A new generation of mayors are steering their cities to success. What can we learn from them and is this an opportunity for CEOs to collaborate on the cities of tomorrow?

Cities are flourishing. Once places that the successful sought escape from, they’ve now become places we want to live, play and do business in. But the knock-on effects – from housing shortages to transport congestion – must also be managed and balanced.

The job of tackling these new urban challenges and opportunities is increasingly falling on a fresh generation of mayors or, as some commentators would have it, ‘super mayors’ – city leaders who are often able to achieve more than traditional politicians ever could.

“With national governments seemingly frozen on issues like climate change, citizens are increasingly looking to mayors for solutions,” says Vishaan Chakrabarti, Director of Columbia University’s CURE (the Center for Urban Real Estate). “Particularly because mayors operate on a scale at which they can be directly accountable to their constituents, while their policies still impact millions of people.”

Putting their cities on the global map

Political theorist Benjamin Barber advocates a global parliament of mayors in his book If Mayors Ruled the World. A situation like that almost occurred at last year’s World Cities Summit (WCS) in Singapore, where noted mayors, including Rotterdam’s Ahmed Aboutaleb and Kigali’s Fidele Ndayisaba, gathered to share ideas on innovation and leadership insights. Ndayisaba pioneered brainwaves such as free Wi-Fi for Rwanda’s capital and making business easier by slashing the number of days a building permit takes to get approved from 145 to 25 days.

“Cities are in the global marketplace and it has become more important than ever before that decisions can be made and projects delivered with clarity and speed,” says Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson, who has pledged to attract 20,000 jobs to the city, build 5,000 homes and open 12 schools.

“In Liverpool, having a mayor means that everyone in the city, including businesses and residents who depend on services, can be assured that the city will be responsive to their needs and forward-facing to make the most of the opportunities we have.”

CEO mayors conversant in business

Mayors are often viewed as the chief executives of a city. If CEOs looking for leadership lessons see mayors as inspirational figures, it’s worth noting that many mayors have come from a business background themselves. Ndayisaba has an economics degree; former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s business interests made him one of the richest men on the planet.

In the UK the new batch of directly elected mayors has given us leaders like Dave Hodgson in Bedford, who used to run his own business services company. A Greater Manchester mayor representing the wider Manchester region will be coming next.

What can CEOs learn from mayors?

“Success usually comes from networks, not individual heroes,” says Jennifer Bradley, founding Director of the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation in Washington DC. “How can a CEO reach outside of her own organisation to take advantage of incredible resources of knowledge and experience not under her direct control? That’s what successful mayors do.”

‘How can a CEO take advantage of knowledge and experience not under her control? That’s what successful mayors do’

Mayors don’t work exactly like CEOs, though. If cities make profits, governments appropriate the cash. Mayors are answerable to councils and voters, and taking hard decisions isn’t easy, especially ones that result in long-term gain but short-term pain. But then CEOs are answerable to shareholders. “A successful mayor thinks long term – as should a successful CEO,” says Chakrabarti.

More opportunities for collaboration?

Chakrabarti mentions New York’s High Line as a prime example – the former railway that is now an acclaimed public park. Expedia CEO Barry Diller gave $15 million to the High Line, the Tiffany & Company Foundation $5 million.

“Businesses and business associations often work with mayors 
to advance transformative initiatives and investments, particularly around infrastructure, education and economic development,”
 says Bruce Katz, co-author of The Metropolitan Revolution and Vice President of the Brookings Institution, where he is also Director of the Metropolitan Policy Programme. “In Chicago, for example, Mayor Rahm Emanuel worked closely with World Business Chicago – and a diverse set
 of constituencies – to craft and implement an ambitious Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs.”

It seems like the era of the mayor is here. For Jennifer Bradley: “City mayors are on the front lines of innovation and government invention.” Part of that is due to necessity; as cities expand, 
they need to be better managed. Mayors provide leadership 
and direction.

But modern mayors also need to work with business, the 
third sector, and citizens – to make sure cities are working properly for everyone.

Images: Alamy

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