James Anderson, Head of Government Innovation at Bloomberg Philanthropies

American cities are in a unique and powerful position to uncover innovative, scalable, and impactful solutions to today's biggest concerns—including everything from homelessness and opioid addiction to climate change and mobility. And that's why, after successful runs in the United States, Europe, and Latin America & the Caribbean, Bloomberg Philanthropies' 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge returned to the U.S. last year: to empower the kind of optimistic and entrepreneurial problem-solving city leaders are ready to deliver.

But this year's Challenge asked cities to do more than find cutting-edge solutions to their biggest problems. We also asked them to work in ways that, for most local governments, are brand new. Rather than expect cities to have slam-dunk solutions from the start, we provided 35 finalists, or "Champion Cities," with coaching, funding, and six months to stretch their thinking, test their assumptions, and update their strategies based on what they learned.

Key to it all was a tool that just about every successful business uses but is virtually unknown in the public sector: prototyping. City staff sketched out how their ideas would work, built models, and even play-acted how new services would work, getting feedback from residents to refine and strengthen their strategies. The 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge may have been the largest public-sector experiment with prototyping in history.

As they tested their ideas with residents, some cities realized that the problems they identified weren't what they first thought. Others found that their solutions required significant pivots. All of them saw how, by inviting residents to shape ideas as they develop, they produced stronger policies and programs. The cities in this year's 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge have taken huge strides toward solving American cities' most pressing concerns. And in the process, as you'll see in the report that follows, they're helping revolutionize how cities around the world approach public problem-solving.


The Bloomberg Philanthropies' 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge is a competition that encourages city leaders to develop bold, new ideas that confront their toughest problems – and can be shared with other cities. Following successful competitions in the U.S. (2013), Europe (2014) and Latin America and the Caribbean (2016), the competition returned to the United States in 2018.

The 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge returned with a twist: a new incentive to help finalist cities become better public problem solvers. In March 2018, 35 Champion Cities were selected from a pool of more than 320 applications. Each Champion City received $100,000 and coaching to creatively test its new idea with residents. Nine Winning Cities then received $1 million each to bring their ideas to life. Read about the nine Winning Cities here.

The public sector is frequently stereotyped for its poor problem solving capacity because, unlike the private sector, local governments too seldom give themselves room to test bold, new ideas. But these extraordinary City Hall teams turned traditional methods on their head. Through the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge, they connected a top-down commitment to innovation with a determination to harness the expertise of residents, who have a firsthand understanding of the problems at hand because they deal with them every day.

This report spotlights the creative, next-generation approach these Champion Cities took to public problem solving – and invites everyone to learn from their experience.

Cities are facing complex challenges


of youth are not in school and have no more than a high school diploma.


of Americans feel that their local officals need to do more to address climate change.


of urban residents say that availability of affordable housing is a major problem in their local community.


of Americans believe there is 'not much' that ordinary citizens can do to influence our government.

Last year saw homelessness rise for the first time in seven years across the country.

Automation is predicted to displace millions of US jobs in the coming decades.

In 2017, America's death toll from drug overdoses was higher than all US military casualties in the Vietnam and Iraq wars combined.

in 3

black men born in 2001 will go to prison at some point in their lives.


of American adults report knowing someone who has been shot.

35 Bold Solutions

The 35 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge Champion Cities represented every region of the United States, and the topics they addressed offer a snapshot of the top challenges faced by U.S. leaders. Climate, Health, and Jobs emerged as the most popular topics as cities looked to uncover unique and effective ways to reduce carbon emissions and create renewable energy options, confront the opioid crisis, and prevent arrested youth from re-entering the criminal justice system. Scroll through the carousel below to see a description of the 35 Champion City ideas.

Austin, TX

Using Blockchain to Vouch for Identities of the Homeless


For the more than 7,000 people who experience homelessness in Austin, lack of ID can mean barriers to, or delays in, their access to housing, employment, and other services critical to dignity, support, and recovery.


Use blockchain technology to provide homeless residents with a unique identifier that allows them to access their personal records at any time, enabling access to critical services.

Boston, MA

Bringing Equity to Street Repairs


Because residents in some of Boston's neighborhoods use 311 up to twice as often as others do, repairing sidewalks based on 311 complaints would lead to inequities in city services and contribute to uneven outcomes in health, safety, and neighborhood vitality.


Bring equity to street repairs by looking beyond 311 data to better understand community need, street conditions, and usage.

Boulder, CO

Unlocking Access to Low Carbon Transport


More than half of low- and middle-income residents depend on fossil-fuel, single-occupancy vehicles — in large part because more efficient and shared mobility alternatives are prohibitively expensive or not easily accessible resulting in unequal access to innovative mobility solutions.


'Conduct multiple experiments – including ridesharing and subsidies – to determine the most effective way to improve low-income residents' mobility.

Cary, NC

Going Underground to Tackle the Opioid Epidemic


North Carolina has seen an 800 percent increase in lethal overdoses from opioids over the past decade, but lack of timely data is inhibiting public health efforts to solve the crisis.


Generate geo-localized opioid consumption data by measuring concentration of opioid metabolites in sewage to enable proactive interventions.

Charleston, SC

Tailored Alerts on Tidal Flooding


Sunny-day tidal flooding in Charleston is predicted to occur up to 180 days a year by 2040 and 75 percent of residents live in a designated flood zone, making it essential that the City learn to adapt to and coexist with water.


Develop a first-ever emergency alert system to prepare residents, businesses, and first responders with specifically tailored information about increasingly routine coastal floods.

Chelsea, MA

Reducing Crime with Preventative Care


The City's violent crime rate, the third highest in the state, directly affects 6,000 people in Chelsea each year and is driven largely by gangs and drug-related crimes.


Reduce crime by identifying those at-risk, and bringing community and government partners together to coordinate a swift response.

Cheyenne, WY

Matching Property Owners with Entrepreneurs to Spur Downtown Redevelopment


Economic decline has resulted in an increase in vacant and underutilized commercial buildings in Cheyenne's downtown, most directly impacting approximately 4,800 local residents.


Catalyze the City core's revitalization by matching owners of underutilized commercial properties with entrepreneurs, supported by creative redevelopment incentives.

Coral Gables, FL

Keep Critical Services Powered When Storms Hit


Like many cities, Coral Gables' ability to provide emergency services becomes vulnerable when power outages occur. In previous hurricanes, public safety facilities lost power for days, generators failed, and fuel became limited, risking lives.


Keep critical services, like 911, powered when storms hit by integrating solar-powered micro-grids that automatically prioritize them.

Danbury, CT

Incentivizing Entrepreneurs in Home-Based Childcare


For families living in Danbury, the lack of affordable childcare options means that almost 1,000 children are forced to attend unlicensed daycare facilities.


Help working parents access quality childcare by incentivizing and training individuals who want to establish home-based childcare businesses.

Denver, CO

Improving Air Quality in the Mile High City


Denver families spend an average of $3,100 a year on asthma-related medical costs, resulting in more than $30 million spent annually. Denver's high levels of air pollution exacerbate the problem.


Improve air quality by installing cutting-edge air-pollution sensors around schools that will provide data to inform the City's approach to making the air safer for all.

Detroit, MI

In-school Academy to Help Youth Stay on Track


Of the nation's largest school districts, Detroit has the highest rate of chronic absenteeism with 50% of public-school students regularly missing class, which, in turn, leads to high rates of long-term unemployment and poverty.


Increase short and long-term employability amongst Detroit's youth through professional and behavioral interventions targeting students at greatest risk of not being included in, or adequately connected to, the workforce.

Durham, NC

Encouraging Alternatives to Driving Downtown


The City's parking capacity and budget for street maintenance can't keep pace with residents' dependency on single-occupancy vehicles, negatively affecting more than 34,000 downtown employees and residents.


Work to get more drivers out of their cars and into alternative modes of transit by incentivizing behavior change, for example with prizes.

Elk Grove, CA

Making the Rental Housing Application Process Simple and Affordable


97 percent of the City's low-income residents pay more than 30 percent of their income in housing and are even more burdened, when it comes time to move, by the high cost of rental applications and a disjointed process.


Create a universal standardized rental application process that matches applicants with homes for which they meet the landlord's minimum requirements, such as salary and credit score, thus reducing the time, cost and effort needed to find housing.

Fort Collins, CO

Ushering Rental Housing into the Age of Efficiency


Nearly 50,000 of Fort Collins' low-to-moderate income residents live in energy-inefficient housing that perpetuates health and economic disparities in the community.


Work to make housing safer and more energy efficient for low-income renters by offering landlords a creative mix of low-cost financing, simplified underwriting, and pre-screened contractors.

Georgetown, TX

Leasing Rooftop Space to Solar-Power a City


While Georgetown is the first and largest city in Texas to secure 100 percent of its purchased power from renewable sources, there are cost uncertainty, reliability, and safety concerns related to transporting that energy over long distances.


Become the first energy-independent community in the country by partnering with residents to install solar panels and battery storage at their homes.

Grand Rapids, MI

Equipping City Leaders with Data on Inequality Hotspots


The lack of current, granular demographic data in Grand Rapids contributes to continued racial exclusion in policy decisions related to development, housing, health, employment, and environmental issues.


Annually collect, analyze, and share the results of a community census through a publicly-accessible dashboard, empowering city leaders with localized, actionable data on hotspots of inequality to help deploy health, housing, and other resources where they are most needed.

Hartford, CT

Using Gunshot Detection Technology to Support Traumatized Youth


Children who witness gun violence experience dangerous levels of traumatic stress, yet more than 76 percent who would benefit from treatment are never referred for diagnosis.


Deliver services to traumatized youth in real-time by using gunshot detection technology to identify children exposed to gun violence.

Huntington, WV

Tackling Compassion Fatigue for Huntington's Opioid Emergency Responders


Huntington's first responders face 10 times the national average of opioid overdoses resulting in feelings of depleted empathy, higher turnover, and less capacity to deliver high-quality care.


Support first responders on the front line of the opioid crisis by embedding mental healthcare professionals within emergency response departments, ensuring that first responders are able to give the best care possible to opioid users.

Ithaca, NY

One-stop Support in the Fight Against Drug Addiction


Local overdose rates have increased 1,000 percent over the past 10 years—and overdose victims are too often being swept into the criminal justice system, despite research showing that community-based programs produce better outcomes.


Adapt a proven drug policy strategy through the development of a one-stop-shop where people who use drugs can access coordinated services – ranging from harm-reducing treatment and a supervised injection facility to medical services and job training.

Lafayette, LA

Citizen-Centered Disaster Preparedness in Lafayette


A devastating 2016 flood left approximately one third of the Parish's land mass under water. Local government is now addressing water management and drainage concerns head on, but government can't do it alone. Real preparedness and resiliency requires participation from the entire community.


Maximise citizen participation in the City's water management program, using incentives to generate individual ownership and accountability for watershed improvements.

Lincoln, NE

Self-Driving Micro-Transit System to Reduce Downtown Congestion


Downtown transportation dynamics in Lincoln have changed, making costly last-mile transportation difficult. Future economic development is hampered by expensive parking constructions costs. Parking spaces also take valuable space out of commericial, residential and entertainment uses.


Reduce downtown traffic congestion and improving air quality by establishing an on-demand autonomous vehicle service.

Los Angeles, CA

Tackling Homelessness One Small Dwelling at a Time


Homelessness, in LA experienced a 20 percent rise last year and, on any given night, more than 28,000 Angelenos, go to sleep without a roof over their heads.


Develop a new way for residents to help solve the City's homelessness crisis by building additional units of housing on their property and renting them to Angelenos who are homeless or at risk of homelessness for an agreed upon period of time.

Louisville/Jefferson County Metro, KY

Deploying Drones to Help Police Officers Investigate Crime


Homicides have nearly doubled over the ten-year average, resulting in 100 lives lost annually and less economic development in distressed neighborhoods.


Help first responders save time and save lives by deploying drones to detect gunshot locations and identify the injured.

Miami/Miami Beach, FL

Predicting and Responding to Rising Sea Levels


Miami and Miami beach are vulnerable to flooding. Faced with sea level rise, people are uncertain of immediate and long-term solutions to stay safe. Previous tools highlight the risk but fail to include adaptations and solutions.


Predict and respond to rising sea levels by analyzing all relevant data and sharing the results on an open platform.

Moreno Valley, CA

Teaching New Skills, Building Stronger Families


For the majority of residents, formal education and career training stopped at high school, creating a barrier to advancement into positions with higher wages and greater opportunity.


Incentivize and support working adults to pursue education and technical training, allowing them to overcome the "earn vs. learn" dilemma and advance their skills while still providing for their families.

New Rochelle, NY

Imagining—and then Building—a Better City


Private developers too often steer plans for new development because cities and their public stakeholders lack advanced tools to help them efficiently envision and evaluate their options.


Improve development projects by using virtual reality technology to clearly present plans for new buildings and public spaces to residents.

Oklahoma City, OK

Putting Nonviolent Offenders Back on Track


Nearly 77 percent of the inmates in the county's overcrowded jail are nonviolent offenders whose crimes might be better addressed through mental health and community services.


Prevent incarceration and reduce recidivism for nonviolent offenders by integrating crime, health, and social service data to target appropriate interventions.

Philadelphia, PA

Child-Centered Solutions for Philadelphia's Youth Offenders


Arrested youth — 2,774 last year — are held in district holding cells designed for adults, and police are not equipped to mitigate the resulting trauma or provide appropriate social services.


Work to make the justice system less traumatic for young people under 18 by creating new facilities specifically designed to address trauma and connect kids with resources rather than sending them to regular police stations.

Phoenix, AZ

Holistic Management of Urban Heat


Increasing urban heat threatens the health and well-being of vulnerable residents in Phoenix – the hottest major city in the U.S – as well as its longterm economic viability, yet the City lacks a cohesive strategy to address this major risk.


Create a first-of-its-kind HeatReady program (like programs developed for storms) to enable local governments to holistically manage how they identify, prepare for, mitigate, track, and respond to the dangers of urban heat.

Pittsburgh, PA

Bringing Housing Stock up to Scratch with Collaborative Energy Retrofits


An aging and inefficient housing stock has made Pittsburgh the sixth worst city in the country for residential energy burden; resulting in its residents spending more than double the national average on utility bills.


Bring the housing stock up to scratch with collaborative energy retrofits by offering customized incentives and reducing costs through neighborhood group purchasing.

Princeton, NJ

Reducing Food Waste in Princeton


Almost 25 percent of Mercer County trash is food and organic waste, which produces abundant methane when left to decompose in the landfill.


Use behavioral science to develop interventions to reduce food waste, and install a local food digester to turn the waste into compost for local farms, keeping organics out of landfills and reducing methane gas emissions.

South Bend, IN

Providing Affordable, Reliable Transport for Low-income Workers


The lack of reliable, affordable transportation is a primary barrier to finding and maintaining employment for approximately 10,000 South Bend residents.


Help low-income and part-time workers with unreliable transport options commute to their jobs by partnering with ride-share companies and employers, who will help offset the cost.

Vallejo, CA

Clever Technology to Mind an Aging Infrastructure


Vallejo needs $1 billion in underground infrastructure repairs, including hundreds of thousands of dollars to identify broken pipes.


Reducing the cost of managing an ageing infrastructure by using ground-penetrating radar and data analysis to identify broken pipes more efficiently.

Washington, DC

Integrating Citizen Feedback into City Hall Decision-making


In Washington, D.C., government leaders lack an easily accessible tool that will improve their responsiveness to the City's nearly 700,000 residents.


Create a dedicated team within the current government structure that will support all city agencies in routinely conducting smart, sophisticated surveys that regularly integrate residential feedback into key decision-making processes.

What do these challenges look like on the ground in cities?

Gun Violence: Community Voices Inspire Action
Hartford, CT

Two years ago, Thea Montañez of Hartford, CT, got a telephone call she will never forget – from the mother of a son who had been murdered.

Marcia Brown called Montañez, chief of staff to Mayor Luke Bronin, out of desperation. Her son's shooting had, at that point, remained unsolved for nearly a year. She wanted to know if City Hall could help. Montañez became Brown's point of contact with the City, and the two began to talk regularly. Montañez shared in her grief, raised funds for her son's children, and cultivated a relationship with the family.

"I kept saying, 'I'm sorry,' which felt so pathetic," Montañez said, adding that one day it dawned on her to try something different. "I walked into the Mayor's office and said, 'We have to do something about gun violence – we have to figure this out.'"

It was perfect timing. Hartford was deciding which problem to tackle as part of the just-announced 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge. "The ideas really ran the gamut," Montañez said. "All were big and important issues, but none really inspired or resonated with me." After she proposed taking on gun violence, the City focused its application around finding new ways to help the 22,000 children who suffer the trauma of witnessing gun violence in their community, especially the large majority that don't receive any tailored care.

This summer, as Hartford fine-tuned and tested its 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge idea, Montañez told Brown that the City's work had been inspired by the memory of her son. "She gasped – she was shocked," Montañez said. "It really meant a lot to her that something positive could come out of her experience."

"Understanding these direct experiences really inform our work," Montañez continued. "It's why we do what we do."

Thea Montañez
Chief of Staff

Youth Employment: City And Residents Join Forces To Understand The Barriers
Detroit, MI

During the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge, the Detroit team ran a test at a local high school to match young people with potential employers. One young man showed up five minutes late for his interview. Certain that he'd ruined his chances of getting the job, he retreated to the bathroom, crumpled up his resumé, and threw it in the trash.

Jason Lee is the executive director of Grow Detroit's Young Talent, a City program that CTects youth with paid summer jobs. He encouraged the young man to go through with the interview anyway.

"I tried to boost his confidence," Lee said. "We took his resumé out of the trash can and made new copies for him to hand out." With a renewed sense of self-assurance, and an uncrumpled resumé, the young man sat for the interview – and got the job.

This encounter changed the Detroit team's thinking. Boosting career skills for youth had always been a core component of their 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge idea. But they hadn't considered the importance of emotional skills, such as resilience and conflict resolution.

"Talking about that young man's frame of mind – what he must have been thinking and feeling when he came in late – was really an 'a-ha' moment for us," said Nicole Sherard-Freeman, a member of the Detroit team and CEO of Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation, which connects local employers with workers.

"That experience gave us a way to articulate a problem that had previously been intangible."

Jason Lee
Executive Director of Grow Detroit's Young Talent

Climate Change: Residents Step Forward To Drive Solutions
Lafayette, LA

Stephanie Weeks had always carried flood insurance on her home in Lafayette, LA, even though it wasn't required where she lived. But after her husband lost his job in 2016, her family had to drop the $400-a-month expense. The timing couldn't have been worse: A few months later, historic rainfall dumped nearly two feet of water on the City, causing catastrophic floods.

Weeks' home was destroyed. "We took on about a foot of water – we had to pile our belongings up close to the ceiling," she recalled. "I just sat there with my sons watching as the water came in. We had nowhere to go." The family was able to fix damage to the house, but the flood changed Weeks on a personal level.

"After the flood, I needed to find out how this happened, why this happened, and how I could do something to ensure it never happens again." A real estate agent at the time, Weeks changed careers, taking a job in City Hall as the floodplain administrator. That's how she became part of Lafayette's 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge team.

Weeks' experiences were a significant asset to the teams' thinking. After the 2016 floods, public conversation in Lafayette had been focused on one question: What is the government going to do about flooding? But the City, inspired by Weeks' own proactive response to the floods, wanted to also find out if other residents were willing to be part of the solution. Through testing, they found that many residents were strongly motivated to help build the City's resilience to flooding.

And having deepened their understanding of residents' motivations, the City designed an intervention that could inspire collective action.

About this report

This report is a reflection of the experience of the 35 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge Champion Cities, developed with the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies' partner FutureGov. The examples and insights have been drawn from more than 100 hours of interviews with the City teams, their coaches, City residents, and experts. The report also draws on surveys, site visits, and more than 700 pages of 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge applications, which outlined each city's idea, the way they tested the idea with residents, and the targeted impact.

The report is divided into three chapters, each of which includes description of work in a city, best-practice examples, collective insights, and interviews with civic-innovation experts. It can be read from start to finish, left to right, or dipped in and out of, depending on your interest.

Whether you work in City government, work with City governments, or are part of the growing civic-design community, there's something here for you – including both insight and inspiration. The report illustrates the importance and value in engaging residents to both define problem and co-create solutions, outlines strategies and advice on prototyping ideas, and then provides examples of how to best cultivate a culture of innovation within an organization.