What does it take to be crowned the “Innovative City of the Year”? An outdoor escalator system stretching 28 stories? A Barefoot Park featuring water and massaging stones set among bamboo groves? Or is it the tight social fabric needed to turn around a place once known as the most violent city in the world?
Medellín, the second largest city in Colombia, was awarded this title on March 1st after beating out New York City and Tel Aviv. As a visitor to Medellín two years ago, I was delighted by “the city of the eternal spring” (average annual temp is 72 F), which had the palpable energy and beauty of an upstart city with big league dreams.
The contest run by Citi, the Wall Street Journal Magazine Marketing Services Department, and the Urban Land Institute (ULI) had the goal to “create a global platform that generates interest and excitement at the local level.” ULI selected 200 cities based on criteria including economy & investment climate, education & human capital, and urban development & land use (see a video of the selection process). The 200 cities were then put through three rounds of public online voting, bringing it down to three finalists.
Clearly the definition of “innovative” was in the eye of the voter in this case, but it’s a refreshing reminder that technology innovation wasn’t necessarily the key differentiator – rather, the widespread public support of the activities and outcomes of change are probably what tipped the scales. As the Urban Land Institute states: “The most innovative cities spark visions, remove barriers, and cultivate collaboration to improve the quality of life for residents.”
Policy & Civic Engagement
Medellín is one of the largest cities of hundreds worldwide to successfully implement participatory budgeting. This system empowers citizens to define priorities and allocate a portion of the municipal budget (5% in this case) to fund socially valued causes at the neighborhood level such as health centers, youth groups, and college scholarships. Direct citizen engagement is certainly a hot topic today (see San Francisco’s ImproveSF initiative) and participatory budgeting is also meeting some success in Ontario, Canada and Porto Alegre, Brazil.
To add to Medellín’s honors, in 2012 it was awarded the Sustainable Transport Award given by Institute for Transport and Development Policy.
Among its achievements are:
- Large outdoor escalator system and gondolas that help connect the poorer neighborhoods in the surrounding valley walls to the humming prosperity in the valley center.
- Public bicycle program – “EnCicla“: A free public bicycle system started with an approach integrating universities and mass transit, along with other key destinations of the city to serve tourists. This may give capital city Bogota, which has the most extensive network of cycle routes in Latin America, a run for its money.
- Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) – “Metroplús”: Fully integrated (physically and fare) with the existent mass transit, with dedicated lanes like Bogota’s TransMilenio.
- Metro train system: An incredibly sleek, quiet, and clean system that winds through the center of the valley with soaring views of the city all around, it carries 500,000 riders daily.
- Intelligent mobility system (SIMM) – ITS system aimed at improving mobility for all users and improving road safety, including photo-fines, CCTV system.
- Web 2.0 connected: Mobility programs Inform and engage users via social networks. After watching two friends on their phones at a café for 2 hours, I can vouch that the younger generation of Medellín locals can Facebook with the best of them.
- Vehicle exhaust emission control and sulfur content improvement, including 30,000 compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles.
Buildings and Spaces
Medellín committed long ago, with international support, to “architectural interventions as a means to attack poverty and crime. What sets Medellín apart is the particular strength of its culture of urbanism, which acts now almost like a civic calling card” (New York Times).
- An Urban Integral Project has helped improve quantity and quality of public spaces by means of pedestrian connection improvements, environmental parks, urban promenades. Plazas, public art, and architecture, appearing both strikingly unique up close and comfortingly coordinated in red cladding from afar, make a statement about a city that is proud of its progress.
- The educational Parque Explora is a hands-on science and technology museum housing the largest aquarium in South America, much like the San Francisco Exploratorium and California Academy of Sciences combined. This is part of a botanical garden, library, and music center complex in the midst of a thriving downtown.
- EPM is the municipal utility (supplying electricity, gas, water, sanitation, and telecom to up to 12 million Colombians) that also operates internationally through affiliates. It is constitutionally mandated in Medellín to provide clean water and electricity even to houses in illegal slums. Its annual profits (around $450 million) go directly to city infrastructure such as schools, parks, and the metro, and its contributions to the built environment are many. EPM’s “intelligent building” headquarters is seen as a hallmark of architectural progress, including a interconnected building management system and minimal internal walls allowing in bounteous natural light.
Innovative People of the Year
While some cities may be able to boast features that rival Medellín’s, the underlying innovation is in the interplay of the various civic spheres:
- New models of collaboration have led to public-private financing or donated projects
- A strong linkage between the built environment and social goals of education, culture, equity, and safety
- A general zeitgeist that is forward-looking and ambitious. The “Innovative City of the Year” stands apart not only in achievements, but in mindset.
Will these programs make inroads in resolving the economic disparity persisting in the slums outside the city center? That remains to be seen, but Medellín’s community is clearly willing to tackle its issues and invest heavily in its future. This starts with the hearts and minds of its people, who ultimately decided this award.
Frank Teng is a current MBA in Sustainable Management student at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco and is on the board of Sustainable Silicon Valley. He works with Jones Lang LaSalle, a global real estate services firm, to manage global energy and sustainability programs for corporate clients in the technology and financial services sectors. Please note: Frank's views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer.