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Medellín, Latin America’s Leading Smart City

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
Data & Technology
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Is your company or NGO looking to open a regional office in Latin America, but you're not sure which of the region’s dynamic cities makes the most sense for your employees and operations?

If your organization wants to send a message that it respects the region’s drive to grow sustainably, while taking an active role in what the future could hold for Latin America’s estimated 640 million people, there is one clear choice: Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city.

Forget that show on Netflix and the city’s troubled past; Pablo Escobar’s been dead for 25 years, and Medellín’s citizens are moving forward at a rapid pace that would make many cities in the “developed world” blush. Many Colombians, along with the foreign travelers who keep visiting the country in increasing numbers, will be quick to say this city home to 2.5 million people and the capital of the Department of Antioquia is their favorite city south of the Panama Canal. The reason? Time and time again, you’ll hear the word “vibe” being attributed to Medellín.

There are several underlying reasons that explain Medellín’s vibe while contributing to its emergence as one of the world’s leading “smart cities.” Medellín has had no shortage of awards that herald the city’s innovative approach towards politics, social innovation and sustainability. The city’s leadership in the following areas only tell part of the story behind Medellín’s transformation.

Education


Home to over 30 universities and leading technology centers, Medellín has been on a public education binge this century. The expansion of the city’s schools is especially noteworthy for where many of the newer ones are located: in the poorer neighborhoods of Medellín. The same can be said for many of the city’s “library parks,” which are exactly that: a library building surrounded by plenty of green space for public use.

One civic leader responsible for this emphasis on education has been Sergio Fajardo, mayor of Medellín from 2004-2007 and then Governor of Antioquia from 2012 to 2016. In an interview with Americas Quarterly during the early days of his governorship, Fajardo explained his administration’s approach was to build “the most beautiful for the most needy” and that the emphasis on building top notch facilities was “because the first step in education is having a dignified space in which to learn.”

While proponents of smart cities tout the need to groom efficient, sustainable and cutting-edge urban environments in order to meet the needs of a 21st century workforce, the strategy in Medellín has been to go a step further: its civic leaders and community groups have believed cities need to be designed so they are a place in which people will find dignity.

Environment


Those aforementioned library parks are just one reason why Medellín is a poster child for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), notably Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. Not that it’s been easy: the city is wedged in a valley surrounding by mountains, so the only way for the city to grow is upward. That growth, however, has only occurred somewhat in high-rises – much of the growth is skyward in the surrounding mountains.

One project that is simultaneously taking on challenges including suburban sprawl, erosion and even food insecurity is Medellín’s El Cinturon Verde Metropolitano, or metropolitan greenbelt. A work in progress, this greenbelt will be almost 50 miles long (75 kilometers), with plans including community gardens, recreational spaces, hiking trails and improved housing for some of the city’s poorest residents. The project is being built in four phases and seeks a completion date by 2030.

Public Health


Home to several of South America’s top-ranked hospitals, Medellín has long enjoyed a reputation as a leader in medical tourism. But the city’s investment in public health is not just benefitting gringos or yanquis seeking medical care - it is also having a role in improving the lives of low-income residents.

The Buen Comienzo (“Good Start”) program, for example, offers expectant mothers medical information online at the dozens of public areas that offer free Wi-Fi and computer access. Communicating online does not necessarily replace a live doctor’s visit, but for citizens for whom the cost of transportation from a remote neighborhood can exceed a day’s wages, Buen Comienzo reduces the need for trips to a clinic and provides information about prenatal care available at one’s fingertips. The program also offers various health and education programs to support families during their children’s first five years of life.

Transparency


“We don’t have to worry about violence anymore. Now we just worry about poverty and corruption,” a university student explained to me during my visit to Medellín earlier this month.

Medellín still has its problems with crime and corruption, but investments in infrastructure, health and education offer proof that the city’s government works more effectively when compared to other cities across the region. Critics may doubt the effectiveness of the city’s governance code, but online platforms such as MiMedellin.org help to encourage civic participation. For well over a decade, the city has also been a global model of participatory budgeting – five percent of the city’s budget is distributed across the city’s neighborhoods, allowing locals to make their own decisions on how to spend the money - whether it is allocated for education, infrastructure or cultural events.

Transportation


When it comes to moving citizens from home to work to play, mobility is where Medellín shines. Colombia’s only municipal rail network, Metro de Medellín, has won a bevy of global awards since it opened over 20 years ago. Modern, efficient, clean and cost-effective (base fare is 2,125 pesos, or 70 cents), the Metro is integrated with Metrocable, a gondola system that carries commuters from the mountains above the city down to the valley and city center. Dedicated bus lines also crisscross the city, while ample bicycle lanes and a citywide bike sharing system help locals traipse around Medellín. For countless residents, motorbikes are the preferred mode of transport, as they make it easy to zigzag in and out of traffic. Many public places such as the city’s shopping malls, in fact, have dedicated parking areas for motorbikes.

Colombia's City of Eternal Spring is On the Move


The city’s innovations in infrastructure and social impact are just part of why Medellín is a place to which other cities look for ideas on how to improve the quality of life for all citizens. Of course not everything in Medellín is perfect: traffic is snarled during rush hour, and Medellín’s international airport, about an hour ride from the sector, is hardly in the most convenient location. The city’s economy, largely dependent on sectors susceptible to economic volatility, such as coffee, flowers and textiles, could benefit from more diversification. But when compared to South America at large, Medellín is doing many things right. After all, depending on the sources cited, per capita income in Medellín is higher when compared to the entire nation of Colombia. The city’s poverty rate is also lower than the nation as a whole.

Medellín is a city of progress, one that offers something for everyone, whether it’s art, music, architecture or technology – and most importantly for its citizens, opportunities to move upward and onward. And it’s a city that for visiting Colombians and expats alike will quickly feel like home.

Image credits: Leon Kaye; SajoR/Wiki Commons; Government of Medellín; Metro de Medellín/Facebook

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.

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