Urban Transformation

6 powerful lessons from the transformation of Medellin

A girl stands nearby as cable cars pass behind her, at a viewpoint overlooking Medellin March 1, 2013.

Medellin's story is one of rapid transformation, growth and - most of all - inspiration. Image: REUTERS / Albeiro Lopera

Juan José Pocaterra
Co-Founder and Business Director, ViKua, Venezuela
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Medellin, once a city ruled by crime, drug trafficking and domestic war in the last 20 years of the past century, has made it on to the list of the top 10 urban innovations. This may sound like a news headline but it is much more than that. It is the opening statement of a story of rapid transformation, growth and inspiration from Latin America.

The extent of its achievement can be measured not only in its inclusion as a demonstration of an urban innovation, but also on its recognition in 2012 as the world's most innovative city, its reputation for textile manufacturing, as a beacon of the fashion industry, its contribution to more than 8% of the booming Colombian GDP, and its warm, friendly population of 2.49 million who have contributed to the rich Latino culture with renowned artists such as Fernando Botero.

Now, the important aspect of this success story does not lie in the recognition itself, but in the foundations upon which it is built. Essentially, the story of Medellin is an exaltation of the concept of cities as a solution, and not as a problem, to the global challenges we face.

As a matter of fact, Medellin is considered a success only because all the stakeholders, grouped around the public, private and citizen sectors, understood the value of defending its existence. Pursuing the dream of improving the city they already had, rather than tearing it down by declaring it a failure, was the main way of defending the potential they dreamt of fulfilling. Instead, what this Colombian city proved is that cities are merely victims of the lack of innovative creative thinking by the individuals and institutions responsible for their transformation.

Today, Medellin has also become a beacon for what the developing world has to say about innovation. It has forged success as a testing ground for new social approaches to urbanization.

From this approach, there are powerful lessons we can learn, and share, as new methods of urbanization around the world.

Cities do not make poor people. Cities attract poor and vulnerable individuals looking for a better future. Therefore, they must be accepted and integrated into the city's dynamics in order to foster their individual and collective potential. As shown by the 8.9% reduction in poverty between 2008 and 2013, according to Colombia’s department of statistics.

Architecture must never be a barrier to human interaction. The best way to reduce inequality is to promote connections and face-to-face engagement between individuals, without regards to their socioeconomic condition.

Public and accessible urban services reduce inequality. Allowing individuals across the board to enjoy a city, its surroundings and services are the best ways to make them active citizens.

Education drives change. Placing libraries and other cultural assets alongside public transport systems played a central role in selling the new brand the city wanted to create for itself, placing it squarely in the collective mindset.

Using technology as a means and not as the end itself. Medellin understood that whatever technological upgrades were needed, its success would rest with the function it fulfills and not in the scientific advancement it represents.

Last, but not least, placing culture high on the list of priorities helps to unleash a citizen's potential. Culture plays a major role in a city's transformation due to its ability to bringing people together, to move forward from traditional socioeconomic paradigms, and to share a vision and common values.

As a Latin American technology entrepreneur, I am glad to see that innovation knows no boundaries. When we apply our creative mindset to solving global challenges through the prism of our own local environments, the title of smart city becomes a universally affordable reality.

As a millennial from the emerging world, the story of Medellin is the story of what the world will see this century, which is only just beginning. This will be a century of transformation driven by the Teslas, Alibabas and Medellins of the world. Each with its own approach, each with its own challenges and each with its own contribution to building a more equal, just, productive and exciting world.

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