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How Can COWS Help to Make Better Cities?

David Boyd / Mar 10 2012

For Release Saturday, March 10, 2012
Citiwire.net

David BoydMADISON — There are COWS in the Sewell Social Science building on the campus of the University of Wisconsin here. That probably doesn’t come as a surprise, given Wisconsin’s reputation as “America’s Dairyland.” But it’s not the kind of cows you would expect. COWS is an acronym for the “Center On Wisconsin Strategy.” For the past 20 years it has been an epicenter for promoting and disseminating “high road” solutions to a wide array of social, economic, and environmental problems.

The idea behind “high road” solutions is based on a set of values — a focus on equity, sustainability, and democracy. And closely allied, implementation strategies to improve the efficiency and productivity of government. It is about creating “an appropriate infrastructure for a progressive economy,” says Joel Rogers, COWS Director. “People have lost faith in government and our democratic institutions. Part of what COWS does is focus on inventories and benchmarks and then help to find ways to reduce waste, add value, and then capture and share the benefits for all. We are a think-and-do tank.”

COWS has a variety of programs that address topics such as improving job quality, promoting innovation in clean and efficient energy, and providing progressive policy options to state governments and their DOTs. One program that is getting increasing attention and having a growing impact is the Mayors Innovation Project (MIP).

The Mayors Innovation Project was launched in 2005 by COWS and the former mayor of Madison, Dave Cieslewicz. The concept is simple — provide a place where mayors can meet, face-to-face, to exchange ideas about policies and practices. “If all you do is come to the office every day and get on a treadmill, after a while you stop seeing things with fresh eyes. And that’s deadly. The Mayor’s Innovation Project gets you out of your routine, off the treadmill,” said Cieslewicz.

The MIP is “a group of people that want to do good things in their cities, want to think about policies and how they apply, and how they can make their cities better on a day-to-day basis,” adds Satya Rhodes-Conway, the senior associate who oversees the project. She adds that COWS strives to make the environment “non-partisan, not bi-partisan — it is values-based. That’s part of what gives the network its strength. Participants value having a place to talk about policies and what is going on in their cities.”

How does MIP work? First, it is completely member-driven and supported financially by dues. To date, over 100 cities, ranging from mega-metropolitan areas such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, to such smaller cities like Burlington (Vt.), Eugene (Ore.), and Oak Park (Ill.) have taken part in MIP meetings. The gatherings occur over two days and are held twice a year. Attendance is limited to roughly 70 persons. The demand is growing so quickly that expansion plans are in the works. The meetings are organized around topical themes and the mayors have the opportunity to hear from key researchers and policy experts. Ample time is dedicated for the exchange of ideas through a formal forum and informal networking. While each attendee receives a briefing book, notes Rhodes-Conway, “we encourage the mayors to bring someone with them if they can, that way there is someone with additional memory that the mayor can interact with when they get home.”

In addition to all the learning and networking, each mayor is encouraged to take three or four new policy ideas home for immediate implementation. MIP staff makes technical assistance available to help communities with the implementation process.

How is it working? One strong supporter is Mayor Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City. “The Mayors Innovation Project gives me a rare opportunity,” he says, “to delve into timely topics in a free-flowing combination of best thinking and practices, and bring back home thinking about how I can apply them to Salt Lake City. Some of the best actions we’ve taken in Salt Lake City come directly from MIP interactions.”

The project is growing, with room for more cities to participate. A growing number of partner organizations, such as the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Project for Public Spaces, donate staff time and expertise to support the meeting process. State and Federal agencies and offices, including the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, are frequent participants. Recently, the Ford Foundation provided some funding to help assemble and make available a host of policy ideas. The project isn’t intended to compete with other organizations, such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors or the Mayors’ Institute on City Design — rather it’s seen as an alternative way for mayors to learn about or vet new ideas.

Perhaps Salt Lake City’s Mayor Becker summed it up best when he said: “Cities are where innovations are happening in this country.”

But that’s perhaps not the whole story. In this age of hyper-partisanship, it is reassuring to know there’s a place focused on values and outcomes where mayors can learn about what others are doing. “There are cities across this country that are doing amazing, innovative things; there needs to be a place where they can get ideas which will improve the quality of life for their citizens,” says Rhodes-Conway.

Indeed, helping to refocus our democratic institutions on outcomes that benefit all citizens is an idea that should stand with us well until the COWS come home.


David Boyd is a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners and CEO of the Urban Associates Group, headquartered in Middleton, Wisconsin.

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2 Comments

  1. Mike Koetting
    Posted March 10, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I am a little puzzled how someone can promote “non-partisan” conversations on social, economic and environmental topics” that are focused on “equity, sustainablility and democracy” when one party’s values seem be taking a vacation from equity, sustainability and democracy. It must be a curious conversation among the mayors if they are to restrain from noting that one party is trying to remove mass transit from the transportation bill, leading efforts to oppose smart growth, attacking family planning, hoping to limit access to health care and doing a pretty good job of hamstringing the Federal government’s ability to return monies to cities. I guess they can talk about their baseball teams.

  2. DS Boyd
    Posted March 11, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your comment Mike. Perhaps others would care to weigh in. My experience has been that, for the most part, mayors try to focus on what they think is good for their communities. I think a more common complaint might be that cities tend to operate from a perspective of self-interest. And they do talk about their baseball teams too! Thanks for reading!