A Spanish version of this post was published on the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative Blog of the Inter-American Development Bank.



Bacon and eggs, tomato and basil, salt and pepper… Charles Leadbeter , a leader in innovation and creativity, reminds us that the best recipes always combine two ingredients and that the same happens with cities: those that perform better have two elements: systems and empathy.

Systems are essential for a city to work. They include not only tangible things like trains, buildings, signs, and plazas, but also processes, methods, rules, and decisions. Items can be found on the proper shelves at the grocery store; the buses we take to go to work arrive at the assigned stops; we put out the trash and the truck picks it up on the expected day of the week.

tranvia y lanes

The more cities grow, the more critical it is that systems operate like a well-oiled machine. At the same time, urban systems need to perform in such a way that they don’t negatively affect environmental sustainability.

But systems alone do not guarantee a thriving and creative society. For that to happen we also need a second ingredient – empathy – which Leadbeter describes as the capacity to connect with people different from ourselves and to find common interests; the ability to exchange and to share. According to this model, in a successful city systems work well for everyone, people relate to each other through cooperation, collaboration, and the search for the public good.

Leadbeter uses London as a success case. With its parks, public transport and overall infrastructure it welcomed millions of visitors from around the world during the 2012 Olympics. However, it was the 70,000 volunteers who contributed the contagious friendship and harmony, helpful attitudes, and the atmosphere of celebration. The systems worked to perfection but it was the people’s capacity for empathy that sealed the city’s success. In other words, efficient urban systems and positive human interactions work hand in hand.


Given the rapid rate of urbanization in Latin America, it would be interesting to find ways to measure the degree of empathy in the region’s cities.

A starting point can be Daniel Goleman’s model on the role of emotional intelligence in the workplace, especially in terms of what makes an effective leader. Of course any leader must have the technical skills and up to date knowledge about developments in his or her field. But these practical abilities are not enough: a leader must also exhibit emotional intelligence in the form of self-awareness and control, motivation, social abilities and … empathy.

Goleman defines empathy as the ability to understand other people’s emotions and to treat them according to those feelings. An empathic leader recruits, develops and retains talented people, is highly competent and inclusive in multi-cultural and diverse contexts, and offers help and service to clients, beneficiaries, colleagues, staff, and others. Coincidentally, the most vibrant and livable cities are those that attract talent, value the creative economy as a vehicle for sustainable development, are open and inclusive, and work well for a diverse population. And it’s cities that are attracting a younger and talented population – a generation that today tends towards inclusion, openness to different cultures, respect for diversity, prefers collaborative working relationships and participates comfortably in the shared economy.

From this point of view, we could evaluate if as cities improve in efficiency, sustainability, innovation, equity and transparency, there is also an increase in mutual trust, charitable donations, volunteering, and altruism as daily behaviors. However, even with the important contributions from different agencies (UN Volunteers; Center for Civil Society Studies; CIVICUS; Center for Social Development) it is still difficult to measure these actions. We don’t have methodologies to evaluate multiple indicators of collective empathy and much less with the detail needed to do so at city level.

On the other hand, the annual World Giving Index published by the Charities Aid Foundation offers a possible way of measuring urban empathy. Based on data by the Gallup World View World Poll (collected through representative surveys in 140 countries) CAF develops an index for three behaviors: Helping a Stranger, Donating Money, and Volunteering at the national level. How could we adapt this index to measure empathy at the city level?



Source: Charities Aid Foundation


An interesting data point is that among the top 20 countries with the highest score in empathic behaviors for 2015, there is one from Latin America and Caribbean: Guatemala. This could be a starting point to try to measure empathy in an urban center in the region.

We could study the city of Quetzaltenango since it is participating in the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative and therefore has solid indicators for environmental, urban, fiscal and governance sustainability. Would we find similar levels of empathy in that city as those reached at the national level? It ‘s possible. According to the Diagnóstico de Competitividad y Desarrollo Económico y Social, one of Quetzaltenango’s strengths is its significant talented young population which tends to be not only innovative and creative, but also altruistic.

Monitoring a city’s quality of life is already complex and attempting to measure empathy indicators adds even more challenges. But somewhere  there are sure to be young social entrepreneurs already developing a “city empathy app” and if you are one of them, I’d love to hear from you!


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