The year is 1995 and Bogota, Columbia is listed on the international watch advisory as the most dangerous city in the world, rampant with narco traficantes, warlords and corruption. Traffic deaths alone, caused mostly by the fear of carjacking, top one thousand five hundred a year. It’s a nightmare. You’re the new mayor. What do you do?
Enter Antanas Mockus, a university professor of mathematics and philosophy who campaigned for mayor on a platform of non-violence with the slogan “arm yourself with love.” He won promising the first thing he would do was deal with the traffic deaths.
After two months and no policy ideas in sight, he almost gave up when an elder in the community, joked that “when there’s nothing left to do, send in the clowns.” He had his answer.
Within weeks, he fired 400 corrupt traffic cops and replaced them with – mimes – yes I said mimes – who now controlled the street corners with nothing but signs that read correcto on one side if people stopped at the red light and incorrecto when they didn’t.
Surely they issued tickets? – no. They had guns? No. They were doubly unarmed – with neither words nor weapons.
Antanas also had shooting stars painted on the pavement at every spot where someone had been killed – making people think twice before jumping into a busy intersection.
Policy makers, take note. In the first year, traffic deaths dropped by fifty per cent.
This eventually created what he called a cultura ciudadana or a citizenship culture – fertile ground for him to then introduce a volunteer disarmament program aimed at reducing the percentage of murders committed by guns. As a result of City Hall’s campaign “That all guns rest in peace for this Christmas”, the homicide rate dropped drastically in just 10 years. What did they do with the weapons? Melted them into spoons for thousands of disadvantaged children, and each was inscribed with the words “I was a gun”.
This artist mayor preferred to see himself as a creative pedagogue and his city as a large classroom. He realized that he had very little time to address a societal problem that had reached crisis proportions. And he understood the transformational power of an intervention that is “artistic” in nature and how art “enlarges the repertoire of conceivable actions”, and acts as an acupuncture point that resonates through the whole system.
And he understood how ART moves people from apathy to empathy. Pedestrians who were used to not trusting anyone, rushing through the streets, clutching their handbags, arrived at an intersection to encounter not a heavily armed, imposing police officer, but a clown. And one that appeared to have the situation under control. The clown evoked an unexpected emotional reaction. And there is never lasting change without emotion.
Invoking the mimes was what Matthew May, the author of In Pursuit of Elegance would describe as an “elegant” intervention. He argues that the best solutions have something missing, that “full power is achieved when maximum impact is achieved with minimum input.” Art, in its economy and efficiency, embodies this notion. Its seductive quality reaches out to us and invites us in a non-confrontational and non-violent way to interpret it, and through it, ourselves, our feelings, our impressions, our judgments. It invites us to play. What is key is that this moment takes us out of our normal way of looking at things, it is what renders the familiar unfamiliar, for a split second, we see the world differently. We dare to imagine an adjacent possibility.
Moreover, an elegant solution, like the mimes in Bogotá, acts as acupuncture – it penetrates a precise point and then reverberates throughout the entire system. The combination of the mimes, the stars and the cards spread virally to do much more than reduce traffic deaths. It gave citizens a sense of pride and admiration in each other. Citizens reclaimed responsibility for their safety and began to self-regulate. While saving thousands to the administration, it cracked the corruption problem. It brought security back to the streets and launched the dawning of the cultura ciudadana.
The new sense of citizenship was fertile ground for Mockus to then introduce a volunteer disarmament program aimed at reducing the percentage of murders committed by guns. As a result of City Hall’s campaign “That all guns rest in peace for this Christmas”, the homicide rate dropped from 80 to 22 per 100,000 inhabitants in just 10 years. What did they do with the weapons? Melted them, converted them into spoons for disadvantaged children, and inscribed them with “I was a gun”.
As citizens began to take pride in their city and adopt a sense of a “citizenship culture”, Mockus introduced a voluntary tax system, asking citizens to pay 10 per cent extra. 63,000 responded to the call and between 1990 and 2002, Bogotá’s tax revenues more than tripled, increasing from $200 million to $750 million. While some fifteen years later, Bogotá still struggled with gangs and corruption, as a result of Mockus invoking “surprise” and enlarging the repertoire of conceivable actions, the capital’s slogan was “The only risk is that you’ll never want to leave.”