Global Platform of International Public Policies
Persuasive Practitioners and the Art of Simplification: The “Bogotá Model”

Persuasive Practitioners and the Art of Simplification: The “Bogotá Model”

This article analyzes how Bogotá’s transport programs TransMilenio BRT and Ciclovía were learned and adopted in Guadalajara, Mexico. It proposes that the construction and mobilization of simplified “narratives of progress” and the persuasive capacities of the actors that tell these stories, what I here call “persuasive practitioners”, are largely influential in driving policy learning and adoption of other cities’ policies.

Introduction

A new urban imaginary of Bogotá, Colombia emerged in the last decade. Traditionally portrayed as an urban dystopia and a city of fear during the 1980s and early 1990s, Bogotá became a world policy model of sustainable urban transport in less than a decade. The transformation of Bogotá during the 1990s and early 2000s, based on the promotion of public space, non car transportation alternatives and teaching citizens “cultura ciudadana”,1 has been nationally and internationally celebrated and, most recently, referenced by hundreds of cities, both in the global North and the South.2 From all programs experimented in Bogotá, two have been particularly referenced and adopted in other cities: 1) TransMilenio, Bogotá’s now famous bus rapid transit (brt), a system of high frequency rapid buses with dedicated lanes and stations that carries over one million passengers per day; and 2) Ciclovía, a 70mile weekly street closure program to promote urban biking and physical activity that gathers one million Bogotanos every Sunday in streets normally reserved for car traffic.

Both programs have been replicated in more than 100 cities in the last decade.3 In this paper, I show that the adoption of these two Bogotá’s transport policies in Guadalajara, Mexico, was not the outcome of a rational process of technical evaluation but it is rather related to the construction and global circulation of a simplified narrative of urban transformation that links a small set of public space and transport programs executed in Bogotá as the reasons of Bogotá’s urban transformation during the 1990s.

Based on participant observation, archival work and more than thirty interviews conducted between 2012 and 2014 in Guadalajara, I highlight two key elements in this process of policy transfer through storytelling. First, the role of a particular type of expert that I call here “persuasive practitioners”. Bogotá’s persuasive practitioners do not rely on the mobilization of technical or scientific knowledge. Rather their legitimacy lies on a narrative that puts them at the center of Bogotá’s urban transformation success.

This is a story that emphasizes transportation and public space interventions as the cause of Bogotá’s “urban renaissance” while silencing important political economy reforms and the contradictions and failures of public space and transportation policies in the city. Yet, it is precisely this simplification of the causes of Bogotá’s urban success what helps these experts inspire the creation of urban alliances that will push for the adoption of Bogotá policies in other cities. Second, I highlight the role of conferences and policy forums as key spaces where this persuasive narrative process often takes place. Moving influential urban actors from policy knowledge to action requires not only exchanges of knowledge and stories but active processes of inspiration, persuasion and trust building that, despite the increasing availability of online policy repositories, are still best mobilized through face to face contact.

Based on an analysis of the practices and spaces that facilitated the creation of a multiactor coalition that resulted in the adoption of Bogotá’s policies in Guadalajara, this paper reveals how simplistic stories of urban transformation lubricate the global circulation of urban policies by facilitating new urban governance arrangements. In doing so, I show that narratives surrounding particular policies are crucial for understanding urban policy transfer. In opposition to rational choice, path dependency, and other theoretical frameworks aimed at explaining policy decisionmaking, the article proposes that the simplification of stories surrounding urban change and the persuasive capacities of the actors that tell these stories are largely influential in driving policy decisions in other cities.

I begin this article discussing theories of policy transfer, learning and mobilities and show that while the importance of learning to promote policy change has been highlighted in various debates,4 little attention has been given so far to the ways in which policy actors actually learn as well as to the “politics of learning”.5 Here, debates on storytelling and urban planning can help us analyze the important role that narratives, emotional dispositions and persuasive messengers play in urban planning decisions and urban policy change.6 Recent research on the geographies of policy mobilities show that these practices of inspiration and persuasion are best mobilized through face to face contact and are particularly effective in conferences and urban policy forums thanks to their capacity to create trust and facilitate policy coalitions.7 After the review of relevant debates in the literature, I analyze how the organization and celebration of a conference in Guadalajara in 2003 — in which Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa was keynote speaker — was crucial to create a local coalition of businessmen in the jewelry industry and local media elites that pushed for the Bogotá model in Guadalajara. I pay particular attention to the practices of story making and simplification through which Bogotá policies were mobilized in this forum, the physical and spatial characteristics of the forum where these practices took place and the ways in which these practices inspired the creation of a local alliance that pushed for the eventual adoption of Bogotá’s brt and Ciclovía in Guadalajara. The paper concludes with a reflection on the art of constructing and mobilizing international policy models and the dangers of narrative simplification.

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