Conversation between Ada Colau and Mariana Mazzucato

ADA COLAU | I find your ideas truly inspirational, especially because they’re a call for action at this time of crisis. I know we can all agree that now isn’t the time for making excuses, it’s the time for getting serious, finding ways to act, and seeking alliances. And we cities know a lot about this because we have a great many problems to solve and very few powers with which to solve them. Cooperating with other cities and our citizens comes naturally to us. We have far-reaching goals, even though they don’t entirely depend on us, which means we must constantly search for ways to innovate, create and cooperate: this is how we work. However, in the global governance system, cities are still hardly recognized. At that scale we find that it’s largely the nation state that steers the governance system. On this vein, what role do you think cities can play in the paradigm shift we need? We understand that change is inevitable insofar as there are major global crises which are interconnected, such as the pandemic, climate change, and inequality. And we have to make profound changes, because the current economic system isn’t effective or efficient enough to solve these problems.

I have no doubt that we cities have the willingness and capacity to participate in this change. You’ve talked a lot about the entrepreneurial state, which seems to refer to the very nation state that still dominates global organization and has most powers and resources when it comes to public power. But how do you see the role of cities in terms of the paradigm shift and major challenges of this period?

Why do we think “bureaucratic” is a negative word? We need bureaucracy, but we have rigid vertical bureaucracies

MARIANA MAZZUCATO | I usually don’t talk about “the state,” but the public sector. The public sector can be the BBC, an innovation agency, or a city based digital agency. My point is that we have under-theorized and under-imagined the role of the State, take the decentralized network of different types of public actors, for example, that were important in Silicon Valley (even those we haven’t really understood), and in fact, you can govern these organizations in different ways. What seems clear is that, like regions, nations, and the world, the city is made up of many organizations. And the city, the region, the nation and global public organizations are equally desperate for a rethink.

What we’ve seen with Covid-19 and climate change, is that many cities found themselves on the frontline of the battle and had to react quickly. Take London, where we have a huge homelessness problem: all those people were suddenly taken off the street and hosted by local hotels because of Covid-19, and the city council was leading that. But what’s interesting is that they aren’t designed to act like that. My main focus is that public actors’ tools haven’t been designed in a goal-oriented way. In terms of how some cities – for example, your city, through your leadership – have tended to act in ways that are more flexible and agile, but especially more horizontal, I think what we can learn is that this has always involved lots of citizen engagement, much more than a nation either does or can do. It’s never easy, but at the level of the city you have the ability to co-create and co-design your policies in a way that I think is harder to do at the national level. 

The problem, though – and this is the reason I say not all cities are the same – is that you need the willingness to do what you do out there. You had very clear goals around housing for all, but also leadership around digital sovereignty, and forming safe places to disagree and debate these issues. And that’s a choice, but it’s very hard, because I don’t think we trained civil servants in cities to think of yourselves as such proactive actors.  So, I think it also requires a transformation of city government in terms of the training and education of the bureaucracies. Why do we think “bureaucratic” is a negative word? We need bureaucracy, but we have rigid vertical bureaucracies. The kind of engagement you strive for – also because of your own history in social movements – requires a much more agile, horizontal type of bureaucracy. The question is, how do you design that? 

What I found interesting with the moon landing is that NASA did that. It was the first thing they did after the Apollo one fire. One of the astronauts, Gus Grissom, asked, “how are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t even talk between two or three buildings?” He couldn’t hear what was being said to him in the mission control room. They had to redesign NASA to be directed by these project managers, each with their own teams, but the idea was that they would need constant communication with one another. To fight all the battles you’re interested in we need an all-government approach, instead of a siloed departmental approach. But first, that requires the reorganization of your own bureaucracy.

In Barcelona, although we don’t have jurisdiction over healthcare, which belongs to the region, we’ve created public services that didn’t exist before, such as public dentists and free public psychologists for young people

ADA COLAU | I find what you say particularly interesting because I’ve experienced this in the social movements I’ve been involved in, especially in the housing movement. In social movements, we’re well versed in carrying out actions with very little money and scarce resources. You have an urgent goal, and you need to make the biggest possible cooperative effort to achieve it. All this accumulated experience is linked to the experience of the city. However, when you’re a social movement, you aren’t asked to be responsible for everything, because you’re one part of a body of citizens.

This completely changes when you’re in public authority. In general, people don’t distinguish whether it’s the public authority of the city, the region, or the state, that’s doing or not doing something. It makes sense for them to ask local government for everything because you’re closer to them, but at the same time it’s very hard because most things aren’t within you’re jurisdiction. And, of course, you have to respond; I’m in politics because I want to respond. But among other things, we have the challenge of showing how positive our capacity to transform is, which is something you express very well. What is happening to us now, for example, especially managing the impacts of the pandemic, is that although we do many things that were not being done before, instead of seeing that positive part and seeing that we’re moving forward together, the perception is that it’s never enough.

The truth is that public authority is more discredited than ever, thanks to years of corruption. In general, people don’t believe in politics and there’s a major crisis of trust. And, on the other hand, so many problems have accumulated that even if you do a lot, it’s overshadowed by the fact that there’s still a lot to do. For example, in Barcelona, although we don’t have jurisdiction over healthcare, which belongs to the region, we’ve created public services that didn’t exist before. These include public dentists and free public psychologists for young people – at the time when they were most needed because of the exacerbation of the mental health crisis through the pandemic. We’ve also created a public energy company and, while we cannot produce energy ourselves, we have been able to market green energy and lower the prices a little. We’ve done things, even in a context of multiple crises, that we’d been told were impossible. The question is how to present this as collective progress, restoring trust, with the vision that we’re effectively transforming reality together and moving forward.

MARIANA MAZZUCATO | It’s also about having the space to make mistakes. I mean, I’m always saying it’s incredible how, in the world of entrepreneurship, the venture capitalists brag about the risks they took and the failures they had, and how after many failures, finally they succeeded. Civil servants cannot do that. As soon as you make a mistake, you’re on the front page of a newspaper. So, I think it’s not just about trust, we need a change of culture and mindset where we say, “in order to be capable, we need to learn by doing, and trial and error, and error.” 

It’s clear that some errors have consequences. But the first thing to consider is: are we investing in the ability to learn from those errors? So, some of these issues are about investment within the civil service and its own capabilities to learn, to become a knowledge organization, and to welcome experimentation. In the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose we call it practice-based theorizing. You might have a great idea of what to do, but when you try to implement it, you see that it’s much harder than you thought, and you bring back the learning to the theory. Like with a public fund, I mean, if you set up a new public bank or the City Wealth Fund, and make it, for example, mission oriented, so it’s not just handing money out, what does this mean for the portfolio, or for the risk reward, or for the notion of a public venture capitalist? There’s a lot of nitty gritty difficulties, but if you don’t have the space to experiment, you cannot learn. So, I think we’ve set the civil service up to fail. And I think maybe for someone like you, who is very ambitious, and who has led in so many things (like digital sovereignty, data sharing, and the idea of the data commons) what is needed is a way to communicate to citizens that this is a process of experimentation, but also to bring people with you. I think you do that now in terms of citizen engagement in those processes. 

We’ve used Decidim Barcelona for the city’s first ever participatory budgets, which involved people deciding on how to spend 30 million euros

ADA COLAU | Yes, but it’s not easy. It’s like when you analyze an economy that isn’t working well enough to meet objectives like guaranteeing common goods or citizens’ rights; when we move into the City Council, we also find an old institution that doesn’t work well for certain things. For example, we find a bad institutional design that promotes maintaining distance from citizens. If you need to go through processes to make substantial changes, you need close contact with people, but the institution was not designed to do that. In the digital field, for example, we’ve created Decidim Barcelona, which, as you’ve often mentioned, was developed in conjunction with the hacker community. It’s a participation platform that uses free software, which is unusual for public administration systems where everything tends to be created using private software. Thanks to being on free software, Decidim could be replicated right away and has been adapted for other administrations such as the European Commission and the Catalan Government. Currently, the platform has been translated into 53 languages and is used by local governments and very diverse institutions, such as Mexico City, Helsinki, New York, Kalogawa (in Japan) and the National Assembly of France. This shows that what we’re creating here in Barcelona is being replicated across many other parts of the world. Here, among other processes, we’ve used it for the city’s first ever participatory budgets, which involved people deciding on how to spend 30 million euros.

However, we’re at a time in which, I insist, there are multiple crises, not only economic and ecological crises, but also political ones. In the eyes of citizens, political authority is losing traction, and the perception is that what is being done is never enough. We must innovate much more, and open spaces for design and decision-making to make politics into collective action everyone can call their own. If the public sphere continues to be that space to which representation and responsibility is delegated, and which has to take charge of everything, this isn’t going to work. The public sphere must be empowered, but it has to be reformulated at the same time. The public sector cannot be understood as the mummy- or daddy-state that takes care of everything, it won’t work.

Instead of food banks, we should say food cooperatives, or instead of Universal Basic Income, we should say a Citizens Share or even a Citizen’s Dividend

MARIANA MAZZUCATO | I think it’s interesting to change the storytelling or the narrative. What could maybe energize people more, and give them a bit of skin in the game, are the tools. Instead of food banks, we should say food cooperatives, or instead of Universal Basic Income, we should say a Citizens Share or even a Citizen’s Dividend. I like the idea of Basic Income, but I don’t like the term, because it doesn’t debunk the narrative that businesses create wealth, that they pay tax, and the government then gives back some sort of basic income to everybody. The term Citizen’s Share is different because it brings the sense of sharing the wealth people have helped to co-create. I mean, you have a Citizen’s Dividend of the value that you’ve contributed towards creating. It just gives you agency. And it’s not just about the story and the words, but also about creating the mechanisms to make that work. For example, with a public bank for the city. 

I live in London, and part of Camden hosts Google, Facebook, etc. All the biggest companies are now near King’s Cross Station. We also have University College London, the Welcome Trust, the British Museum, and the British Library. These are all like public institutions, and we have all these companies that benefit massively from being part of this social knowledge machine. So, we need to form a fund with not only the business rates or the taxation that they pay back to the city, but also more, in recognition that they’ve benefited from this huge collective social structure. And through that fund, you can then create a mechanism through which people – in Camden, in this case – help to think, what are the priorities? Where should these investments go? But also, any sort of local Universal Basic Income could be handed out as part of that fund. It’s a dividend that goes back to people for having created this amazing knowledge quarter. As soon as you start giving people the sense – because it’s true, it’s not brainwashing – that they are part of a collective value creation machine and they deserve some of the rewards that they contributed to, it just changes the energy in the room. It’s different from just fighting to get something back from the state. And I think there’s something important about progressives becoming much more able to talk about wealth creation and value creation and not just redistribution.

In the normal everyday, not the Covid-19 pandemic, how can we guarantee easy access to basic services like mental health, physical health, job guarantee schemes, and so on?

ADA COLAU | This brings me to something that happened when the labor reform led by Yolanda Diaz, the Minister of Labor and Social Economy, was passed. The worst thing wasn’t that it was approved thanks to a mistaken vote in favor from the right, but that there were progressive parties that voted against it. Some explained voting against as being due to maximalism, but it was a clear case of partisanship. The point is that Yolanda Díaz led a social dialogue where unions and employers managed to reach an agreement. This is difficult and happens only rarely, and yet it reached a Parliament where some parties wanted to block it. The rift between citizens and politics sometimes seems enormous.

You’re right to be concerned with how we explain things, with the storytelling. We need to think, above all, about citizen empowerment, which is the true catalyst for taking steps forward. From the city we’re doing a lot of things that fall outside our jurisdiction in areas such as housing, the fight against climate change, energy, and social rights. But how can we get what we’re doing at the level of the city, with scarce resources, to be done by the state too? How can we make the things that are happening in the city into a call? It has to be a call from the citizens, it cannot be partisan, it cannot be led by a party.

MARIANA MAZZUCATO | This is where experimentation is important. In Camden, as I said, they put the homeless people in local hotels during the lockdown, but the really interesting thing wasn’t that, but how they did it. Camden is part of this very interesting part of London, but it has a lot of poverty. You have St Pancras station, which gets you to Paris in two hours. But it’s on the back of Somers Town, one of the poorest neighborhoods, which is most affected by crime. When they used local hotels for homeless people they had to invent the services. So, people who before had no access to anything, suddenly had the most user-friendly welfare state with mental health services, food, job schemes, doctors, etc. It was like a one stop shop. They also have this in the United Arab Emirates, which isn’t great for democracy, but is quite innovative on these issues. In one place you get your driver’s license, your Social Security, or you can apply for different types of benefits, all really easily. And Camden had to do that during the lockdown.

The question is, how do we make that normal? In the normal everyday, not the Covid-19 pandemic, how can we guarantee easy access to basic services like mental health, physical health, job guarantee schemes, and so on? For example, another really interesting thing, in a moment when the UK government isn’t inspiring, is that they made a digital platform called Government Digital Services (GDS) and won a big international design award, but initially they’d outsourced it to a terrible private sector company, which currently is getting private contracts from many governments. They failed. So the BBC team, who came into the government, created a new platform, but they began by saying, “we need to stop thinking of the citizen as a client or a customer, we need to think of the citizen as a person with human rights, and make it easy to access the right to everything you know you deserve as a citizen.” They used that kind of human rights approach, as Leilani Farha does with a human rights approach toward housing, to design the digital platform. So, they designed a web platform with a human rights mentality instead of seeing citizens as customers or clients of a hospital or of a school.

What we need is to redesign, not only things like contracts, but also the institutions. There’s this “human people focus” and it’s interesting how cities implement that, in a moment of crisis. But the question is, how do you do it in normal times? And also: how does the nation at the higher level learn from that, but also give you the resources to do that proactively and not on the back of a napkin?

European funds are good news, as this is a complete U-turn in terms of the sort of response that has been given in Europe since the financial crisis of 2008. I’m optimistic because these funds represent a change in vision

ADA COLAU | I suppose we can situate some of these elements and think about future scenarios if we consider the Next Generation funds and their relationship to the ecological transition. For me, the European funds are good news, as this is a complete U-turn in terms of the sort of response that has been given in Europe since the financial crisis of 2008. I’m optimistic because these funds represent a change in vision. In Spain, that I know of first-hand, though undoubtedly in other places too, the problem is, there’s a tendency towards going back to acting through inertia. The state, for example, distributes the funds between its ministries so that everyone is happy. Objectives and missions aren’t designed, but funds are distributed according to this departmental perspective. 

On the other hand, as the state is bureaucratically incapable of delivering, it transfers huge allocations to large private entities, such as the great automobile industry. It’s clear that this sector needs to be revolutionized: it provides thousands of jobs and has to offer sustainable mobility and electric vehicles. But the European funds’ flagship measure cannot be to pay for the transition of any private automobile company. This is not and cannot be the spirit of European funds.

MARIANA MAZZUCATO | Yes, and that’s why the mission’s perspective has to be strong, because the point isn’t to design a siloed mission. To go to the Moon was not just aerospace, it was nutrition, electronics, materials, and software. So, any one of these missions, beneath the two big climate and digital missions, have to be cross-sectoral by definition, but that needs to be designed into the system. Otherwise, what’s happening? You’re absolutely right, it becomes a departmental mission where everyone gets their little chunk of money and you kill not only the ambition, but interestingly, the multiplier effect. The reason the moon landing created a lot of money in the economy is that, by being cross-sectoral, it created lots of innovation that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. So, for every dollar of government money, it created like $10 of revenue, because it stimulated innovation and investment that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The worst you can do with public money is simply to put it into things that would have happened anyway. You need to put money into catalysts. That has a multiplicative effect. It makes investment happen across many different actors that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. And to do that, investment needs to be bold, inspirational, cross-sectoral, and cross-departmental. But if you don’t have a vision or a mission, you’re lost. So that’s when it becomes a wasted opportunity to take the next step.