How Bogotá Completely Changed (And Its Lessons For You) Part 1

A city in ruins. Rampant corruption. All systems - political, social, judicial - broken.

But, as it turns out, not beyond repair.

You simply must watch the documentary Bogotá Change. It tells the story of how one of the most crime-ridden, downtrodden, disbelieving cities made a transformation - in less than a decade! - to a city on the rise. (For a limited time, this movie is free on Comcast - On Demand > TV Entertainment > Sundance Channel. Watch it.)

Many of the ideas that started working for Bogotá in 1994 are the same as those outlined in the recent book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.

At their core, both the book and the movie describe how amazing leaders created real change. But each also contains lessons for ways in which you can create change within your own life as well.

The rest of this post will list some of these ideas. But a simple blog post isn't enough. Read the book. Watch the movie.

And then, shake things up for yourself.

"Crazy" Antanas Mockus, His Superhero Suit, And Simple Problems

Antanas Mockus - Bogotá's first-ever independent mayor - was...not a typical politician. He was thrust into the spotlight when he mooned his university, for instance (with a slight nod to goatse, if you watch carefully). He also fought back physically against protesters at a debate - literally swinging punches. This guy was friggin' nuts.

But he was right about a lot as well. He put the philosophy of his academic life into action. He said, flat out, that he wanted to change people's morality. While he might misbehave, he was unshakably moral, striving for honesty in every action. Through this morality, he was able to change his country's behavior.

"I think that he was very clear that through education...that if he educated people, if people were behaving in a different way, then the city would transform itself." -Guillermo Penalosa, Director of Parks & Recreation

How did Mockus change behavior? For one, he dressed up in a superhero suit before publicly picking up garbage and painting over graffiti.

Much like Malcolm Gladwell explained in The Tipping Point in reference to graffiti elimination and fare-jumping stoppage in the New York City train system, Mockus fixed these small, but very public, elements.

As the Heath brothers explain, leaders create big change "by formulating solutions that were strikingly smaller than the problems they were intended to solve." (page 71) Change agents send the message that these small (bad) behaviors are simply not accepted here, which leads logically to other, bigger, behavioral changes.

And when these small behaviors were improved, people feel better about themselves not just as individuals, but as a collective people. Mockus frequently mentions how "we" behave.

The Heath's concur. "[The science] shows us that people are receptive to developing new identities, that identities 'grow' from small beginnings." (page 161) Mockus knew this. Create small change and link it to people's identity of themselves.

Soon, it became known that Bogotáns didn't disrespect their city by leaving their trash around or writing graffiti on the walls. And that meant the public space was to be cared for. That's how big change started to happen.

Traffic, A Thumbs-Down Sign, And Mimes

Mockus wasn't finished. Traffic in Bogota was another problem.

Citizens ignored traffic laws. Chaos ruled the roads. And the traffic cops were even more morally corrupt than average.

Mockus started small. He gave drivers a white "thumbs-up" sign and a red "thumbs-down" sign. How could this solve the traffic problem?

Drivers complimented other drivers by flashing a thumbs-up when that driver obeyed the law. When a driver didn't follow the rules, they saw a lot of red thumbs pointing down.

It's not that people didn't know the rules. It's just that there was no societal pressure to obey them. Bogotans were taking the easiest path (literally).

Mockus didn't stop there. He employed traffic mimes. (Yes, you read that correctly: traffic mimes.)

These mimes scripted proper behavior. They stood in front of trucks attempting to cut in line. They walked elderly citizens across the street, in front of cars that could have plowed through the pedestrians.

Scripting behavior works and the Heaths know it:

"Ambiguity is the enemy. Any successful change requires a translation of ambiguous goals into concrete behaviors. In short, to make a switch, you need to script the critical moves." (page 53-54)

I think it goes even further. Mimes are like children. They're non-confrontational; they can script behavior without raising ire. I think that's a huge component in their successful campaign.

This exercise showed that even the least infraction of the law would no longer be tolerated. It is thought that the mimes had an effect on the level of violence decreasing in the country at around this time.

Not Done Yet

I hope you've enjoyed part one of this study of Bogotá and Switch. Tomorrow, I'll provide a few more examples and reveal numbers describing the effect of these campaigns.

Please tune in later this week to read part two. Subscribing is a great way to ensure you won't miss it!

Update: Here's part 2!

tweet thisTweet This Post!

*

If you enjoyed this post, consider signing up for updates via email or RSS. Also, please share this post on your favorite social media site.

(Image of Roland Barthes courtesy of holia - taking a break via Flickr)