Projects such as an application for moving violations or a digital map of microbus routes –previously non-existent– are just two of the innovative projects handled by Gabriella Gómez Mont, founder and director of the Laboratorio para la Ciudad (Laboratory for the City), along with other organizations, to improve the lives of the capital's residents. She is one of the 33 innovators in the ebook Hablan los protagonistas.
How did the LabCDMX come about, and what was its motivation?
The Laboratorio para la Ciudad was set up two and a half years ago by invitation from Mancera, the Head of Government. He was particularly interested in two areas: citizen participation and innovation. Basically he gave us the task of setting up a new team for a government department from scratch. The laboratory has now become the experimental area and the creative space for the Government of the Federal District.
How does the Laboratory fit into the Mexican innovation system?
There's a lot of talent in civil society, and the Government has not always known how to make the most of citizens' ideas and incubate them. The public are increasingly interested in having their say and shaping the city –another of our key interests. We also look at ways to articulate all the possibilities available in Mexico City, which generates resources that are the envy of other cities in the world: many students, cheap and highly skilled labor and numerous companies. But the ecosystem is not necessarily very strongly joined up.
There are things that go on in the academic world that have no repercussions on companies, and citizens' projects that have no deployment at the institutional level.
How can we help to build an ecosystem that serves as a catalyst and an articulator of the things that already exist in the city? The city has one of the most interesting economies in the world. We have the fourth richest man in the world living alongside a population that subsists on one of the lowest per capita incomes in Latin America. It has specific challenges, but we also have numerous resources in terms of talent, financing and infrastructure in comparison with other cities.
In some ways, the Laboratorio de la Ciudad also came about as a space where people can experiment and invent solutions, which takes the burden off the rest of the Government. We're a natural link with the city's entrepreneurial system.
Gabriella Gómez Mont, founder and director of the Laboratorio para la Ciudad
What type of innovative or entrepreneurial projects have you seen in the Lab?
We operate in several different ways. The first is that we carry out research into issues that have not usually been present in the Government's conversations. One example concerns government and open city, which is an international good practice that not only involves transparency and accountability, but also being collaborative and participative. It's a matter of using technologies for participatory and innovative governance. This issue had no articulation from within the Government, but tended to take the form of isolated efforts. We did everything from training public employees to holding meetings with the Government and civil society. We organized practical experience with entrepreneurs closest to the Government on the issue of open code, and we enacted a law on it.
In addition, we've incubated several citizens' projects. Now for example, we have an award-winning project from the Mexico City Data Festival, which we run ourselves, called Infracción. It's a way of seeking to improve the relationship between transit agents and the public. There's often a perception and a reality of corruption with regard to their actions. This is a project we incubated –a citizens' idea that's being taken up by the Department of Public Security. We're also incubating a first generation in collaboration with SenseCube –a citizens' project aimed at resolving the problems of water in the city.
Another thing we do is set up dialogues between the citizens and civil society so we can have a shared vision of what we want in our city. Creating pilot projects and prototypes to inspire public policies that are a little more adventurous than in the rest of the Government.
Another of our examples emerged from the hackathon. Mexico City has 1,400 microbus routes and over 14 million people travel on buses, but we still don't have a microbus route map. Now we have a project in collaboration with civil society, the world of academia and other government bodies to create the first digital microbus map. That would be an example of a prototype.
What challenges or barriers do innovators come up against in this area?
I'm convinced we still need to create an entrepreneurial culture in the city. In many spaces, entrepreneurs have supported the talent of younger generations and have created seed funds to help create a muscle and fine tune the talent. But I think there's still a huge gap –which is fortunately narrowing– between the way we used to practice entrepreneurship before and what entrepreneurs do now. In Mexico we don't have a generation of people who have made millions or billions from highly innovative ideas, but this is another different kind of economic environment.
This new generation is beginning to realize that it's better for everybody to be doing well, because they're aware of the need to have the minimum conditions necessary to be able to create entrepreneurship.
Another of the challenges for the Government is to find a way to become a promoter of citizen talent, and they're launching initiatives in the Federal District to support entrepreneurs. One such is Startup Mexico, a project backed by the Department for Economic Development, which incubates citizen talent in the long term. The government still has to understand it can still look to recent graduates and not only multinational companies to provide it with services. This would be a boost for entrepreneurs because they it would give them an important and solid customer which would also promote the companies' social impact.
Another issues is that the ideas emerging in Mexico are often based on international paradigms. Perhaps we should look more closely at what makes our own social reality so particular. I'd love to see a young startup in the informal economy –which accounts for 50% of the economy in the city– find a solution to that. These are problems we don't share with Silicon Valley or New York. They're very local problems.
One of the goals is to inspire the entrepreneurial community to come up with ideas that are rooted in the special social and urban idiosyncrasies of Mexico.
How would you describe the system of Mexican entrepreneurs and innovators?
Full of potential. I believe that Mexico City will ultimately become an innovation hub in Latin America, because it has the potential to be a gateway for a community of 400 million Spanish speakers at the international level. We should embrace entrepreneurship not only as a space for us but also for Latin America and Spain. This is an issue to be explored.
How would you describe the DNA of the Mexican entrepreneur/innovator?
Full of new ideas and ambitious to create new projects. I see more and more people who are not only interested in doing sustainable business, but also generating value.
What's the role of government and private bodies in the entrepreneurship process?
The role of the government is basically to know how to catalyze and support the talent of the new generations of citizens. There are various examples where the Government has come up with very interesting ideas. In addition to the initiatives from the Department for Economic Development, the Department of Culture has been incubating projects run by cultural enterprises. It's really interesting, because the creative industries account for 8% of our national GDP, a fairly high percentage in comparison with other countries. We're the only country in Latin America to really emphasize the importance of its creative industry.
The Government needs to understand more about public policy in order to continue supporting the ecosystem. Another of the things Sedecop is doing –for example– is that as well as risk capital funds, it's issuing loans with important operating features, where it assumes the risk for a project that may not ultimately work out, and it also helps give public value –and even financial value– to the city in the event the project does end up being successful.
What is the role of institutions outside the sphere of government in this ecosystem?
The world of academia can provide the foundation, the context, the language, the culture. One interesting development we've seen is that many of the great entrepreneurs –who subsequently become great business people– have not necessarily had an academic background. Now the academic world needs to provide new tools for its students. I think we no longer see school as a place in which a fixed body of knowledge is transferred through osmosis –it's more a space to think and resolve.
In terms of private companies, in Mexico we need to open up conversations, have open platforms, support the new generations that can in turn provide ideas for those companies. There are new paradigms, and if you're prepared to allow disruptive people into your business, you'll come out stronger, and you'll be relevant in a world that's changing at a breakneck pace.
There's also a need for the business community to create new generations, and be willing to be mentors and supply resources in seed funds so that these new generations can do their thing. It's often easier to obtain support outside Mexico than within.
What’s your vision of innovation in Mexico?
Many experts worldwide believe that Mexico City could be the new epicenter of innovation and entrepreneurship at the international level, both because it's a bridge between the first world and the emerging world, and because it's a gateway to a Spanish-speaking market, as well as a stepping stone to the rest of Latin America. We have a value chain which in my view is still not as articulated as it should be, but we have all the resources we need in the city. There's everything from cheap skilled labor through to highly sophisticated scientists. I believe that if we can properly articulate all the efforts of the different sectors, this forecast –which has been brewing for some time at the international level– could come true in the next years.
What advice would you give a prospective entrepreneur or innovator in this area?
Persistence and creativity. Understand our own space. Follow international best practices and take inspiration from the best in the world, but also understand that what we need to do is to dig deeper into our own urban and social reality to propose local solutions and solutions for the rest of the world.
Gómez believes that the city can become a point of departure for anyone who wishes to be an entrepreneur or innovator and is looking to have an impact not only in Mexico but in the rest of Latin America.