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When James Anderson arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel, in October 2014, the city was in the midst of an immigration crisis.
Tens of thousands of Africans, having fled the poverty and conflict of their native countries, now resided in the southern neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan. In less than a decade, the area’s population had grown fourfold, resulting in overcrowding, unemployment, and cultural rifts between some members of the migrant community and native Israelis.
“It was the opposite of vibrant city life,” Anderson, Bloomberg Philanthropies‘ head of government innovation programs, says tactfully, recalling a flea market set up inside a former bus depot as a particular bright spot of the trip.
City officials had ramped up trash collection and were maintaining the overloaded sewage system, but these kinds of measures only treated the symptoms. A couple of months later, Anderson invited Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai to join the new “i-team” program he had launched in 2012: Bloomberg Philanthropies would fund and coach a cross-disciplinary innovation squad (project manager, analysts, designer, etc.) for three years to help local officials address systemic issues.
Today, that once-depressing bus terminal has a kindergarten on one floor, a city-backed business accelerator on the next, and an international food market in the parking lot.
Since joining Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2010, Anderson has devised and led ambitious programs that have channeled more than $215 million to urban projects reaching 290 cities across 25 countries. They include the Mayors Challenge, which awards cash prizes to metro areas with the most forward-looking and potentially replicable plans to improve city life, and What Works Cities, which provides smaller cities with data-driven ways to improve services and planning.
Anderson continues to use data to guide problem-solving efforts, but he also recognizes that numbers alone cannot cure all of the uncomfortable realities of running a city: Mayors must admit it’s on them to find the answer.
“Cities can basically do anything except declare war and sign treaties, and that gives you a whole lot of room to rip and run,” says New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose i-team has managed to dramatically reduce the city’s murder rate and has sped up the process for getting permits and business licenses.