Intoxicating city: A conversation with 2014 TED Fellows Hero Gabriella Gomez-Mont

Gabriella Gomez-Mont receives the 2014 TED Fellows Hero Award. Photo: Ryan Lash

Gabriella Gomez-Mont receives the 2014 TED Fellows Hero Award. Photo: Ryan Lash

At TED2014, Fellows director Tom Rielly presented the 2014 Fellows Hero Award to 2009 inaugural Fellow and Senior Fellow Gabriella Gomez-Mont, arts-and-culture curator turned Chief Creativity Officer for Mexico City. The award recognizes outstanding service to the Fellows community, an exemplary member who takes the time to work with, create opportunities for and build collaborations with other Fellows. We were delighted to catch up with Gomez-Mont at the conference to congratulate her, and to find out how she’s settling into her new role as director of Laboratorio para la Ciudad, Mexico City`s brand-new creative think tank that is revisioning the city as an international vortex for creative and multidisciplinary urban thinking.

Were you surprised to receive the TED Fellows Hero Award?

I was completely surprised and blown away. I really did not see it coming this time around. I’m grateful and touched and inspired and all sorts of other things. Taghi Amirani [who won the award at TED2013] and I were saying we now have to go buy a billowing cape and get ourselves into all sorts of heroic adventures.

How is your new job unfolding for you?

It’s unfolding very quickly and at an amazing pace. I’m very excited about getting a better and better sense of everything that’s possible working from within government structures–structures that cover the whole city–creating collaborations across borders and disciplines. In these last months, I’ve been transitioning into a completely new space; before TED I was very much interested in multidisciplinary work within arts and culture, but now the conversations, tools, methodologies and input come from an even wider array of disciplines. And now it is the city itself that must become a surface for ideas, for experimentation, and Mexico City’s creative ethos must be let loose into other areas, beyond those usually thought of as “creative fields.” I also find it fascinating to think of government as a place to catalyze all of this. It is both seemingly a counterintuitive yet also very powerful idea. Imagination is not a luxury, I will say over and over again.

Many of the things that are coming into play have been inspired by the conversations I have had in recent years with people from all sorts of fields and walks of life. When I got Senior Fellowship, for example, I kept meeting such inspirational amazing people at TED — both the speakers but also the Fellows themselves and the people that attend the conference. As a result, I’ve become more interested each time in blowing open what “multidisciplinary” means and starting to work in new ways.

It’s been a very interesting exercise, extrapolating all the lessons that there are in the arts and culture space, working with narrative and metaphor and creative methodologies, but now applying them to the urban space itself, to social practices, and to this hybrid world in the making–between government and civil society–which is our lab. So now instead of it being a museum or an art project, the city — the whole delirious and intricate megalopolis — becomes the site for invention, the space to infiltrate our questions.

Tell us about some of the initiatives you’ve been working on.

I was hired about a year ago, but it took awhile for me to get a team together and figure out the administrative and legal structure, as well as the funding. It comes with inventing a non-existing government office from scratch, I guess. So, in fact, the Lab has only been operating for the last six months, and we had our first budget allocated in December 2013. Momentum has really sped up since then. My team is multidisciplinary in nature. I have architects and artists, designers, urban psychologists, historians, writers, internationalists — a motley crew for sure. It’s lots of fun.

We have very wide mandate, and so we decided we had to design constraints for ourselves (a beautiful problem to have) and to work in the framework of what we are calling “provocations”: open-ended questions that spin off events, interventions, pilots, workshops, and so on. Our Provocation no. 001 is “Government as Platform”; Provocation no. 002, Walkable Megalopolis; Provocation no. 003: Urban Imaginaries and Residual Spaces; Provocation no. 004: Sharable City. I could go on. I won’t. There are around 10 of them, and we’re opening them up slowly.

I must say we have had a fantastic response from civic society and press, as well as huge government support, specially from our mayor. Our first civic hackathon filled up in 4 days: we hosted 500 young programmers, with more than 200 people on the waiting list. We’ve just had our first conference on the walkable city, which was filled to the brim with 500 people — standing-room only, projects and pilots to follow. Our international guests were really surprised with the civic energy in Mexico City. In terms of open government, we are already working with 13 ministries, and the legal department just jumped on board. It told us it wants to put Mexico City on the map with the most progressive legislation on the subject. Very exciting.

The core question is, how do you put out these themes that can be very complex but also make them engaging, and gather passionate communities around them, within and outside of government? How do we create a culture of great ideas and swift implementation?

One of our next experiments will be “Mexico City: The Largest Dance Floor in the World,” for which I received a grant from the TED City 2.0 Prize. It’s a citywide happening and competition that will bring together Mexico City’s love for public space and crazy street dancing, and will offer a different way of thinking about health-related urban culture, taking advantage of the natural energy and effervescence that the city has while tackling the obesity related problems we are also facing.

It sounds like you’re trying to get conversations started, circulating ideas so that the ideas create momentum for change to happen.

Absolutely. One of the most important experiments coming from the lab is how to start marrying interesting public policy with unbound social energy, articulating common efforts. How can we start identifying the interesting things that are happening within government — such as its interest in making the city more walkable, or more healthy or so on, and surround these initiatives with active communities and provocative accomplices? Projects and themes must function as strange attractors and form multilayered realities. Government lays the groundwork. Social energy gives public policy a grounding in reality instead of it hovering above our heads as law. Academia gives it depth, a framing device and a language. Private initiative funds, promotes, shares values. Instigators drive the questioning two notches further, into more unexplored terrain. We at the Lab bring together, articulate, pilot, experiment, rethink, provoke.

It’s truly a collaborative process, very much about co-creating the reality of the city. It’s different type of city, beyond the pragmatic precepts of modernism and into the experiential city, the human-scale city, the creative city. At the Lab, we truly believe that cities nowadays should not only house the human body but also the human imagination.

You’ve often talked about involving people from all over the world in this project, including TED Fellows. What about all the creative people in Mexico City who want to be involved?

The thing is, this is not about an either/or in terms of local versus global. Nowadays, the city cannot necessarily be defined by its borders. On the contrary, it’s about how many bridges, how porous and intensely connected it is within itself and with other cities.

One number that doesn’t often get thrown out often is that 90% of the new cities and the megacities of the future are going to be in the emerging world, so many of them are going to be a lot like Mexico City. We are an emerging-world city–with all the challenges that entails–yet Mexico City is also the eighth largest economy in the world, plus it is truly one of the most fascinating places on Earth. So it’s the perfect ground to pilot futures — to instigate international conversations that are very relevant not only to ourselves, but to a whole populous worldwide.

One of the changes we’ve been seeing in the last decade is this contagious effect between cities. For example, you have a successful bike sharing program in Paris and suddenly we have it in Mexico City and we have it New York. It starts creating this worldwide momentum. So one of the things that we’re doing is actually marrying the most creative minds of Mexico City with the most creative minds that the world has as well–this new generation of provocative city thinkers from different disciplines–and then see what happens in that space of interaction and friction. It’s not necessarily about people coming to Mexico City to stand on the podium tell the people about the truth with the capital T, but creating a space for questions and passions, collaboration and mutual intoxication.