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Follow the Data Podcast: The Innovative Mayor, Naheed Nenshi

Joan Clos, the former mayor of Barcelona, once said, “Cities and towns have been, and continue to be, crucibles of innovation and advancement.” Calgary’s chief executive, Mayor Naheed Nenshi, echoed Mayor Clos in his recent conversation with James Anderson, Government Innovation Program Lead at Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Now in his third term, Mayor Nenshi has been a consistent voice for how civic innovation can improve people’s lives. He is currently leading a citywide effort to transform how Calgary supports people coping with mental illness and addiction – one that he hopes can become an international model in just five years.

In this episode of Follow the Data, Mayor Nenshi and James discuss how his experience as a professor and business consultant have informed his approach to the job of being mayor, the “simple social movement” happening in Calgary that’s improving the city’s schools and neighborhoods, and why it’s important for political leaders to talk about pluralism. Additionally, they discuss Calgary’s participation in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative and the “life-changing career moments” it’s created for a number of Calgary’s civil servants.

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We hope you enjoy this episode. Follow us on Twitter @BloombergDotOrg for information about our next episode. Until then, keep following the data!


KATHERINE OLIVER: Welcome to Follow the Data, I’m your host, Katherine Oliver.

You may know Naheed Nenshi, the Mayor of Calgary, as the first Muslim mayor of a large North American city. He was elected in 2010, and is now in his third term.

You may not know about his wide-ranging professional background, that he has become a passionate voice in favor of pluralism, and how he continues to challenge himself and his team as a seasoned Mayor.

While attending the Forum on Future Cities at MIT in Boston, Mayor Nenshi spoke to James Anderson, Government Innovation program lead at Bloomberg Philanthropies. They discuss the mayor’s application of skills as a consultant and professor to elected office – his participation in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative – and his team’s effort to transform how the city supports people suffering from mental illness and addiction.

Listen to the episode now.

JAMES ANDERSON: Welcome to the Innovative Mayor.  My name is James Anderson and I’m here today with Mayor Naheed Nenshi of Calgary, a city in the Alberta Province of Canada.  Mayor Nenshi is now in his third term and has been on the frontlines tackling some major challenges in his city ranging from economic recovery, to homelessness, and mental health and addiction.  We’ll discuss some of those issues today, welcome, Mayor Nenshi.  Thank you for joining us.

MAYOR NENSHI: Thanks very much, Jim, happy to be here.

ANDERSON: So, before becoming Mayor of Calgary you had a very interesting background.  Tell us a little bit about your professional history, why you decided to become a mayor, and how you got there.

MAYOR NENSHI: So, I’ve had sort of three different careers.  After I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary in business, I did what people who have a business degree do, I went off and joined McKinsey. And so, I worked in consulting for a number of years.  I did my graduate work at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in there somewhere and continued to work basically with very big businesses and learned a lot about things like women’s lingerie.  It’s true. When I finished up that piece of my work, I started my own consulting firm working with for-profit, nonprofit, and government organizations, so, everything from clothing chains to the United Nations, talking about how businesses can help the poorest people in the world.

In the midst of all of that, for different reasons, I wanted to go back to Calgary where I grew up where my family is, and I was kind of flitting all over the world as you do in that kind of life, and just decided I wanting to do something to set roots, and through a series of strange coincidences ended up entering the university world.

Basically, an old professor of mine called me up and said, “Hey, I’ve always thought you’d be a good teacher.  Do you want to cover for someone who is taking a sabbatical?”  And that led to a different career, and I ended up being the first tenured professor in the field of non-profit management in Canada at the School of Business at Mount Royal University.  I love teaching, but I was a terrible researcher because I was much more interested in influencing policy and practice than I was in academic writing.

Somehow the university tolerated me, but I was really focused in two areas.  One of them was the issue of civic engagement, how and why people get more involved in their communities, how and why people volunteer, and the other was just a personal interest, which is about cities as crucibles of social innovation.  It’s where people live.  It’s where people clash with one another, or come together and how they solve problems.

So, bringing those two things together, what I found is it’s actually very easy to get people involved in their communities.  The number one reason people don’t volunteer is not I don’t have time, or I don’t have money.  It’s “Nobody asked me,” and so you just have to ask them.  So, since I’ve been mayor, I’ve been running the simplest social movement in the world, it started as Three Things for Calgary.  For Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017, we took it nationwide into Three Things for Canada, and I encourage anybody listening to this to steal it.  It’s completely open source.  All it is, is asking every citizen every year to do at least three acts of community service, to do three things for the community, and the idea here is, of course not to do three things, but to start a lifetime habit of service, asking people.

So, what we learned is you ask people, they do it.  And for three things tens of thousands of people have signed up, and it really has changed schools and communities, neighborhoods.

ANDERSON: I don’t know a lot of mayors who spent time as a management consultant.  If you were to reduce it to two key things that you think that background brought to you at City Hall, what would they be?

MAYOR NENSHI: You know, I’m lucky that I’ve worked in all three sectors, in the private sector, in the non-profit sector, in the public sector, because I see that the barriers between them are not really very interesting, and it’s not as simple as saying because government should be run more like business.  I don’t think that’s the answer at all.

I think the answer here is looking at a problem critically, analyzing that problem dispassionately, but trying to see it from many different angles to be able to find a solution, and if you can get away from partisanship and you can get towards evidence-based decision-making, that’s what my skill as both an academic and a consultant brought me, and I think that’s really helped me, but I want to say one other thing.

I’m weirdly qualified for this job, but that doesn’t actually mean that only people with my background should do this job.  So, yeah, difficult financial analysis is very second nature to me, but when I look around my city council, I have a nurse, a clothing designer, a guy who drove a forklift, a cop, a school principal, and I think that these things are incredibly important, that we have a real variety of people representing the community sitting around that table with very, very different perspectives, because we can train people on financial analysis.

ANDERSON: That’s right.

MAYOR NENSHI: We can’t train them on life, and the fact that we have people who are experts in their own lives sitting around political tables, I think is incredibly important, and I think the professionalization of politics where you have to be rich, or you have to be a lawyer, or you have to have grown up in politics your whole life really, really devalues the ability of legislative bodies to make good decisions.

ANDERSON: What does it mean to be Canada’s first Muslim mayor?

MAYOR NENSHI: So, to be technical about it, I’m not the first Muslim mayor in Canada.  There have been a couple of others in smaller centers.  Depending on how you define the term major city, I am the first Muslim mayor of a major city in the western world, and what was interesting is that on the night I was elected in 2010, very early the next morning, I suddenly found myself extremely famous.

Everyone wanted to talk to me, CNN, “Time Magazine,” Al Jazeera, and every single local, and national media outlet in Canada, and they didn’t want to talk to me because I’m extremely good looking, or have great hair, or ran a fascinating campaign, or had really innovative ideas about public transit.  All of those are true.  All of that happened later.

Okay, some of those are true.  They weren’t even interested in the color of my skin, because I’m also the first nonwhite mayor of a major city in Canada.  They were only interested in my faith.  And at that point, back in 2010, I had a choice to make.  I could have said, “I’m not interested in talking about this,” because frankly it was not in any way an issue during the election.  The people of Calgary didn’t care how I worship.

They cared what I was going to do about trash collection.  But at the same time even then, even in 2010, I felt that this wave of division, populism if you like, xenophobia was growing around the world.  And I thought, here’s an opportunity to tell a really important story about a place where pluralism works, about a place where people have opportunity regardless of what they look like, or where they come from, or how they worship or whom they love, and that story needs to be told, and so I embraced it.  As we’ve seen, frankly, I think decreases in human rights in many places it is incredibly important to talk about pluralism, and to talk about the fact that we’ve got to have a society where every kid growing up in society doesn’t think there’s any job they can’t do because of their faith. And I never did.  Maybe rabbi would have been hard, but other than that, I felt like everything was open to me.

ANDERSON: In one of your yearend interviews you talked about the fact that what we’re now seeing is how quickly entire countries can turn towards populism, and I wonder how you’re working to defend against it.  How does that translate to how you show up every day as a mayor to the way that you create policy?  What are the connections that keep your city a pluralistic place with a pluralistic vision?

MAYOR NENSHI: I worry about this every day, because even in Canada we’re starting to see attacks on this.  In the province of Quebec, Canada’s second largest province, there is proposed legislation that’s supposed to be about secularism, this law in Quebec basically says that you cannot wear visible articles of faith if you are providing public services.

The challenge here, of course, is that some faiths require the wearing of those articles if you’re a devout member of that faith.  Catholics can always hide their cross under their shirt, but Sikhs can’t hide their turban.  Observant Jews can’t hide their Kippah.  It’s very clear that this is not intended to create a secular space.  It’s intended to create a space where people of those faiths are not welcome.  And that’s in Canada, the most successful pluralistic country in the history of the world, I’d like to say.  So, that’s shocking.

And what we know is that the tapestry of pluralism wherever it is found, is incredibly delicate.  And when people start pulling on the threads of that tapestry, it can unravel very, very quickly, and if the person pulling on that thread happens to have a strong arm, in other words if you are a politician with a microphone and you start pulling on those threads, the damage you do can be extremely difficult to repair.

So, let me tell you a terrifying story.  A couple of weeks ago my friend, the Orthodox Rabbi, the Chabad Rabbi of Calgary asked me if I would come to the airport to greet a distinguished visitor.  I don’t do this very often.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done it before.  When the Rabbi asks you to do something, you do it.  So, I showed up at the airport, and in Calgary we traditionally present distinguished visitors with a white cowboy hat, so I had a little white cowboy hat for his visitor.

Her name is Marta Cohn.  She is 98 years old.  She’s four foot nothing.  So this tiny, 98 year old woman, she was a Jewish resistance spy for the French during the Second World War.  Because she’s so tiny, and because she’s a woman, she could cross across the borders more easily than others.  And so 98 years old, four-foot nothing, I’m doing this little presentation, and I’m giving a nice speech and I’m saying, “Listen, thank you for doing the work that you do.  You know, it’s important that children remember what happened in the second World—they remember the Holocaust.  It’s important for you to do this work,” and she interrupted me.  I’m not used to being interrupted when I’m giving my, you know, incredibly earnest speeches.

ANDERSON: Mayors never are.

MAYOR NENSHI: No.  So, she interrupted me, and she said, “I can’t stop.” And I said, “What?” and she said, “I can’t stop because the world we live in right now is so dangerous.  It is 1935.  I’ve read this book.  This is exactly 1935, and I know the next chapter.  That’s why I can’t stop.”

ANDERSON: One of the things that I think is happening we certainly see it in the States, is economic fear and economic anxiety as one of the things that, takes people to negative places and negative views of others and outsiders.  I know in Calgary, you’re struggling economically, and I think that’s something that’s newer, but maybe we can talk about how that shifted your strategy, and how you’re trying to assuage people’s fears and at the same time bring growth and opportunity to people who need it.

MAYOR NENSHI: Sure. Very briefly, just as we get off the last topic, I will say that I do not buy that excuse.  I simply don’t, that people who say the reason that we’re seeing hatred and division is because others are feeling economically insecure.  It’s a cheap excuse, because it is just an excuse for denying other people their dignity and their rights, and what we know is that societies that are not torn up against one another are more prosperous.

So, if our goal is to create prosperity, then I want to have the smartest entrepreneurs and the biggest brains from anywhere in the world working to create jobs in my community.  I don’t care, as they say, what’s on your head.  I care what’s in it.  And I think that politicians and others who say, we have to understand why white supremacy is coming, it’s because people are worried about losing their way of life, because people are worried about the economy, people are worried about losing their jobs.  It’s a cheap excuse, and it’s not an excuse I buy.

That said, the most important thing you can do as a mayor is ensure people are living lives with dignity and prosperity.  So, to give a little background on Calgary, 1.3 million people, incredibly wealthy place on average, still lots of issues of poverty and so on, but on average very wealthy, and has always been for many years the economic engine of Canada and for much of North America.  With the global collapse and commodity crisis at the end of 2014, only my first term was easy.  The second and the third have been economically difficult–though what I always say is when the economy is doing really well, the city is poor.  When the economy is doing really badly, the city is poor.

So, when you’re in city government you’re always poor, there is no way out of that.  But, in the context of a changing world economy in the context of the collapse of energy prices, in the context of environmental change and climate change, we’re going through a very wrenching time in the city. We’ve always had the lowest unemployment in Canada.  We now have the highest.  Now the highest is just south of 8%, and so when I’m talking in an international context people often say your valleys are our mountains, but at the same time, this is not what we’re used to.  And a lot of people have been displaced, a lot of people are unemployed, a lot of people are going through a lot of pain.

It is incredibly important for me to use the limited tools I have to enhance investment, to bring in job creating entrepreneurs, and to provide incentives for the creation of good, decent jobs.  It’s hard. It’s a slog, but at the same time I’m very lucky to do it where I’m doing it in a place where I’ve got an incredibly well educated population, in a place where we still have a lot of private capital that is looking for investment in the place where we’re lucky that our business and social climate really allows for people to be innovative and try new things.

We often say that in Calgary nobody cares who your daddy was, or what your last name is, or where you went to school.  They care about what you bring to the table, so my job is to take that innovative, entrepreneurial spirit that has always defined our success and start to apply it in new ways in an economy that’s changing, while still supporting the energy sector, our safe, responsible energy sector. We need pipelines.  We need access to markets.  This stuff really matters, but at the same time we also need to be creating a more resilient economy.

ANDERSON: So, one of the big priorities for your third term is addiction, mental health, and the suite of very challenging issues associated. Tell me why that issue, why now, and how you’re working to approach it.

MAYOR NENSHI: When you’re the mayor, you are always putting out fires, sometimes very literally because you run the fire department, but it is difficult to create the space within a civic government that is focused on delivering services to think about bigger picture issues.  And for me, the crisis of mental health and addiction, and its complex relationships to social disorder and crime as well, is something that no one is spending enough time talking about.

So, in Calgary today, like in most North American cities, you are much more likely to die of an opioid overdose than you are to die in a car collision or from violent crime combined, and yet, our policy interventions have not been systemic in nature.  That’s a very technocratic way of saying, we try to keep the person alive and hope they might get better.  But we’re not really looking at the complex system in place to ensure that we’re really dealing with the issue holistically and helping people live dignified lives and lives of opportunity.  And so, my convening power as mayor—we live in a very weak mayor system in Calgary, and I don’t have any real power, but I do have convening power.

And so, my idea was to bring people from different sectors together much in the way that Housing First concepts changed how we think about homelessness, to really think about addiction and mental health.  So, I’ve told all the people working on this initiative that I have a very low bar for them to meet, and the very low bar is five years from now we want people across the world to say we should adopt the Calgary strategy in dealing with mental health and addiction.

I have no idea what that is, and the smart people will figure out what that is.  What I know is that the problem has to be addressed and it’s complicated.  It’s incredibly difficult, and I am a very simple, not very bright person.  I only have two solutions to every problem, and my two solutions to every problem put the person you’re trying to help at the middle of the system and think about the whole system.

ANDERSON: So, I am very interested in how you all move forward on this challenge for two real reasons.  The first is that you are bringing sort of the top down steer directionality, but thinking very, very much about allowing bottom up social innovation and entrepreneurship to drive the solutions, number one.  Number two, ultimately this just challenges everything the bureaucracy knows about governance.  And so, to be working across silos, across sectors, across levels of government, which I think is the vision, requires the development of new skills and different approaches compared to the way that bureaucracies typically zero in on something.

MAYOR NENSHI: I don’t think there is anything endemic to bureaucracy that forces silos to develop.  It’s just if your job is managing the trash, you’re going to manage the trash, and it’s not that you have any real problem with working with the Transit Department to figure out how to deal with trash at train stations, it’s just not your job.  So, I’m a bit iconoclastic about this issue, because I think breaking down silos is pretty easy.

A lot of that comes from my experience in disaster management when we were managing the floods in 2013, which was, at the time, the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, because once you get people and say, “Here’s a common problem,” I think that they are pretty good about working together.  And that’s why, though, you need the top down piece, because if you just allow the bottom up to work, then people will just admire the problem for a long time, but the top down piece about setting direction, timelines, targets, goals, overall impact, view, theory of change, of all those technocratic terms, I think is incredibly important because then it gives a framework for that social innovation to happen.

ANDERSON: I think the reality is that governments almost never do it well.  And so, I think the floor is littered with efforts to try and tackle these complex, multi-sectorial challenges. I think you’re probably right that it’s not necessarily specific to bureaucracies, but I do think the incentive structure, the reward structure, the accountability structure that are built into bureaucracies, the funding streams, and the challenges associated with them, create a unique set of challenges that make this work different.

MAYOR NENSHI: Now you’re getting very deep into my brain and how I think about this stuff.  So, when I was a professor of non-profit management—I’m going to give you my entire four year degree in the next 20 seconds.

ANDERSON: Awesome.

MAYOR NENSHI: Because where it ended up is simply this.  How do you measure success?  When you’re at an inflection point in a non-profit organization, how do you figure out where to go?  So, if I’m a homeless shelter, and last year I served 1,000 citizens a night, and this year I served 1,500 a night, am I doing better or worse?  It all depends on what I think my role is.

If my role is to keep people from freezing to death on the street, and I’m able to take 1500 people in the space that used only fit 1000.  I’m doing great.  If my role is to get people out of homelessness, I’m doing terrible, which means that in the non-profit sector you define yourself, not by earnings per share, but by how well you’re achieving your mission.  So, here is the final moments of the four year degree.  It is the same in the private and public sectors.  Earnings per share is just a measurement of whether you’re achieving your mission.

So, if you can be mission-driven, and if you can be laser focused on what that mission is, then you suddenly see that the things about reward structures and incentives and funding matter much less.  So, at the City of Calgary we have many, many, many statements of our vision and our mission, our overall 100 year vision is summarized as, “a great place to make a living and a great place to make a life,” hard to measure against though.  And so, in every elevator, in every water cooler in city buildings you’ll see a very simple mantra, and the mantra is “Making life better every day.” And so I tell my colleagues there’s nearly 20,000 of them at the City of Calgary, everyday ask yourself the question multiple times a day, how is what I am doing right now, making it better for someone to live here?  It’s about distilling the mission that simply.

ANDERSON: Did you do that?  Was that something that happened during your tenure?

MAYOR NENSHI: The feeling was always there.  The words required the leadership, I think, to be able to articulate them and to say this is what we’re all about.

ANDERSON: The topic at the conference today is the sort of intersection of new technologies and urban intelligence and public policy.  And you participated in a panel.  And I wonder how you think about that intersection and the role of the state and the role of local government.  We see city after city embracing smart city technologies, the promise of sustainability gains are great, service improvements, et cetera.  But there is also, I think, an increasing feeling that some of the risks are unmapped, and that we may not always know the deal that we’re making.  How are you thinking about those issues from your perch in Calgary?

MAYOR NENSHI: I mean, look, I’m a free markets guy, right?  McKinsey, Business professor.  I believe in the power of markets and market mechanisms to do amazing things.  But I also believe that we have to have a good discussion about the role of the regulator, especially in these uncharted waters.  So, you think about a city.  It’s no surprise to you that we are living at a point in human history for the first time in human history where the majority of people live in cities, and the world is becoming only more urbanized, so urban issues are human issues.  And when you think about a city itself and the collision of all those different kinds of people and ideas in one place, you also have an incredibly complicated database, so you have enormous amounts of data.  Cities are labs for big data like you wouldn’t believe.  And so, again, I’m a very simple person so I like to simplify things in two ways.  Number one is how do we use that information in ways that can help us deliver public services more effectively?

Number two is, can we figure out a way that those data can be used in order to help businesses grow and help do economic development?  But in the second case, we have to recognize that the data has a value.  It’s a public good.  And so if we are giving it away, bluntly, what are we getting in return in addition to economic growth?  And I think putting those goggles on when you’re thinking about these questions can help you as a regulator really help to understand how you’re moving in this world.  I know a lot of folks in the tech space would say look, government is irrelevant.  Government is analog.  We’re digital, but I actually think that’s incorrect.  I think government has an important role to play in safeguarding people safety and helping ensure people’s prosperity that cannot be played by the markets solely.

ANDERSON: I thought it was terrific when a mayor who was finishing his second term in office reached out to the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative and said, “Can I come in?  I want to be a part of this.”  What motivated you to sign up for a leadership development program at this stage in your mayoral career?  And what have you gotten out of the program thus far that you’re most excited about?

MAYOR NENSHI: There are really three things.  Number one was I’m a professor, so I believe in continuous learning, that you never know everything.  And so especially after at that time, seven and a half years in the job, it was a good opportunity to refresh, to sharpen my saw, to try and think about what new things were possible.  Number two was one of the great things about this initiative is it’s not just for mayors, and I thought “Gee,” if I can be the umbrella under which I can bring in my city staff to have a real career defining moment, you know, two senior leaders of the city get to actually spend a week at Bloomberg with Harvard faculty.  I mean, that’s going to change their lives.

Look, I’m a Kennedy School grad.  I’m lucky I’ve had some of this before.  It changed my life anyway.  But it’s totally going to change their lives, and certainly the initiative is so generous. I’ve had 12 people from the Calgary community, plus me, have life-changing career moments because of the generosity of this initiative, and I think that’s amazing because they are spreading that knowledge throughout my organization, and throughout the community, and I think that’s very cool.  Number three was maybe I have something to give, and I thought, you know, particularly when you have these cohort of newer and younger mayors, I’m not that old, but if I can be the gray beard in the room a little bit, and help them avoid some of the terrible mistakes that I made going through, then maybe that is helpful as well.

ANDERSON: Indeed.  If there was one thing you wish you knew when you started this job nine years ago that you know today, what would that be?

MAYOR NENSHI: I think be confident and strike while the iron is hot. I always say this to new politicians, and I wish I had done it even more myself, which is be—once you’ve been elected, be the best one term person you can be.  In other words, take the time you’ve been given, which is a great gift in office, and do as much as you can, and don’t worry about the next election, and don’t worry about what people might think.  And if you put yourself forward in the next election, people will respect that probably.  Don’t make your decisions based on polls.  Make your decision based on what’s the right thing to do, and if that means you get to serve only one term, but you did a great job, you can still be proud.

ANDERSON: Awesome.  with that, I think we will call it a wrap.  Thank you so much, Mayor Nenshi.  It is great to talk with you. Thank you so much for joining us on the Innovative Mayor, and good luck as you continue with your great work in the city of Calgary.

MAYOR NENSHI: Thanks very much, Jim.

OLIVER: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data. Many thanks to Mayor Nenshi for joining us.

If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data podcast. This episode was produced by Electra Colevas, Christian Nwachukwu Jr., Ivy Li, music by Mark Piro. Special thanks to Karoline O’Brien

As our founder Mike Bloomberg says, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So until next time, keep following the data.

I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.