The Innovation Dividend explores how innovation in society and government are paying off. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring how ‘policy frontliners’ are innovating in real time in the COVID-19 pandemic and asking which of these changes and “raw learnings” might become part of our new normal. You can see the backstory by Kal Joffres here, Podcast EP 1, Podcast EP2, Podcast EP3, and Podcast EP4.
San Pedro Garza García was the first municipality in Mexico hit by COVID-19 and the first to declare an emergency. In this interview with Mayor Miguel Treviño and Dino Cantú-Pedraza (Secretary for Innovation and Public Engagement), we hear about what it’s like as a person to run a city and make decisions during a pandemic with a heavy human toll, how Mayors around the world and their teams are trading notes, and some of the major transformations cities are thinking about following the immediate crisis. This interview was recorded May 6, 2020.
[00:00:00] Mayor Miguel Treviño: Something that before COVID-19 was unthinkable is something that can become very crucial to the functioning of the city and the economy of the families and a more sustainable transportation system. I mean, we have to be sure that we come out of this different and better because if not, that would be a tragedy.
[00:00:20] Kal Joffres: Hi and welcome to The Innovation Dividend, the podcast that explores how innovation in society and government are paying off. I’m Kal Joffres.
[00:00:29] Milica Begovic: and I’m Milica Begovic.
[00:00:31] Kal Joffres: Over the past few weeks, we’ve been exploring how the COVID-19 pandemic is unleashing some interesting and unexpected sources of innovation in Asia.
[00:00:38] Milica Begovic: We’ll now also be exploring learnings from around the world. Today, we speak with Mayor Miguel Treviño of San Pedro, Garza García, and Dino Cantú, Secretary for Innovation and Public Engagement at the municipality.
[00:00:52] Kal Joffres: San Pedro was the first municipality hit by COVID-19 in Mexico and the first to declare an emergency so they didn’t have many examples to follow in Mexico. We hear about what it’s like as a person to run a city during a pandemic that is having such a great human toll, how mayors and their teams are trading notes and what are some of the transformations we might look forward to in cities after the immediate crisis.
[00:01:15] Mayor Treviño, Dino — welcome to the podcast!
[00:01:17] Mayor Miguel Treviño: Thank you.
[00:01:18] Dino Cantú: Thank you for having us.
[00:01:19] Milica Begovic: For starters, we wanted to know if you could tell us a little bit about how the city’s coping with the pandemic? What is the status right now?
[00:01:27] Mayor Miguel Treviño: First, a little bit of context. San Pedro is a municipality within Monterey Metropolitan area. It’s a relatively small municipality but it has some characteristics that it, puts the city or the municipality in a very particular position in, not only at a regional, but on a, on a national level. It’s a municipality where many people travel abroad, both for business or pleasure.
[00:01:58] And it has become in the last few years, a very like commercial municipality. There are universities. So the population of the municipality, triples in the day. So we have, we are broadly 130,000 people here, but 250,000 people come every day to either work, to buy, or to schools. So it was the first municipality in Mexico where we have a group of positive cases of COVID-diecinueve.
[00:02:33] Even though we are a small municipality, we had like the first around 19 cases before any other municipality in this 5 million-people city had any case. And all of these cases were important cases, especially from the US, from Colorado, a group that went to Colorado and from Spain.
[00:02:56] This context made us think and work fast to understand what was going to happen here in the next weeks and months and create a plan to move fast to an emergency situation. So we were the first municipality in Mexico made, I mean, an official statement for an emergency situation.
[00:03:21] We have had very few cases in the last four weeks, an average of around two and a half new cases a week, which is a completely flat, almost completely flat curve and put us in the possibility of moving forward in this moment.
[00:03:42] We are in the, in the position to find ways to move forward in the economic reactivation and in general, the reactivation, but making sure that we don’t affect the sanitary conditions.
[00:04:01] Milica Begovic: While we still have many governments being hesitant to declare more strict versions of a lockdown, you decided to act fairly quickly. And it seems like that was a good decision in retrospect. Where did you get the confidence to act so quickly and take such a big risk when you didn’t have a lot of the information?
[00:04:19] Could you tell us a little bit about what led to you making that decision?
[00:04:24] Mayor Miguel Treviño: I have to recognize that I have a great team in which many of the key people in my team had an orientation to always be looking at what is happening somewhere else and collecting information and discussing. So, we had a pretty good feeling of what, what was happening in other places similar to ours, and, and from there to imagine what the consequences would be in a particular city with the dynamics of our city — with a lot of people moving, a lot of people traveling abroad, to abroad countries, which, which made it worse.
[00:05:11] So first that, and second, there are some situations in which you, especially situations of uncertainty, in which you have to do to be clear about if you are going to be wrong, which is deciding which you can be wrong. This municipality has perhaps the highest age average in the country. A lot of people are, are older than 60 or 65 years, so with all this context,
[00:05:45] I had feared that I could, I could be wrong to the side of being too cautious and being too drastic in the lockdown, but I couldn’t be wrong as [being] responsible of this government, of being flexible or, I mean, looking at how it’s going.
[00:06:05] And another thing is that this is a government that has an orientation to be connected with other governments. We are part of our platform with Bloomberg and Harvard in which every Thursday we talk about the challenges we are facing right now with COVID. Every Thursday, we talk to a lot of majors in the US some of them in Europe and in other places, and that is very useful.
[00:06:32] Dino Cantú: And do add a little bit about that network, and especially for, for your team, mayor, it’s been great because sometimes it’s easy to think that some level of uncertainty. It’s kind of your fault. Maybe you are the one that’s not connected enough. Maybe there’s someone that knows more and you’re not being able to get that information.
[00:06:55] And for us it’s been very, very valuable that every Thursday, we get from the leading experts on the field of the world, just that kind of certainty that, yeah, this is all we know and this is all you have, and this is all you’ve got to make a decision. So that kind of gives you a peace of, of mind even though we are in, in, in this moment where there’s no real precedent or no real best practice, but at least being able to read the questions of so many more municipalities or cities facing the same challenges you are facing gives you, I think, the confidence to make bold movements, and I think that’s been a great support for us.
[00:07:40] Mayor Miguel Treviño: It has been also very, useful that the international networks, I mean, just to, to, to feel that other cities that you see much more advanced and big — and what do we say — the developed world are facing exactly the same problem we are facing with the, with the same, scarcity of resources and information. It makes you feel that, okay, I mean, we are here to share our experiences, our insights, but we are really doing our very best and we are not that wrong.
[00:08:14] Dino Cantú: What’s also really nice about it is that it’s not only the mayors that are connecting, but also their teams. So for example, when we were trying to launch for the town hall meetings, the city council meetings to be online,
[00:08:27] and we already knew of two cities that were doing that ahead of us, so they shared their best practices, they shared how they dealt with law issues, et cetera. We also, for example, got inspiration from El Paso, Texas to launch a survey on the economic impact of COVID on our small and medium businesses.
[00:08:51] And it all, it all started with a chain email where chief innovation officers, also part of these Bloomberg Harvard networks, started sharing good practices and then we all kept asking each other. “Oh, I’m actually doing something similar. Can you share what tool are you using? Or what kind of regulation?”, et cetera. So, so it’s been very helpful and it gets you not only into the same conversation and then making sure that we are all kind of trying the same things and it’s better when you exchange what you are learning as you go.
[00:09:27] But also to the very specifics, to the volunteer network where some cities have even shared there, the guide that the volunteers are using to make these buddy calls and help people and know that they’re not alone, et cetera. So, so I think that from a practical standpoint, it’s also very helpful to just not reinvent the wheel or start from zero, but leverage on what, whatever all other cities have gone through that makes sense to your city and then move it forward.
[00:10:01] Milica Begovic: So it sounds that networking and connection with peers is probably one thing that has seemed to have changed quite a bit, or it has become more intense since the pandemic. Could you tell us a little bit more: how has the day to day functioning of the city changed with the pandemic, and what are some of the innovations, policy innovations that you have introduced in response to it?
[00:10:24] Mayor Miguel Treviño: I think what you said first is very important and I think that that is going to change fundamentally from now on. Cities are going to be governed with many more sharing experiences, dynamics, because it’s very clear what the positive part of it. Running the government within this emergency is like, and I say, try to cheer up the team, telling them you are doing a great job because you are doing like two jobs at the same time. Our job, our normal job and everything that has to do with COVID-19.
[00:11:01] Dino’s terrific team just started like a month or so before COVID-19 a chat bot. WhatsApp is very popular. Every, everybody uses WhatsApp in Mexico, and there was in Mexico was a chat bot in which you can put like what, what, what you need: services, pointer, something that is happening. 311 reports that, that’s how you call it.
[00:11:31] The fact that we had that already going on, allowed us to, once we, we are in COVID-19 situation, start adding some lines of work within these 311 that has allowed us to be very agile about what we are doing.
[00:11:48] There is (sic) people in need in San Pedro. Elderly, so we started to give food support from the beginning. And this 311, one has been a great instrument to bring the information, to make questions, to have a clear list of people that we have to help to organize all the works. So we have been very innovative in that way.
[00:12:17] Domestic violence is something that is a big problem in many municipalities and a part of the problem with domestic violence is that the reports are normally made when the violent people is (sic) not at home. But what you do right now, when everybody’s at home and so the chat bot was a mechanism through which we, the phone, without talking, you can make a report something that I have found very motivating about, what we are doing is that as government, we have like formal responsibilities within the city and as governments around the world become less and less credible , not always there is a role of, of leadership beyond those formal responsibilities.
[00:13:10] And they’re, those are spaces frequently full by organizations or other kinds of initiatives but within COVID-19, we started to get together people within industries and activities just to share a table where they could get together and make important agreements. For example, we don’t have responsibilities with the private school system, but we put all the private schools together.
[00:13:46] And invited them to talk and to make the special modifications in this equation to make a discount to people that was having a hard moment paying the fees, the admissions, and they got together and they arrive at an agreement. And the same with the restaurant with commercial chains with, and we as a government, I mean, we as a municipality board, we are, we’re not playing necessarily a role of authority because some of the of the faculties, we don’t have them, but, but as leaders that enable a collective decisions (sic) and, that, that are good for the community, so that, that is motivating and it’s also an innovation in a way.
[00:14:34] Milica Begovic: I’m interested in the chat bot in the notion that you were able to purpose a service that existed before the crisis to respond in a faster and more agile way. Could you give us a sense of how, the type of asks that you’ve started getting, once the lockdown was in effect changed over time. And is there something that happened in regards to that service that maybe surprised you? Domestic violence I think is a really good example of something that you were able to track being higher and being able to move to address it.
[00:15:03] Dino Cantú: I think it was very organic at first. the chatbot was fully focused on the 311 reports and then we added one more campaign to our pipeline. So for example, when the mayor declared this emergency crisis, one of the first things that we ordered was for, I don’t know, buyers to close for classes to close. We had a series of things that needed to be accomplished. And then through the chatbot, people started reporting if someone was not being able to fulfill that new obligation.
[00:15:39] And then when all the known essential businesses started to close, people started to need help from food medicine, and then just a basic net support. And so we expanded the chatbot to also receive requests for help regarding the most basic needs for them to be able to, to survive and to stay at home, but also for their families to have something to eat and to have many products and to have the medicine that they needed.
[00:16:13] It was the same model, which is to get a request, then you channel it to the person that’s in charge of the department that’s in charge. And then when they fulfill it, they send you some kind of evidence, and then you had it done, right.
[00:16:28] The same thing is what we are trying to replicate for all the requests for help in terms of food and medicine. We are now receiving their requests and we are about to finalize the platform because we are creating some algorithms for it to help us design the routes of delivery to optimize the time that we are doing the deliveries from neighborhood to neighborhood. A group of digital volunteers are helping us do this.
[00:17:00] Milica Begovic: Have you launched any other programs that specifically look at organizing various volunteer groups to be more effective at distributing aid and getting to places and people who may be disconnected from some of these more official routes and networks ?
[00:17:15] Dino Cantú: Yeah, we’ve been very precautious about sending volunteers on the field, for deliveries etc. that they’re aware still not convinced that we want to make people take that risk but instead we ask them to volunteer by making phone calls because the experience we want people to have in our municipalities:
[00:17:38] you send the request, you express to us what you need, and that means that your situation has completely changed and something that’s completely unprecedented is affecting you personally, and you’re probably feeling alone and you’re probably feeling like you don’t know what’s going to happen and who’s going to be there for you.
[00:17:59] So even though we’re gonna be and deliver the food that you need, or deliver the medicine that you need, we also wanted to give them emotional support. And that’s where the big volunteer group that we’re recruiting is kicking in. It’s very simple, we give them five numbers and we tell them, you are in charge of these people.
[00:18:18] You call them every week, this is the script that you need to follow, but the most important thing is for you to let them know. That’s someone in their same community is going to be taking special care of them and letting them know every week that we’re here, that they’re not alone, that their request of their need is going to be fulfilled, that they are going to get the support that’s needed from us.
[00:18:44] And that’s also if there’s any change, they have someone to talk to. And that way we right now have already trained 60 volunteers. But our goal is to get 400 volunteers so that in the case of we have 10,000 serving families, it kind of gives us the numbers that we need.
[00:19:02] That’s where we are going. And I think that’s also been very helpful because it’s also connecting two different realities. It’s creating empathy among our community, and it’s also helping us understand better each other and what the effect of this crisis is having on our individual lives and the individual lives of all of our community.
[00:19:23] Kal Joffres: It sounds like you are repurposing some existing programs. Maybe you’re launching some new ones and I imagine also that there are new ways of working that are emerging either within government, but perhaps between you and other partners or groups of people like volunteers.
[00:19:39] If you were to pick, let’s say three things that you would take with you, three innovations, three new ways of working or whatever it might be that you would take with you to the other side to the situation post COVID-19, what would be some of the innovations you’d like to bring with you?
[00:19:57] Dino Cantú: Most of the public servants in these municipalities have been here for 20 years, many years. They’re used to doing what they do the exact same way.
[00:20:07] And then I think this emergency has forced them to transform and has forced them to realize that yeah, they can work online and they can connect the meetings through, through Zoom, or have these online meetings where they can keep even working from home, which was a paradox that for them was not something that was going to be able to happen.
[00:20:31] So I think it has given us, it has forced us to do things that we wanted to do anyways, but in a much faster pace like the digital transformation. And then just the acceleration of, of how we’re moving towards that, which was already in our plans, but then also leaving room for like then you were on the bike yesterday.
[00:20:55] Mayor Miguel Treviño: Yes. It’s funny because something that was like in, in this very conservative car-oriented city, a city that’s design completely for the car. Everything that sounds like bicycle or scooters or sidewalks is something like hipster. So this situation is an opportunity to push this agenda forward because we have the opportunity to connect better some areas by bicycle to lower the cost of transportation, which is very expensive for Mexican standards.
[00:21:38] Just having a bike to connect with the bus system and saving some money of the buses you are not having to pay and collecting bikes from different places to make it for free.
[00:21:51] So something that before COVID-19 was like something for people that are from other cities and something unthinkable is something that can become very crucial to the functioning of the city and the economy of the families and a more sustainable transportation system. I mean, we have to be sure that we come out of this different and better because if not, that would be a tragedy.
[00:22:18] Dino Cantú: On the same note, RCD is more oriented, for example, to shopping malls and to things that you have to pay to get some free time and entertainment. And this emergency has forced people to go out to parks and the parks have been as packed as they have never been, which has also been a challenge. But at the same time it’s making people understand that the public space has a different value, a different proposition than what they thought before.
[00:22:48] Kal Joffres: What are some of the key areas where you’re looking to create some kind of change or transformation as a result of this? Are there, are there particular areas where you’re seeing this as an opportunity to reset how something was done and perhaps start over?
[00:23:03] Mayor Miguel Treviño: To be honest with you, I will have to find time to do all this and I’m very aware of the, in the rush of the decisions and the accomplished operation that we have right now. I mean, we have, we have, we get ahead of the opportunities that we have just crossing this really difficult time, but I have to get the time with the team to be calm and to make in their thinking about what, where our bets are going to be because we can change everything, but we have an opportunity that has to be, that has to be reached.
[00:23:41] Dino Cantú: Right now, every department, it’s going through a process of reviewing our administration plans like them, they call the goals that we map when we started the administration, and then to adjust them to a new reality.
[00:23:57] And then to figure out what wasn’t the strategic project that now is going to become a strategic project and vice versa. So it’s something that we are doing as a department and then we’re going to go and be able to go up with the mayor just to, to present to him a new strategic goals (sic).
[00:24:15] Milica Begovic: If you can look back over the last couple of weeks, what have been some of the most challenging decisions that you and the team had to make or trade- offs that you guys had to deal with in responding to the crisis?
[00:24:27] Dino Cantú: I think that one of the toughest decisions was to, to be the first municipality to declare this as a crisis and then just utter the shutdown of several services because we knew the impact that it was going to have on individual lives and then just the ability to enforce it was also tough because you had questions on the spot and there, it may be simple questions like, so should the gardener of the park go home or not? Because some of the neighborhood (unintelligible) take care of our parks and, and if you’re strict, then you know what you have to do and you know the answer is no. And you asked them, but please keep their pavement and please don’t leave them alone.
[00:25:22] But you know that with every decision, maybe there’s going to be a family. Maybe there’s going to be someone that supports the family that is not going to have a job right now, and they leave from their jobs. And just that balance of knowing that, for example, we have some neighborhoods with 70% unemployment, 80% unemployment, because everything was so focused on servicing industry and the things that we have to close.
[00:25:54] I think just being able to keep up with the day to day of the consequences of this decision, which you know is right and you have to enforce it, but you also keep the people’s stories and it’s just hard to keep up. And not to, to self-doubt, like was it too soon or should I be more flexible on, on the lockdown or just that kind of interaction of going back and forth.
[00:26:19] I think it’s something that we are experienced experiencing on the individual basis. Maybe many of us have talked about how hard it is to go to bed, to sleep and, and, and I think, yeah, that that’s, that’s, that’s been tough because we have these three principles of being radically, brutally honest, give rational basis for hope, and be empathetic with every message.
[00:26:57] But on the individual level, it’s also scary sometimes. And you’re understanding the full impact of, or trying to understand the full impact of this emergency and, and being able to sometimes keep it just one day at a time. I think it’s also at the moment that we have all been facing.
[00:27:15] Milica Begovic: I was in the call with somebody from San Francisco municipality, and I asked, what is one thing that really surprised you aside from the crisis itself, and you know, she said we’ve had to tweak the law to enable marrying people digitally because all of a sudden, so many people losing jobs, there was a rush to find, to get married and to be covered with health insurance and, you know, something that they were not able to foresee something where they had to act fairly quickly.
[00:27:43] So, you know, when you look at the last couple of weeks besides the pandemic itself, which was shocking, what is something that has happened that you would have never imagined would happen?
[00:27:55] Dino Cantú: I was talking to a friend and council woman about the state of emergency, for example, which is an instrument that was prepared under completely different conditions, and it was about times of war. And right now it seems like it’s the only legal tool that governments have if things get really bad and you need to order a full, complete lockdown.
[00:28:20] But it’s also a really scary instrument because at least in Mexico, suppression of individual rights and the military on the street. And it just, imagining it, it’s really scary, or just hearing the cars passing by with this megaphone just this morning, I heard it through, through my window.
[00:28:42] I live in another municipality, where it was, “COVID is out of control. Stay home. Stay home, COVID is out of control.” What I think at the same time, it’s moving forward conversations about, for example, universal basic income that I didn’t thought (sic) were going to happen.
[00:29:04] In the short term, and now I think governments are going to be forced to make it happen and they’ll make us realize about, I think that the dignity of of jobs and manual labor and the importance of creating, a system that allows people to explore and what, who they are, their own identity.
[00:29:29] It’s something that I’m very happy that it’s not going to be an option, to not have it at the table and to start talking about it. And I think that’s for me the most surprising in a positive and hopeful way, which is also related to the transformation. How governments are going to repurpose themselves and realize that to face this challenge.
[00:29:56] Kal Joffres: Do you see new safety nets or things like universal basic income being done at the municipal level, or do you think of it as being done at a state or federal or national level?
[00:30:10] Dino Cantú: It’s been a deep reflection and I think from the structural standpoint and from the financial standpoint, they should be state or federal programs. But at the same time, people are in a situations (sic) that they never were before, because of COVID, because we never had this rate of unemployment, so we don’t know who they are because they’ve never been in any program of the government because they didn’t need help.
[00:30:41] So if we are having a hard time finding them or they are having a hard time finding us, the local government, which is the closest government they will have. I can’t imagine what’s happening on the state and federal level.
[00:30:58] But at the same time, I know a full lockdown means they’re not going to get their income and that links, they’re not going eat. And I know that if I’m having a hard time delivering what it’s needed to all of our community, it’s exponential. The logistical component that’s going to be on the state and on the federal level when you’re starting from zero in many cases.
[00:31:24] So I think that I, I’m still struggling. I’m still conflicted. About the role of, of how the different jurisdictions and should have now, but I think it’s also a time to question it, to question even all like nation states and how we organize ourselves. I think about stronger local communities. Stronger local cities, federal governments being able to just keep with the, with the topics that need to be handled on a federal basis, but if we want to create resilient cities, sustainable cities, I see a move towards stronger local governments will be great.
[00:32:07] Kal Joffres: Wonderful. Thank you very much, Mayor Trevino. Thank you, Dino.
[00:32:10] Mayor Miguel Treviño: Thank you very much for the opportunity.
[00:32:13] Kal Joffres: [00:32:13] That was mayor Miguel Trevino of San Pedro Garza García, and Dino Cantú, the Secretary for Innovation and Public Engagement.Link: Medium