Solutions That Work. By Design

In the mid 1990’s, the war torn, drug ridden and corrupt city of Bogotá, Columbia, was described by its own citizens as a living hell: an anarchy of drive-by shootings, road rage, suicidal pedestrians, pollution, a corrupt police force and a youth destined to criminality. It was ranked as one of the highest risk cities in the world. Tourists were advised not to travel there. Traffic deaths alone, caused by carjackings coupled with a universal disregard for traffic lights abetted by the blind eye of corrupt cops, topped 1,500 a year. 

What could possibly have compelled Antanas Mockus, a midlife mathematician, philosopher and university dean to seek its mayoralty? Exasperated with citizen apathy, chaos and the decline in civil society, this scholar-cum-politician donned a “Super Citizen” comic strip hero costume and campaigned on the slogan “Arm yourself with love”. And he won. The first thing he did upon entering office was to “bring in the clowns”. He closed down the corrupt 2,000 plus transit police force and replaced it with….mimes.

Sporting grey pinstripe slacks, white shirts, black suspenders and oversized gold lamé bowties, these newly minted “officers” assumed their authority governing both pedestrian and vehicular traffic.  Encouraged by the antics of the chalk faced mimics, passer-bys booed when a motorist ran a red light and cheered when a “Correcto” banner was flashed, acknowledging  good conduct. "It was a pacifist counterweight," Mockus said. "With neither words nor weapons, the mimes were doubly unarmed. My goal was to show the importance of cultural regulations." 

He painted shooting stars on the pavement at every spot where someone had been killed – making people think twice before jumping into a busy intersection. And he distributed hundreds of thousands of flash cards with a white thumbs up on one side and a red thumbs down on the other. Citizens could signal their approval or disapproval of each others’ behaviors, in effect “self-regulating”, again in a non-violent way. Policy makers, take note. In the first year, traffic deaths dropped by fifty per cent.

Mockus’ leadership approach is to tackle corruption by igniting the community’s anima to counteract apathy, to create and foster what he calls a cultura ciudadana – a “citizenship culture”. And his design principle is based on interventions that marry legal, moral, and cultural norms. He believes that given the option, most people will do the right thing. What was unusual was to introduce art into an equation that conventionally includes only legal sanctions and economic investment. And here, we define “art” as John Dewey would by asking not only “What is art?” but “When is art?” This expands the notion of art to encompass a product and a work, a creation and the experiencing of that creation. Art thus demands intentionality on the part of the creator, or the maker, which in turn produces an appreciation in the one who experiences it.  A central dynamic in this aesthetic experience is reciprocity.

Is Mockus an artist? He would say no. He prefers to see himself as a pedagogue and his city as a large classroom. He would simply acknowledge that he had very little time to accomplish a specific objective, to address a societal problem that had reached crisis proportions. Yet like an artist, a la Dewey, through the subtlety of metaphor and the element of surprise, he provided a space into which the citizen was invited to enter, to participate. He understood the transformational power of the aesthetic experience that is achieved through an intervention or activity that is “artistic” in nature and how art “enlarges the repertoire of conceivable actions”.

A Fresh Approach to Leadership

What this example offers is a fresh perspective on leadership, which has historically been as difficult to define as art.  Leadership has been summarized by Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership’s Dean Williams as an adaptive process or activity of mobilizing people to confront and address problematic realities, engage in learning, and create what is needed in order to improve the human condition or make things better. The first criterion for successful leadership lies in properly diagnosing the problem; the second in the design of the intervention. What if….an aesthetic experience were added, methodically, by design, to the leader’s development and policy toolkit, to help her see the problem in new ways and from different perspectives? What if…. leaders understood better how artistic interventions affect personal and elective engagements with the world? What if…the arts were added to politics and economics as a necessary field for promoting positive social change?