[PORTRAIT] Max Bouchet: "working at Brookings sometimes feels like being back at Sciences Po"

2019-07-25

Max Bouchet is a Washington D.C.-based alum who works for the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy program. We caught up with him to discuss his insights on urban development in the United States and across the world, and advice for current students. 

What is your background at Sciences Po? 

I joined Sciences Po as a first-year student in the “Asia Cycle.” It was still in Paris, just before the opening of the Havre Campus. I spent my third year of undergrad at Fudan University in Shanghai and graduated from Sciences Po’s Masters in Public Affairs program in 2011.

There were many turning points in Sciences Po’s history while we were there: René Rémond gave one of his last addresses to our class in 2006, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was still our Economics teacher, we saw the renovation of the “27” library (which was then an old three-floor building with wooden shelves covered with dusty political science reviews), and people could still smoke inside the cafeteria Rue de l’Université. Different times. 

Why did you chose to work in the United States?

After eight years of academic and professional life in Paris, I felt a strong urge for change and for different living and work environments. A combination of contacts and serendipity led me to get a position in economic development analysis in Atlanta, Georgia.

Atlanta was not an obvious first destination after Sciences Po, but in hindsight it was a great choice and a total cultural shock. Atlanta was already a booming tech, business, and cultural hub in the American South that was developing an identity of inclusion, resilience, and innovation based on its role in the Civil Rights movement. This was also two years before the 2016 elections. Long explorations and new friendships in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama gave me compelling insights on how rural areas, small towns, and left-behind communities were about to rock American politics.

Where do you work? 

In 2017 I moved to Washington D.C. to work at the Brookings Institution, a think tank where scholars conduct independent research on public policy challenges in international relations, economics, governance, development, and urban issues. It’s an exciting place that combines intense academic research (a lot of data analysis), innovation, great access to policy makers, and plenty of passionate people. I’m extremely lucky to work with a team of friendly, warm, and smart colleagues, many of who became friends. Great leadership at Brookings creates this environment of respect, inclusion, and camaraderie. 

What do you do at Brookings? 

My team works at the Metropolitan Policy program. At Brookings we are the city folks. Our mission is to make sense of some of the most pressing challenges urban areas face, such as slowing economic growth, technological disruptions, rising inequalities, housing and infrastructure needs, etc. We also help local leaders get the right tools to improve their communities. 

I currently focus on the economic competitiveness of city-regions. For instance, last month I presented our research on the local effects of the trade tariffs at the annual conference of the association of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, a very intense exchange with leaders from a U.S. community that will be a key narrative in 2020.

I get to meet and work with practitioners and decision-makers to test our research findings. Beyond theorical research, it’s crucial to keep checking that our recommendations are applicable in real-world conditions. I enjoy engaging with professionals and communities “in the field” and translate our research into actionable tools.

What are the difficulties of working in Washington? 

You can quickly get isolated in an established D.C think tank. We need to make sure we stay in tune with the realities of managing cities not just in the U.S. but also where the landscape of cities is growing the fastest, the Global South. 

Luckily, I got the opportunity to be part of a fellowship of the Robert Bosch Foundation called “Global Governance Futures”: for the past 18 months, I collaborated with 27 young professionals from various fields and countries (South Africa, Brazil, China, Indonesia, India, Japan, Germany, US, France). We met in cities like Delhi and Rio de Janeiro to conduct forecasts on the future trends that will affect the urban world.

What kind of advice do you have for current Sciences Po students and recent graduates?

Put yourself in other places and stay long enough to gain new perspectives. Seeing France from afar brings a lot of benefits: you develop more easily critical thinking about what seems natural or obvious. You acquire new lenses that enrich your understanding of policy.

The new things I learn every day help me shape my professional goals long term. In a way, working at Brookings sometimes feels like being back at Sciences Po: limitless opportunities to debate with colleagues, meeting great policy thinkers, honing on analytical skills, learning what drives policy, and building a life-long network. 

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