Virtual realities: How cities are moving into the metaverse and beyond

The “metaverse” is on its way to being a $800-billion industry by 2024, with tech giants like Facebook and Microsoft making big bets that more people will want to spend more time in virtual environments that exist only online. Now, local leaders are charging into this frontier as well, in search of use cases that go beyond gaming and fantasy. A growing number of cities are testing ways that immersive experiences via the metaverse, virtual reality, and simulated cities known as “digital twins” can engage residents in new ways. 

Virtual realities: How cities are moving into the metaverse and beyond

Originally published on 18 May 2022 by Bloomberg Cities Network 

To build programs and services that work, city leaders know they must engage residents to understand their perspectives. Soon, they may need to engage residents’ avatars, as well.

The “metaverse” is on its way to being a $800-billion industry by 2024, with tech giants like Facebook and Microsoft making big bets that more people will want to spend more time in virtual environments that exist only online.

Now, local leaders are charging into this frontier as well, in search of use cases that go beyond gaming and fantasy. A growing number of cities are testing ways that immersive experiences via the metaverse, virtual reality, and simulated cities known as “digital twins” can engage residents in new ways. What the pioneers are finding is that virtual worlds can have very real-world implications for how they lead their cities, solve problems, and serve residents.

As the National League of Cities explained in a recent report: “Because the metaverse is still being defined, there are endless possibilities as to how it may benefit cities…. As the technology evolves, city leaders have an exciting opportunity to play a part in how the metaverse comes to be.” 

Seoul- metaverse

A rendering of an avatar of a citizen accessing a city service in Seoul's metaverse. Photo: Seoul Metropolitan Government.

One city to watch is Seoul, which is the first city to announce plans to deliver residents services via a metaverse platform. When “Metaverse Seoul” launches later this year, residents will be able to put on a virtual-reality headset and see a 3D rendering of City Hall and the plaza in front of it. From there, they will be able to interact with virtual versions of all areas of Seoul’s city administration. 

The metaverse is an immersive virtual world, where people can interact with each other via digital representations of themselves known as avatars. In Metaverse Seoul, avatars will be able to get tax counseling, request public documents, or secure business permits. Accessing city services this way won’t appeal to everybody, of course. But city leaders hope that young people—normally a hard demographic to reach—will find it an appealing front door to services such as career counseling. 

Metaverse alternative realities Definitions

“Sometimes young people are hesitant to go talk to the counselor due to social pressures and physical distances,” explains Youngmi Lee, head of the Metaverse team in the Seoul Metropolitan Government. “But young people can easily go into the metaverse platform and talk to an avatar, who is a professional, to get proper advice.”

Metaverse Seoul is being built by a public-private partnership consisting of more than 700 metaverse-related companies, South Korea’s central government, and local governments across the country, who also will gain access to the technology. Seoul plans to open its metaverse platform to the public by October and has a four-year roll out plan.

As they build it, city leaders are co-designing the platform with residents by allowing them to vote on features they want to see in the metaverse. Seoul piloted the platform recently during a New Year’s Eve celebration, where in-person participation was limited due to COVID-19 restrictions. About 1,600 avatars participated in various cultural activities, including 300 who rang in the new year in a metaverse version of a traditional bell-ringing ceremony. 

While the Seoul team was pleased with the results of the pilot, the experience got them thinking about the rules of engagement between residents on the platform. Online bullying and bad behavior has been a problem in some metaverse gaming applications; Seoul doesn’t want to see similar problems arise. “Before we fully open our platform to the public,” Lee says, “we are going to establish the user guidelines about how to behave and respect others in the platform.”

Lee also is thinking about how to make the platform user-friendly for all residents. “One of the other things that we realized was that a metaverse as a platform could be hard to use by socially vulnerable people and people with disabilities,” Lee says. “Along with developing the metaverse services, we are also going to invest in providing digital-equity programs such as providing digital education, targeting the elderly, and providing smartphones to marginalized groups. And within the metaverse platform, there is going to be a space for citizens to teach themselves and each other how to use the metaverse.” 

Envisioning change

As local leaders ponder this future, another big opportunity area is in engaging people who don’t normally show up at council hearings or read planning documents. It’s not only possible that cities could get more residents involved in decision making this way, but technology may also enable residents to provide more valuable feedback.

That’s what city leaders in New Rochelle, N.Y., have in mind as they integrate virtual reality into the pre-development public engagement process. They’re focused on a problem that almost every city faces: When city leaders or developers propose new construction, residents find it difficult to visualize what changes in their communities will look like based on drawings. As a result, their feedback is less effective than it could be. 

Two people, outdoors. Person on right is conversing with person on left, who is wearing virtual reality goggles.

New Rochelle, N.Y., has been using virtual reality technology to better engage residents in the development planning process. Photo: City of New Rochelle.

New Rochelle, a winner in the 2018 Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, is using virtual reality to change that dynamic. The city has built a virtual-reality platform called NRVR, where residents can see in a more life-like way what proposed changes in the built environment will really feel like. Unlike Seoul’s metaverse platform—which will be open, shared publicly, and cover multiple areas of city services—New Rochelle’s virtual-reality platform is more limited to envisioning specific projects the city is undertaking. 

“A lot of folks have some trouble understanding via the traditional tools what is going to happen in a redevelopment project", says Adam Salgado, commissioner of development for New Rochelle. “They understand conceptually what you show them, but it's another thing to understand what the space is going to feel like, how it's going to function, and how they're going to interact with it.” 

An early use case is the city’s plans to transform a six-lane highway into a network of “complete streets” and create a linear park similar to New York City’s High Line. To solicit feedback, city leaders have gone out to public events such as the city’s jazz fest, Black History Month activities, and the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, and given residents the chance to wear a virtual-reality headset that makes them feel like they are standing in the middle of the redesigned space. About 250 residents have participated—offering specific feedback about how the highway transformation can make space for live events and cultural activations, while continuing to accommodate some amount of vehicular traffic.

Salgado is encouraged by the texture of the feedback residents are offering through these interactions. In most cases, residents at the kiosks are learning about the highway transformation project for the very first time. Salgado sees that as a plus: It means that a wider circle of residents are offering feedback than the regulars who normally show up at public hearings. “We’re capturing the younger set of eyes and opinions,” he says. “It’s been great for us to get that energy.” 

Informing future choices

In Wellington, New Zealand, city leaders think a digital twin can help engage residents around tough choices ahead related to climate change.

Wellington, New Zealand

The city of Wellington in New Zealand is scaling a digital twin to help respond to the challenges of climate change. Photo: Ethan Sheaf-Morrison

A digital twin is a realistic replica of an existing environment that policymakers and the public alike can access via a computer or tablet. What makes it particularly powerful is that the model can be updated in real time as the real environment changes. It also can draw on historical data to show what the city used to be like or project how the city of the future will appear under different scenarios. 

Wellington thinks this technology will be useful in helping residents and decision makers alike understand the expected impacts of rising sea levels and more extreme weather events. The city’s idea to significantly expand its existing digital twin—in order to help residents more easily grasp and respond to a sometimes distant-feeling crisis—won $1 million in this year’s Bloomberg Philanthropies Global Mayors Challenge

“This project is about weaving together our digital-city model and technology with climate change adaptation planning,” explains Julia Hamilton, team leader of digital innovation for the city. “The long-term goal for this work is that our decisions around climate change adaptation are informed by community priorities.” 

Getting there will require that the city first ensure that the tool is available to all residents—including those in coastal areas and Wellington’s indigenous populations—and to entities that invest in infrastructure. Part of that process, Hamilton says, is making an easy-to-use interface and coming up with ways that people without Internet access can still use the tool.  

Another critical component that city leaders are still designing is how they can use the tool to spark two-way conversations with residents. One idea they’re exploring is enabling and enlisting residents to contribute data to the platform, such as observations from extreme weather events in their communities. 

“The engagement functionality will enable Wellington City Council to co-create our climate response with the city’s communities, including our indigenous people,” says Project Manager Pax Austin. “This could be through exchanging information and ideas or providing feedback on climate adaptation options. It’s envisaged the tool will enable residents to interact on their own devices in their own time, but could also be used in face-to-face group engagements such as community meetings led by different groups, residents, or the council.” 

Virtual-world efforts like those in Wellington, New Rochelle, and Seoul actually "can make it easier for citizens to have a grasp on reality," explains Bruno Ávila Eça de Matos, who, as head of the Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded digital i-team in Amsterdam, is employing a digital-twin model to engage residents in affordable-housing solutions.  And that, Ávila adds, can result in a very real-world dividend—a more-informed citizenry—that avatars everywhere can someday take to the bank.

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How the moon landing is now inspiring local problem solving

In the book “Mission Economy,” economist Mariana Mazzucato examines the Apollo program’s success in landing a human on the moon in the 1960s — and challenges the public sector to take on new missions on a grand scale aimed at solving today’s biggest, most complex problems. It’s a framework that’s easiest to understand at the level of central governments, where resources are deep and influence over economic forces is strong. But can mission-oriented strategies work at the local level, too?

How the moon landing is now inspiring local problem solving

by Bloomberg Cities Network | Published on January 12, 2022

In the book “Mission Economy,” economist Mariana Mazzucato examines the Apollo program’s success in landing a human on the moon in the 1960s — and challenges the public sector to take on new missions on a grand scale aimed at solving today’s biggest, most complex problems.

It’s a framework that’s easiest to understand at the level of central governments, where resources are deep and influence over economic forces is strong. But can mission-oriented strategies work at the local level, too?

Professor Mazzucato and her team at University College London’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) are finding out. For the past few years, they’ve been working with local administrations in Greater Manchester, the London Borough of Camden, and other jurisdictions on developing and implementing missions on everything from becoming carbon neutral to boosting economic opportunities for youth to ensuring food security.

Late last year, the team took their engagement with local leaders further. In partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, they delivered a five-week “Mission Boot Camp” to mayors and senior staff from ten global cities. Those cities included Adelaide, Australia; Durham, N.C.; Madison, Wis.; Providence, R.I.; Reykjavik, Iceland; San Jose, Calif.; Saskatoon, Canada; Sofia, Bulgaria; Stockholm, Sweden; and Tampa, Fla.

To find out what city leaders are learning about how to apply a mission-oriented frame to their work, Bloomberg Cities spoke with IIPP’s Rainer Kattel and Ryan Bellinson, who led the Mission Bootcamp. 

What is the missions-oriented mindset all about? 

Rainer Kattel: If you go back to the moon mission, a lot of the solutions didn't exist at the time. As Mariana likes to say, it wasn’t just about space technology. It was also about things like clothing, materials, communications, and food that needed to be there for people to actually be able to go out in space. The mission enabled lots of innovation in various sectors, but it was supported by one big goal. 

In general, it goes back to this idea that governments need to think big in order to actually enable various sectors—from universities to companies to cities—to innovate around problems that may seem intractable. And they need to create a pathway to do it. 

What are examples of problems where local leaders can apply a missions-oriented approach?

Kattel: You can think of socio-economic issues like crime or homelessness. Or sustainability, and mobility and rethinking the ways we use streets. Vision Zero, those policies around eliminating traffic-related fatalities, is a kind of mission. It’s about being ambitious and not only looking for low-hanging fruit.

Ryan Bellinson: It also can apply to something every city does: strategic planning. Oftentimes, each department has its own objectives for the administration’s next five, 10, or 20 year strategic plan, developed in isolation. But if instead you’re looking at a mission of, say, eliminating homelessness, it forces leaders within the administration to think about how those departments work together across all the different components of the objective, whether it’s affordable housing, mental health services, or skills, so that those pieces are joined up.

How is this different from any other big items a mayor has ever put on their to do list? What makes missions different?

Kattel: What the mission-oriented framework gives you as a politician or a policy maker is a way to devise a strategy that has longevity. So there’s a goal maybe 20 or 30 years down the road that we're building towards. And we are building towards it by trying new structures and ways of working across departments and ways of including citizens more. 

Bellinson: That political longevity is really key. It’s up to the mayor to use their convening power to bring different actors to the table. And then to ultimately cede ground to a wider group of individuals, interests, and organizations that are assembled so it becomes a broad shared priority with ownership diffused across many organizations.  When that mayor eventually leaves office, the terrain will already be in place for that priority not to go away.

You have five criteria for what makes a mission—what are they?

Bellinson: The first criterion is that the mission has to be bold and inspirational, and have wide societal relevance—it should capture the public’s imagination and be exciting.

Second, missions have to set a clear direction, and that includes having targets that are measurable and timebound. You need to be able to know whether the mission is being achieved or off track. 

Third, missions need to be very ambitious — but achievable through innovations and new ways of working. 

Fourth, missions need to encourage cross-sectoral, cross disciplinary innovation activity.They’re supported by collaboration across multiple departments and sectors, that can shape action holistically.

Lastly is what I'm most excited about: Missions involve multiple bottom-up solutions. During the program, we talked a lot about ‘snowballing’ a portfolio of innovation projects that start small and build up over time. This is an area where involving subject-matter experts, community organizations and residents in the design and co-production of projects is critical.

What are some examples of places putting missions-oriented thinking to work at the local level?

Kattel: Camden is an interesting example. It’s one of the most unequal parts of London - it has great wealth housing Google and our own university, but at the same time contains some of the most deprived areas in London. They’ve launched four missions. One is to see those holding positions of power to be as diverse as the community by 2030—with the next generation being ready to lead. Another is for everyone to be able to eat well every day with nutritious, affordable, and sustainable food by 2030. 

In Sweden, the city-level work is led by a national innovation agency, Vinnova. They are trying to figure out missions that can be shared by multiple cities. For instance, they’re looking at how to get rid of cars from the streets and give streets back to the citizens. They’re doing a lot of experiments in cities to find different solutions and ensure there’s a lot of learning.

Bellinson: Of the cities from the Boot Camp, we saw missions primarily emerge in three areas. We’re seeing a lot of green missions focused on climate mitigation or air quality. That’s the case in Reykjavík, where they’re talking about becoming carbon neutral by 2040. Or Sofia, where they’re striving to meet international standards for healthy air quality by 2035. 

Other cities were using missions to focus on reclaiming and valuing public space. Cities like Providence were thinking about how to use curb space differently at a time when there’s changing demands from delivery services and new mobility operators. Or Tampa, where they were looking at providing all residents safe and equitable access to green space.

And then there’s a theme around social justice, equity, and inclusion. We had Durham that was experimenting with missions as an approach for tackling gun violence. Or Saskatoon, tackling homelessness, which has a lot of intersections with the marginalized Indigenous community there. In those cities, the mayors and administrators were really thinking about the governance of safety, the governance of social justice, and how they involve different communities. 

What are the challenges that cities encounter in this work, and how do they overcome them? 

Bellinson: Funding comes up a lot: Very few cities would ever say they have enough financial resources to do what they need to do. But one thing missions can offer is a way to think about finance differently. Through missions, cities have to think about how different departments can pool their budgets to solve a common challenge. And you’re thinking about finding synergies with partners to collaboratively design a project together using collective resources. 

We’re seeing this in the UK in Greater Manchester, which has a mission to achieve carbon neutrality by 2038. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority has very limited resources. But because they’ve set a shared vision and established trust among lots of different partners, we’re seeing ambitious ideas like a publicly owned energy innovation company being created through a joined up partnership framework. It will produce and sell renewable energy to residents and businesses, and its revenues will be reinvested into the company. So this is something that started with very limited public resources, but is moving forward because of strong collaboration between lots of different organizations.

The second issue is around overcoming siloed ways of working. It’s helpful to have a strategic designer on board — someone who can bridge the different languages and cultures across different disciplines, and find pathways to bring those people together to solve problems. Missions require thinking in an integrated way. 

What lessons did you see cities in the bootcamp taking from the work?

Kattel: Everybody seemed to be quite taken by this idea of snowballing. That you don’t need to be building something as big as the space program, but can actually just take one street, start from there, and start learning. Missions can seem big, but you don’t need to start from something big. 

Bellinson: This is a long-term approach to systems change, and there’s a lot of forethought that has to go into it. So some of the cities are thinking about what are the different tools, what are the different ways of working, what are the different capacities that are encompassed within mission mindsets, and how they can apply that? In Durham and Saskatoon, for example, they’re thinking about the kind of collaborative approaches that are needed to take missions forward.

We’re hoping that the cities we’ve worked with through this program will continue to engage with us. We have a Mission-Oriented Innovation Network that any public-sector organization is able to join (email Nora Clinton at for details). The network is a space for organizations interested in missions to be able to share lessons from how they've taken pieces of this approach forward, what's working and what isn't working, and learn together within a wider community of practice. Hopefully, for the cities that are interested in missions, this is just the start of a longer-term journey.

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European cities aim for new heights in digital innovation
As cities begin to turn their attention from keeping up services toward strengthening and building upon those services, leaders from a number of European capitals are leveraging these insights to take digital innovation to new heights. As part of their participation in the Bloomberg Philanthropies Digital Innovation Initiative, these cities are both maintaining a pandemic-era urgency around transformation and doing so in ways that radically reimagine cities’ relationships with residents.

European cities aim for new heights in digital innovation

by Bloomberg Cities Network | Originally posted on 2 June 2021

Of the many lessons for city leaders to emerge out of the COVID-19 pandemic, two of the most crucial are around digital innovation: first, how critical digital transformation is to sustaining essential service delivery and second, how integral resident engagement—and quick, iterative improvements as a result of that engagement—is to this work. 

Now, as cities begin to turn their attention from keeping up services toward strengthening and building upon those services, leaders from a number of European capitals are leveraging these insights to take digital innovation to new heights. As part of their participation in the Bloomberg Philanthropies Digital Innovation Initiative, these cities are both maintaining a pandemic-era urgency around transformation and doing so in ways that radically reimagine cities’ relationships with residents.

City leaders from 21 European capitals gathered in January 2020 for the launch of the Digital Innovation Initiative.

City leaders from 21 European capitals gathered in January 2020 for the launch of the Digital Innovation Initiative.

“In this moment of rapid, fundamental social change accelerated by the pandemic, we have seen that digital innovation is crucial to solving today’s biggest challenges,” said Louise Ellaway of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Government Innovation team. “Putting it to work requires bold leadership and a commitment to changing organizational culture in a way that puts residents’ needs first.”  

To learn more about these efforts, Bloomberg Cities caught up with the civil servants leading them. In all cases, their cities started with a problem they aimed to solve—streamlining housing maintenance requests in Dublin, say, or helping jobseekers find employment in Helsinki—and worked with people on all sides of the issue to better understand the problem and constantly refine the solutions. While the projects remain at different stages of development, crucial new connections have been made between city halls and residents. Here’s a snapshot of what these cities have learned so far.

Making bill payments less taxing in Bratislava, Slovakia

In 2016, the city of Bratislava set up a new, €4 million web portal to handle most service transactions for the city’s 200,000 residents, including an annual property tax. Residents found the service to be hard to use, however, and few took advantage of it; 98 percent of the property-tax transactions continued to be handled in person through the city’s main tax office.

Mária Kostická, innovation manager for the Bratislava city municipality, has been building relationships with tech and legal colleagues to come up with a new approach. The city did initial surveys online and via Zoom with residents to understand why residents had difficulty accessing the current site. Says Kostická of this resident engagement: “There are no right and wrong answers, just an honest opinion.”

The city plans to release a greatly simplified and more user-friendly digital tax service in July and has improved the way it communicates with residents to better explain the new process, show where their information goes, and offer tips on how best to communicate with the property tax service. 

Kostická says what she and her colleagues have learned about how to involve residents and lead workshops will carry over into other digital initiatives going forward. “It's not only about this one project because we can and will definitely apply it to others,” she says.

Repairing communications with tenants in Dublin, Ireland

Dublin City Council wants to modernize the way it handles requests for repairs in the social housing units they manage so the council can categorize jobs and plan work more effectively. The city receives more than 60,000 housing repair requests annually but the existing paper-based system often leads to delays and errors. In addition to increasing the number of completed repairs, the city wants to communicate better with tenants about when repairs will be made. 

A central issue arising from the interviews with stakeholders was the need for more accurate and up-to-date information. One solution: Dublin leaders have set up an app for tradespeople to receive repair requests and for tenants to receive live information about when repairs will be made. Another idea is to research diverse ways for tenants to report needed repairs themselves, with one possibility being using an ATM-style machine to put in a request. 

Mark Geoghegan, area maintenance officer, says re-examining processes in this area has helped to create better channels of communications within the city government and begin tearing down silos. This project helps people who aren’t on the front line of service delivery better understand the needs of the people who are accessing the service, Geoghegan explains. 

Improving prospects for job seekers in Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki is looking to streamline its services for helping jobseekers find work. The existing system does not support the kinds of quality interactions with jobseekers that can best help them find services and work opportunities that are a good match for their skills and life situation. 

To find ideas for improvements, the city conducted one-on-one interviews with jobseekers from various backgrounds to hear their experiences with city employment services, as well as their needs and hopes. After this discovery phase, the focus has moved to prototyping and testing ideas with users, with plans to redesign ways of working in employment services and find tools to support better interactions with residents who are looking for work.

“The importance of the human factor on digital transformation must not be forgotten or ignored,” says Kati Rinne, senior planning officer and project lead for the Helsinki unemployment service project. “Following the human-centered design process has shown us that before developing any tech solutions, we have to have a deep understanding of the user’s real needs and how these needs could be answered.”

A digital fix to improve waste collection in Prague, Czech Republic 

Waste management in Prague is a complicated system, relying on four different waste management companies. Sometimes, residents complain that their waste bins aren’t emptied regularly; other times, bins get emptied even though they aren’t full. 

Before the city could think about how digital transformation could fix these problems, project co-coordinator Zina Kaštovská says they first had to figure out what parts weren’t working. “We have asked every stakeholder for each part in the service about how it works,” Kaštovská says, “so now I think it's more clear how everything is connected.”

Now, the team is ready to launch a device-management system that features real-time digital monitoring of 550 waste containers to optimize collection and ensure sufficient capacity for citizens to drop off materials. Kaštovská expects the human-centered research that went into the decision to use that technology will pay big dividends in better waste services for Prague residents. 

Building a two-way conversation with residents in Sofia, Bulgaria

The city of Sofia is using a citizen-centered approach to improve its effectiveness, starting with how residents register their address online to access municipal services. At the moment, registration across the city's 24 districts is done in different ways and therefore is patchy and fragmented.  

Over the past year, the city has engaged residents via Zoom calls to collect detailed feedback on their ideas for how to make that process work more smoothly. Antonia Shalamanova, an associate at the city’s development association, says the project is helping city leaders learn how to engage residents in problem solving and ground their work in two-way communication.

“We should engage our citizens more and try to better understand their needs, and find ways of getting constant feedback,” Shalamanova says. “Because sometimes, there is a communication gap.”

Shalamanova adds that this citizen-focused approach to digitizing services could be applied to other areas, such as working to improve the environment or urban mobility. 

Engaging residents in city planning in Tallinn, Estonia

When it comes to decisions about new development that will change their neighborhoods, Tallinn residents say it can be difficult to know what is coming and how to make their opinions heard.  

Maarja Kõue’s team aims to change this. Kõue is a geographic-information system specialist who has grown into the role of team leader during this project. When her team reached out to residents via Facebook groups for help redesigning the public feedback process around city planning, 70 people—well more than they expected—reached out. The team has also worked with residents to prototype ideas such as 3-D visualizations of proposed developments. The hope is that by helping residents understand sooner how new buildings and areas will be developed—and how that development will affect their lives—they can respond earlier with more productive public feedback. 

Kõue shared this human-centered learning from the project: “Applying new technologies and ways of working in the public sector takes a lot of effort. To get staff members on board, it’s crucial to see things from their perspective and figure out what are their user needs and potential blockers for the change.”

Supporting older residents at home in Vilnius, Lithuania

Helping older residents in Vilnius stay in their own homes as they age is the focus of the city’s digital innovation project. 

Adult social care in the city is confusing, hard to navigate, and often expensive. Before this project launched, Vilnius seniors waited between three months and two years to access social care services. City officials want to make it easier for older residents to understand what their options are, how the city can help, and how much it will cost. 

The city has set up a website for older people, their families, and caregivers to access information about how they can stay at home. This includes a list of services available to meet the different needs of seniors, and a cost calculator to work out exactly how much they will have to pay for at-home care. Plans are in the works for an additional online resource to help residents find equipment that can help them stay mobile within their homes as they age. 

These ideas were based on feedback from stakeholders on all sides of the adult-care continuum. “The strong point of this project,” says Aleksandra Černiauskienė, who is managing it, “is that we go and speak with all the people involved: doctors, community members, elected representatives, social services, and social workers.”

Vilnius and the other European cities will be launching their new services later this year, said Ellaway of Bloomberg Philanthropies. They’ll also begin scaling their new ways of working to other services, and sharing what they’ve learned with other cities across Europe and around the world.

“Cities that have embraced digital innovation have been ahead of the game in their response to COVID-19,” Ellaway said. “And they’ll be well-positioned to deliver better results for residents coming out of the pandemic, as well.”

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5 takeaways on tech, from the authors of 'Power to the Public'
"Power to the Public," co-authored by Tara Dawson McGuinness and Hana Schank, two members of the New America think tank and former Obama administration officials, is loaded with tales of government reforms that take a user-centered approach in design, data, and delivery to advance the public interest and promote the public good in the digital age.

5 takeaways on tech, from the authors of 'Power to the Public'

by Bloomberg Cities Network | 26 May 2021

Local government leaders have had little choice but to launch one experiment after another in the face of COVID-19. And whether those experiments were efforts to redeploy staff or to stand up new programs in a matter of days, adopting new technology was often part of the process. Now, as local leaders consider the role tech will play in their cities’ recovery—and how to invest the billions available in the American Rescue Plan—a new book provides a blueprint on how to best approach technology when it comes to furthering policy goals.

From a years-long project to humanize and expedite a cumbersome government aid form to removing a logjam that kept kids waiting to be placed in a foster-care home, the authors emphasize that change that improves people’s lives doesn’t start with a product. It starts with people.

During a recent interview, McGuinness, who founded the New Practice Lab, a research and design lab focused on family economic security, and Schank, the director of strategy for the Public Interest Technology program at New America, offered five lessons policymakers should take away from their blueprint.

Try it before you change it.

The best way to understand how a process is or isn’t working is to try it yourself. That was how the nonprofit Civilla sold the state of Michigan on fixing an overly complicated emergency financial-assistance application that contained more than 1,200 questions. Rather than give a presentation to top administration officials on the form’s ineffectiveness, Civilla handed them the form, had them sit outside the conference room in a noisy hallway and gave them 15 minutes to fill it out. “That was the transformational moment,” McGuinness said. “That [project] wouldn’t have happened if senior executives hadn't walked through the shoes of someone filling out that application.”

This approach focuses the process on the user experience, which then becomes the starting point for problem solving. Civilla interviewed the applicants and the frontline state workers who processed the form to craft the framework that ultimately resulted in a form that was 80 percent shorter and processed in half the amount of time.

Key Takeaway: McGuinness said policymakers should ask themselves these questions as they examine the user experience: Is your policy, program, or tax credit working for the people using it? How do you know it’s working? How often do you check? Who's eligible and how can you tell that it is accessible to them? What would we drop or evolve to make this better? What are the blockers?

Apps don’t change the world. People do.

Technology alone won’t solve a problem, and new tools won’t fix a broken policy or a convoluted process. Instead, technology only helps if you have a clear understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. And getting to the root of a problem starts with asking people what’s going wrong for them. Technology is helpful when it’s brought in where appropriate—and it doesn’t have to be groundbreaking. For example, Schank noted a prior project to end veteran homelessness entailed the labor-intensive work of building relationships with and keeping track of housing-insecure persons in one community. “We were asked by someone about the technology we used to do all that,” she said. “The answer was Google Docs.”

Key Takeaway: “People in government are barraged with vendors [who say they have the next best thing],” Schank said. “What your mindset should be is one that has an enormous dose of skepticism. And you need to make them prove to you why it works.”

Data can reveal inequalities, but it can also hide them.

Using real data to understand how you are serving people is a very powerful tool, but it is also a reflection of the people using it—with positive and negative implications. For example, a team in New York City in recent years used 311 data to map rat complaints across the city as a way to track infestations and target abatement efforts. But one of the areas on the map known by a team member to have rats didn’t show up as infested. It turns out it wasn’t the data that was the issue—it was the way it was collected. People in that person’s neighborhood, which was lower-income and majority-minority, didn’t know about 311 and weren’t reporting the problem. The team only discovered this by chance because someone from there was part of the mapping effort. Being intentional and inclusive with data collection efforts can stop these discrepancies before they occur.

Key Takeaway: When looking at your data, Schank said, always ask “who or what is not there that should be? What are the barriers?” McGuinness added: “And remember that a lot of the systems we work with today were designed a long time ago. If you work within the bounds of how something exists, you can sometimes forget it was created in a different time with a different set of leaders with different functions than we use today.”

Big policy changes can start with small projects.

While many leaders today want to tackle systemic inequities, doing so is complicated and overwhelming. Starting small—and picking one process to reevaluate with an equity lens—means you can start getting practice right away with dissecting the ways systemic bias is baked into many of our systems. Small-test scenarios can not only feel more feasible but also have the benefit of providing immediate, measurable results. For example, Schank and McGuinness said they’re now involved with New York City’s desire to create equitable programs and the two have proposed using a food aid program to pilot ideas. “Usually, it’s stand it up, get it done,” Schank said, referring to policy projects. “But here, we’re not saying everything in New York has to be done this way—we’re starting small and trying a thing to see how it works.”

Key Takeaway: “You don’t have to change the system all at once. Small interventions can make all the difference,” Schank said. Ask where people are getting bogged down in a process. Run a small test of how fixing the logjam might work so you can learn, improve, and retest before broadening usage.

Meet people where they are.

The authors say the success of the American Rescue Plan will depend on policymakers to make sure the resources get to the people who need them. “The ideas are big and bold,” McGuinness said. “But if 20 percent of people can’t access the rental assistance or their tax credit, then it won’t be a success.” She and Schank hope that policymakers can learn from what they see as a shortcoming of the CARES Act passed in March 2020 in response to the then-growing pandemic: While the $2.2 trillion did provide much needed relief to the economy and millions of families, it fell short when it came to how those benefits reached those families. If the people who need the help can’t access it, Schank said, “the program may as well not exist.”

Key Takeaway: “Whether you’re working on rental assistance, unemployment system modernizations, or getting child subsidies out the door,” McGuinness said, “success means understanding who you’re serving, checking in with them by asking, and having data instrumentation that allows you to see if you are really delivering to all people.”

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Data watch: Why we need better data to tackle vaccine inequities
Bloomberg Cities analysis shows that in cities across the U.S.—and even in those cities where leaders are putting significant focus on equity—White residents are getting vaccinated at far higher rates than Black, Latinx, and Hispanic residents. 

Data watch: Why we need better data to tackle vaccine inequities

By Beth Blauer | April 7, 2021 | Bloomberg Cities Network

Beth Blauer is the Executive Director of the Centers for Civic Impact at Johns Hopkins University.

It’s happening again.

Black and Brown people in America are being left behind in the fight against COVID-19—and this time, in the countrywide push to vaccinate as many Americans as quickly as possible.  The data are fuzzy and incomplete, with the CDC reporting demographic detail for only about half of all those vaccinated. Yet, even with this limited information, our

The parallels—between this data and what we saw just a year ago at the outset of the crisis—are especially troubling. Then, it was emergency workers and hospital staff who were sounding the alarm about the disproportionate toll COVID-19 was taking on Black and Brown communities, even though  none of that showed up initially in testing data because granular demographic information was, for the most part, not being collected. In fact, we are still waiting for some states to share demographic data on testing and those who have access to it.  We had most of a year to anticipate and prevent similar patterns of missing data and inequity arising with vaccinations. Apparently, we did not learn from our mistakes.

When you look at the demographic data on vaccinations, you can’t explain away the inequities we’re seeing as simply “vaccine hesitancy” among people of color: Polls are not showing wide gaps in vaccine hesitancy among Black, Hispanic, and White respondents. What we’re seeing in the data is more a reflection of the deep disparities in our public health infrastructure. It’s showing us that limited vaccine supply is not being targeted to the communities that need it most. And it’s telling us that more White people are able to spend hours online to snag coveted appointments. If you don’t have the internet at home or don’t have the time because you’re working multiple jobs, the systems we’ve set up to get people vaccinated simply will not work.  

To fix this, we need better data. All of the data we have access to is voluntarily reported and collected by shoestring operations in state and local governments who struggle to keep up. For every state that has put serious effort into building up their data infrastructure during the pandemic, there’s another who hasn’t. This is one place where we need more guidance from the federal government—and requirements to collect detailed data in return for vaccine supplies and aid for distributing them. Early signals from the Biden Administration point to a deep appreciation for these disparities, with emergency funding soon to land in state coffers, but there is still significant work to be done to get all those who want to be vaccinated the access they need. Most importantly, we must insist that investments made in closing the vaccination gaps extend to getting more access to testing for priority populations, and that this moment becomes a catalyst for widespread public health reform.  

For their part, city leaders can do three things as the data becomes clearer about where in their communities the vaccination gaps lie. First, they can use this data to target outreach and resources like mobile vaccination clinics. Second, they can use the data to advocate with county and state partners to locate more clinics in Black and Brown communities and reserve appointments for people coming from the hardest-hit ZIP codes.  And they need to start thinking about the long-term. Inequitable access to vaccines is just the latest example of how some populations in America are essentially cut off from the public health system. We need to use this moment to redesign public health for the people who need it most.

See the original article to view infographics on vaccination rates in Baltimore, Charlotte, Chicago, Columbus, Denver, and New York

Cover Photo: A man in Denver, CO receives his second COVID-19 vaccine shot. (AP Photos/Hart Van Denburg)

How better digital services can build trust in local government
Cities across the U.S. and around the world are finding that the tools of digital transformation—specifically, getting frequent feedback from users—helps put residents at the center of their efforts to improve services. 

How better digital services can build trust in local government

Cities across the U.S. and around the world are finding that the tools of digital transformation—specifically, getting frequent feedback from users—helps put residents at the center of their efforts to improve services.

by Bloomberg Cities Network | 17 February 2021 

When it comes to the public’s trust in government, Matt Broffman has seen all the polls and surveys. Americans’ trust in their national government has been sliding for generations, while trust in local government, by comparison, generally remains high.

Broffman, the chief innovation officer for the city of Orlando, Fla., reasoned that city halls have an advantage as the level of government closest to the people. Still, he wondered: Is it possible for local government to earn even more trust from residents? And, if so, how would you know if you’ve done it?

Broffman’s background is in the data-driven world of customer experience and digital services, where it’s common to ask customers what they think. So as part of a digital transformation initiative, he began integrating surveys into dozens of city services, from reserving a park to requesting a new trash bin, and worked with staff to follow up quickly on complaints. In addition to asking customers about their experience, the surveys also asked the big question Broffman wanted to know: “How much trust or distrust do you have in the City of Orlando when it comes to handling local problems?” 

The result is something every local leader should pay attention to. From 2018 to 2020, the percentage of respondents saying they have some or a lot of trust in Orlando city government went up from 64 percent to 76 percent. Satisfaction also is going up—although Broffman points out that satisfaction and trust are not necessarily the same thing. A customer who is denied a parking ticket appeal, for example, may not like having to pay the ticket but appreciate a transparent and easy process for doing so. “Sometimes people are just not going to be satisfied,” Broffman said. “But they ought to still trust you.”

Digital opportunity

Broffman’s push to measure and build trust is one of the most ambitious efforts of its kind—Orlando recently won an innovation award from Harvard’s Technology and Entrepreneurship Center for the effort. But Orlando isn’t the only city betting that better digital services can build trust with residents.

The need is only growing more urgent. A year of COVID crisis, economic collapse, reckoning over racial injustice, and election-related unrest have put new strains on people’s trust in public-sector leaders and institutions. At the same time, long-sputtering efforts to move local services online are now accelerating rapidly during the pandemic due to the need for social distancing.

[Get the latest innovation news from Bloomberg Cities! Subscribe to SPARK.]

In Mobile, Ala., Terrance Smith is optimistic that a new digital service will build trust with minority- and women-owned businesses by giving them a better shot at landing city contracts. These businesses are, by law, supposed to secure at least 15 percent of the city’s business. Nevertheless, it’s been a struggle to get past 7 percent, Smith said. “Most of the people within that category just didn’t have trust in government or believe that government was here to help,” he explained. “They thought we’d only give contracts to wealthy, white business owners.”

Smith, director of Mobile’s innovation team, partnered with the city’s Office of Supplier Diversity and a website platform called Qwally. Using the i-team’s human-centered design process, they listened to business owners’ concerns about the process of getting certified as a disadvantaged business enterprise—including the need to visit City Hall multiple times to fill out paperwork and clear airport-like security each time. Based on that feedback, they built a website that uses plain language to walk business owners through the steps. Smith says the contracting rate for these businesses is now up to 12 percent and growing. 

“The system works for them now just as much as it works for the guy who has all the social and political capital,” Smith said. “They were the co-creators. It was built with them coming in, talking about how they feel about the system, and their level of tech skills. All of that went into it.”

Building trust in Europe

A similar dynamic around trust is playing out across the Atlantic. Twenty European capital cities are working on building their digital services capabilities through a Bloomberg Philanthropies digital innovation initiative, including eight that are engaged in year-long digital transformation projects.

“From Budapest to Vilnius, European city leaders are negotiating what it takes to earn residents’ trust through new ways of working,” said Louise Ellaway of Bloomberg Philanthropies. “With digital, there’s an opportunity to deliver better results at a rapid pace—but it requires involving residents in every step of service design and building more of a two-way relationship.”

[Read: In Tallinn, engaging residents at the right time on urban planning]

In Dublin, Ireland, for example, city leaders are taking a human-centered approach to fix longstanding problems with housing maintenance. For about 25,000 residents living in social housing, the city is functionally a landlord and responsible for fixing everything from leaky faucets to broken boilers. The process for tracking repairs, now mostly on paper, breaks down in ways that make it difficult for tenants to know when their problem will be fixed and for city leaders to manage the work effectively.

“These issues have led to low levels of trust between tenants and ourselves," said Pauline Treacy, Acting Executive Manager for the Dublin City Council’s Corporate Services and Transformation Department. “There's a disconnect around how housing maintenance actually works.”

For the Dublin digital services team, that distrust showed up when they went out to interview tenants to get their views on how to fix housing maintenance. Tenants were reluctant to engage and skeptical that local government would want their feedback. They eventually got about a dozen tenants to open up in interviews. They also interviewed city staff involved in housing administration, as well as tradespeople in the maintenance depot who do the repairs.

The biggest insight from these discussions: Communication, up-and-down the chain, is busted. 

The Dublin team is tackling these problems on several fronts. First up is to refresh a tenant handbook that lays out which maintenance tasks are the city’s responsibility and which are the tenants’—which is one source of communication confusion. Other work streams include finding ways to capture more detail about repair requests when they come in, and to manage those requests more holistically on the back end so that everyone from housing managers to tenants have more visibility into the status of maintenance requests.

As Treacy puts it: “We hope the steps we’re putting in place—using digital, updating jobs, being clear about what we’re going to do, what they’re going to do, and expectations around it—that we build up a level of trust with our tenants so that they’re happier to engage with us.”

Many dimensions of trust

There are limits to this approach, of course. Trust in local government is about more than the quality of digital services—although it’s not a bad place to start. David Eaves, a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School who is coaching European cities through the Bloomberg initiative, likens it to a “Broken Windows theory” of service delivery. “If paying my parking ticket isn’t really simple, then why should I trust you to run a prison?” Eaves said. 

On the other hand, Eaves continued, city leaders shouldn’t assume that handling transactions smoothly inherently makes public-sector institutions trustworthy. “You could have a racist government that’s really efficient,” Eaves said. “Or a government that’s really well intentioned and inclusive but is terrible at service delivery.”

In Orlando, Broffman acknowledges that the effort to measure and build trust remains in its early stages. Data on trust are coming in for only about 30 of the city’s 300 services. Those services tend to include more transactional customer experiences, like reporting a missed trash pickup, where it’s easiest to integrate survey instruments. 

Orlando’s next frontier on customer experience aims to go beyond the digital realm to include the public’s interactions with law enforcement. As part of a broader initiative to address racial inequity, the city is sending out postcards to residents who have had interactions with police officers and asking them about their trust in the Police Department as well as their interaction with the officer. It’s similar to a resident survey the innovation team in Austin, Texas, is using to assess police interactions and improve police-community relationships.

In Orlando, the goal is to determine what builds trust and to work with the Police Department to ensure that those trust-building actions are part of their regular interactions with residents. “Having a pulse on what residents think is super important,” Broffman said of working in City Hall. “I mean, it’s why we’re here.”

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Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/xtock

Vaccines: How cities can support (and fix) rollout efforts

Cities across the United States are ramping up similar efforts to give a local boost to what, so far, has been a halting national vaccination campaign. While mayors can’t do anything to fix the current scarcity of vaccines that has resulted in long lines at clinics and overwhelmed websites for scheduling appointments, they’re finding ways to beef up local distribution systems. The goal: to vaccinate residents at full speed and with equity front-and-center as supply catches up with demand. 

Vaccines: How cities can support (and fix) rollout efforts

by Bloomberg Cities Network | 3 February 2021

Over the past 10 months, Burlington, Vt., Mayor Miro Weinberger has repeated a motto that’s guided his city hall throughout the COVID-19 crisis: “In a global pandemic, local actions matter.” And his words have proven to be much more than lip service: Whether it was investing in local mask manufacturing or doubling down on local testing capacity, Burlington’s efforts have helped the city hold the line against the virus and maintain one of the lowest overall infection rates in the country.   

Now, Weinberger hopes his city of 43,000 can carry that momentum over to the effort to get residents vaccinated—even though, like most U.S. mayors, he’s not exactly in the driver’s seat on the matter. Burlington does not have its own health department. Many critical decisions are made at the state or county level, not by city hall.

Still, Weinberger is finding important roles for city government to play. He meets every week with the state health commissioner and advocates for Burlington’s interests. That’s helped ensure that Burlington, as Vermont’s largest city, gets its fair share of vaccine. It also helped ensure that the city’s first publicly run vaccination site was located in a spot that was within walking distance for many low-income residents. 

The city has also hired a team to lead outreach in refugee communities, to spread the word about the vaccine in Nepali, Somali, and five other languages, and to listen to residents’ needs and concerns. A similar team is working in American-born communities of color. “We’re using everything we can think of,” Weinberger said. “There are communication barriers and legitimate cultural concerns about the way BIPOC communities have been treated in the past … so we’re hitting it from a number of places.”

Cities across the country are ramping up similar efforts to give a local boost to what, so far, has been a halting national vaccination campaign. While mayors can’t do anything to fix the current scarcity of vaccines that has resulted in long lines at clinics and overwhelmed websites for scheduling appointments, they’re finding ways to beef up local distribution systems. The goal: to vaccinate residents at full speed and with equity front-and-center as supply catches up with demand. 

A new COVID-19 Vaccine Toolkit from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the U.S. Conference of Mayors lays out the critical steps mayors can take to get there. One of the toolkit’s module focuses on the role mayors can play in the vaccination rollout, a second outlines data and monitoring strategies, and a third covers public engagement and communications. Additional resources to support city leaders are coming soon.

“Mayors know their cities better than anyone,” said Ryan Whalen of Bloomberg Philanthropies. “They’re well positioned to help vulnerable populations overcome barriers to getting vaccinated, and partner with trusted local voices to encourage uptake.”

[Get all our vaccine resources for mayors here]

In Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer says that after almost a year of playing defense against COVID-19, “we’re finally on the offense, and it feels great.” Back in December, Fischer organized a pair of task forces to coordinate the local vaccination effort, one focused on hospitals, pharmacies, and other distribution partners, and a second focused on coordinating with state and federal government. The city, which runs its own health department, expects to administer nearly 9,000 doses this week at a local arena. “We could use three or four times the amount of vaccines we’re getting right now,” Fischer said, “but we’re preparing for when that happens so we scale up from one mass vaccination site into many other small sites.” 

Fischer, who also serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, urges mayors to be thinking ahead. “The mayor has got to go from the present to be thinking out six to eight weeks from now, when, I hope, supply starts to equal demand and maybe exceed it after that. And then, how do you make sure you’re touching all parts of your community and using data to make sure that you’re in the right place and that you’ve got proper resources behind that?”

In Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley is leveraging communications channels built during the pandemic to push for an equitable vaccine rollout. Since early 2020, she and county health officials have convened a weekly Friday morning call with clergy, including leaders of a number of Black churches in West Dayton. Those calls began to focus on ways to overcome vaccine hesitancy among some residents and ensure that eligible residents have access to a shot if they want one. 

As a result of these conversations, a vaccine clinic at a predominantly Black church is now administering a quarter of the local health department’s doses. Rather than assigning appointments through an online free-for-all, most people at this point are coming in through informal outreach channels such as church secretaries calling up elderly parishioners and encouraging them to come in. 

“We’ve had these relationships before,” said Torey Hollingsworth, a senior policy aide to Mayor Whaley. “But we’ve really deepened them through the pandemic and are trying to deploy them to make sure that folks who may not have easily found their way into the early rounds of vaccination have that access.”

[Get the latest innovation news from Bloomberg Cities! Subscribe to SPARK.]

In Baltimore, city leaders are preparing to roll out a pilot program that will train residents to serve as ambassadors who can talk to neighbors and friends about getting vaccinated and help combat misinformation. Baltimore also is getting ready to launch mobile vaccination clinics at senior housing and other locations, in partnership with Johns Hopkins University and MedStar Health. 

The clinics will build on lessons learned from more than 100 mobile flu vaccine clinics Baltimore held late in 2020. A big lesson was the need to visit vaccination locations in advance to get word out about the clinic and answer any questions people have. “There’s not only high levels of vaccine demand right now but also vaccine hesitancy,” said Adam Abadir, a spokesperson for the Baltimore City Health Department. “We want to make sure that we’re not forgetting about anyone as we work toward higher and higher levels of vaccination in Baltimore.”

New Orleans is also taking advantage of lessons learned last year, particularly with standing up COVID testing operations. Liana Elliott, Deputy Chief of Staff to Mayor LaToya Cantrell, said city leaders are looking closely at staffing mass vaccination sites so that a mix of city workers and volunteers can manage the logistics while leaving the medical tasks to licensed professionals. They’re also coordinating a shared waiting list for hospitals and pharmacies to dispense leftover “angel doses” so that those shots go to elderly residents standing by on call, rather than just anyone nearby.

City leaders are also ramping up outreach efforts through the “Sleeves Up, NOLA” campaign, featuring locals who in normal times would be celebrating Mardi Gras this time of year. 

And leaders are working with state authorities to get the same granular data on vaccinations that they previously worked to get on COVID case rates and testing so that they can monitor progress of the vaccine rollout by demographics and geography.

“The experience is like deja vu all over again,” Elliott said, referring to what it was like setting up COVID testing last spring. “We were able to stand things up really quickly, get everything in place, and then the supply runs out, the demand is still there and we’re waiting and waiting. We know the floodgates will open again.”

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(AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

Measuring happiness to improve city life for residents

Measuring happiness to improve city life for residents

by Bloomberg Cities Network | January 27, 2021 

Name: Irene García Brenes

Title: Mayoral advisor

City: Curridabat, Costa Rica

Several years ago, Irene García Brenes began shaping a vision to support biodiversity in Curridabat, a suburb of 70,000 near the Costa Rican capital of San José. The idea was simple: If the city could weave enough greenery through the urban jungle to support pollinators like bees and birds, human residents would benefit from all the greenery, too.

Later, her research focused more squarely on the city’s human residents, specifically measuring their wellbeing. García developed a data tool to assess different factors that influence happiness: nutrition, contact with nature, living conditions, relationships, and more. This work, which recently won a global wellbeing award for cities, produced a number of insights. For example: Curridabat’s women are generally happier than the men. Another finding underlined the point of the earlier work on pollinators: that access to parks, recreation, and natural areas makes a tangible difference in residents’ mental health.

That insight proved particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. During lockdown, García said, the national government kept city parks closed even as bars and restaurants were reopening. Armed with data on the linkages between access to nature and mental health, she and other local leaders successfully campaigned to get parks reopened.

“Because we had the data, we knew the need—that people need the contact with parks,” García said. “We empowered ourselves to pressure the Minister of Health, and he accepted it.”

Pro tip: “Human beings are complex. If you want to know if they are happy or not, you have to ask them. I hope that someday we can compare the performance of different cities by comparing how happy the people are.”

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