Antanas Mockus – Mathematician Turned Mayor of Bogotá, Columbia

“Mockus, who had no political experience, ran for mayor of Bogotá; he was successful mainly because people in Colombia’s capital city saw him as an honest guy. With an educator’s inventiveness, Mockus turned Bogotá into a social experiment just as the city was choked with violence, lawless traffic, corruption, and gangs of street children who mugged and stole. It was a city perceived by some to be on the verge of chaos.

People were desperate for a change, for a moral leader of some sort. The eccentric Mockus, who communicates through symbols, humor, and metaphors, filled the role…

“The distribution of knowledge is the key contemporary task,” Mockus said. “Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.”

Mockus taught vivid lessons with these tools. One time, he asked citizens to put their power to use with 350,000 “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down” cards that his office distributed to the populace. The cards were meant to approve or disapprove of other citizens’ behavior; it was a device that many people actively – and peacefully – used in the streets.

He also asked people to pay 10 percent extra in voluntary taxes. To the surprise of many, 63,000 people voluntarily paid the extra taxes. A dramatic indicator of the shift in the attitude of “Bogotanos” during Mockus’ tenure is that, in 2002, the city collected more than three times the revenues it had garnered in 1990.

Another Mockus inspiration was to ask people to call his office if they found a kind and honest taxi driver; 150 people called and the mayor organized a meeting with all those good taxi drivers, who advised him about how to improve the behavior of mean taxi drivers. The good taxi drivers were named “Knights of the Zebra,” a club supported by the mayor’s office.

Yet Mockus doesn’t like to be called a leader. “There is a tendency to be dependent on individual leaders,” he said. “To me, it is important to develop collective leadership. I don’t like to get credit for all that we achieved. Millions of people contributed to the results that we achieved … I like more egalitarian relationships. I especially like to orient people to learn.”

Read full article: Academic turns city into a social experiment — Mayor Mockus of Bogotá and his spectacularly applied theory

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