The Bogot? Experiment

Bogot?, Columbia, circa 1995, was a city ‘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.’ Enter Antanas Mockus, an eccentric mathematician
and philosopher with no political experience just resigned from a
top tier professorship at Colombian National University. Looking
for a challenge, he finds it in politics, or, as he describes it,
being in charge of ‘a 6.5 million person classroom.’ Colombians
desperate for change and for a moral leader elect him as mayor,
thus beginning an uplifting chapter of Colombian history marked by
innovative creative leadership and inspired social change.

During his two terms as mayor of Bogot? (1995-97 and 2000-04)
his initiatives focused living standards and on the sanctity of
life, using creativity and humor. To encourage Colombians skeptical
of his ability to tackle the chaos and disorder of the city, he
publicly donned a superman costume and renamed himself
‘Supercitizen’. During a drought, Mockus appeared in a commercial
taking a shower and asking citizens to turn off the water as they
soaped –within two months, household water use was down 14% and is
now 40% less than before the shortage. In a now famous move, Mockus
hired 420 ‘traffic mimes’ to gently mock people who break traffic
laws.’ Traffic fatalities dropped by more than half, from an
average of 1,300/year to about 600.

Mockus says that ‘transforming Bogot?’s people and their sense
of civic culture was the key to solving many of the city’s
problems’. ‘Knowledge empowers people,’ he says. ‘If people know
the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they
are much more likely to accept change.’
Eliza Thomas

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