens’ cards,” which had a thumbs-up image on one side to flash at courteous drivers, and a thumbs-down on the other to express disapproval. Within a decade, traffic fatalities fell by more than half.

Another initiative in a small area of the city was to replace corrupt traffic police officers with mime artists. The idea was that instead of cops handing out tickets and pocketing fines, these performers would “police” drivers’ behavior by communicating with mime — for instance, pretending to be hurt or offended when a vehicle ignored the pedestrian right of way in a crosswalk. Could this system, which boiled down to publicly signaled approval or disapproval, really work?

We had plenty of skeptics. At a news conference, a journalist asked, “Can the mimes serve traffic fines?” That is legally impermissible, I answered. “Then it won’t work,” he declared.

But change is possible. People began to obey traffic signals and, for the first time, they respected crosswalks. Within months, I was able to dissolve the old, corrupt transit police force of about 1,800 officers, arranging with the national police service to replace them.


This illustrates another lesson we learned. It helps to develop short, pleasing experiences for people that generate stories of delightful surprise, moments of mutual admiration among citizens and the welcome challenge of understanding something new. But then you need to consolidate those stories with good statistical results obtained through cold, rational measurement. That creates a virtuous cycle, so that congenial new experiences lead to statistically documented improvements, and the documentation raises expectations for more welcome change.

The art of politics is a curious business. It combines, as no other profession or occupation does, rigorous reasoning, sincere emotions and extroverted body language, with what are sometimes painfully cold, slow and planned strategic interactions. It is about leading, but not directing: What people love most is when you write on the blackboard a risky first half of a sentence and then recognize their freedom to write the other half.

My main theoretical and practical concern has been how to use the force of social and moral regulation to obtain the rule of law. This entailed a fundamental respect for human lives, expressed in the dictum “Life is sacred.” My purpose was to create a cosmopolitan culture of citizenship in which expressions like “crimes against humanity” would find a precise operational meaning….(More)”