I guess it was a bit pie-in-the-sky to expect that some new story would come along to pair with this piece I’ve been sitting on for a few weeks now. Sadly, the serendipitous news gods are not inclined to grace me in this way, so I will present it without context. This is just a really really cool thing to do:
Antanas Mockus had just resigned from the top job of Colombian National University. A mathematician and philosopher, Mockus looked around for another big challenge and found it: to be in charge of, as he describes it, “a 6.5 million person classroom.”
Mockus, who had no political experience, ran for mayor of Bogotá; he was successful mainly because people in Colombia’s capital city saw him as an honest guy. With an educator’s inventiveness, Mockus turned Bogotá into a social experiment just as the city was choked with violence, lawless traffic, corruption, and gangs of street children who mugged and stole. It was a city perceived by some to be on the verge of chaos.
People were desperate for a change, for a moral leader of some sort. The eccentric Mockus, who communicates through symbols, humor, and metaphors, filled the role. When many hated the disordered and disorderly city of Bogotá, he wore a Superman costume and acted as a superhero called “Supercitizen.” People laughed at Mockus’ antics, but the laughter began to break the ice of their extreme skepticism.
Basically, this guy trolled his whole city for their own benefit. By instituting weird policies, he actually achieved some pretty impressive results. I am a big proponent of “trying stuff out” when facing an intractable problem like crime or poverty. No apparent solutions? Everything you’ve tried has failed? Try something else. Try something ridiculous. Try something really cool:
The fact that he was seen as an unusual leader gave the new mayor the opportunity to try extraordinary things, such as hiring 420 mimes to control traffic in Bogotá’s chaotic and dangerous streets. He launched a “Night for Women” and asked the city’s men to stay home in the evening and care for the children; 700,000 women went out on the first of three nights that Mockus dedicated to them.
When there was a water shortage, Mockus appeared on TV programs taking a shower and turning off the water as he soaped, asking his fellow citizens to do the same. In just two months people were using 14 percent less water, a savings that increased when people realized how much money they were also saving because of economic incentives approved by Mockus; water use is now 40 percent less than before the shortage.
He also asked people to pay 10 percent extra in voluntary taxes. To the surprise of many, 63,000 people voluntarily paid the extra taxes. A dramatic indicator of the shift in the attitude of “Bogotanos” during Mockus’ tenure is that, in 2002, the city collected more than three times the revenues it had garnered in 1990.
Voluntary taxes? Televised showers? City-wide ‘ladies nights’? I love this guy’s brain, and wish to set up a hammock in it.
Anyway, read the whole thing. I am sadly unable to put it to work in the service of a larger point, but it’s a really cool story.
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