Medellín, Colombia’s second most populated city, was once home to the notorious drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar and, as such, was one of the world’s most dangerous places. Fast forward a quarter of a century, and Medellín is named “the world’s most innovative city” by the Urban Institute. What caused this transformation was two decades of urban development driven by the succession of progressive mayors, cooperation with the civil society, and creating a new tech zone, the “Medellinnovation District. In August 2020, amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, Medellín’s reputation for innovation was enhanced by its significant success in curbing the spread of the virus. But today, the situation could not be more different. In May 2021, the virus ravaged Colombia’s second-largest city, and a nationwide movement led to protesters flooding its streets. The positive image left by decades of dynamic development was suddenly under threat. A closer look at the city’s much-praised development is necessary to assess whether the Medellín model has collapsed under the pressure of new global challenges.

Most credit for Medellín’s surprising transformation is usually given to its past municipal leadership under Luis Pérez Gutiérrez, elected mayor in 2001, and his successors Sergio Fajardo and Alfonso Salazar, entering into office in 2004 and 2008, respectively. Essentially, Gutiérrez and Fajardo reshaped the city by reforming its transport system. The Metrocables, established by Gutiérrez and built and expanded under his successors, became the epitome of Medellín’s modernization. This network of cable car lines connected previously inaccessible poor neighborhoods located on the steep hills of Medellín with the rest of the city, thereby increasing peoples’ mobility and strengthening social cohesion. Residents of Medellín’s poorest and most marginalized districts gained access to education, employment, and community activities.

The new transport infrastructure laid the groundwork for the proliferation of urban initiatives of all kinds, ranging from public libraries, community centers, and art galleries to bicycle rental services and high-tech, tree-shaped air purification installations called eco-árboles. Much of the city’s technological innovation has concentrated in the Medellinnovation District. In this hub, academic and medical institutions, startups, business incubators, and labs work together under the motto “collaborate to compete,” a joint effort of public and private actors to increase their competitiveness. Since 2012, the Medellinnovation District has been developed in the impoverished northern districts by the public organization Ruta N and designed by urban planners from MIT and the first-ever innovation district, Barcelona’s 22@. Attracted by tax breaks and low rents, nearly 200 international startups from 27 countries had flocked to this area by 2018. Critics of innovation hubs usually paint them as vehicles of gentrification, breeding inequalities that disadvantage the working class. However, in the case of Medellín, the local community actively engaged in redesigning their neighborhood, and various social events, such as “innovation bazaars,” allowed for the building of relationships between newcomers and locals. As a result, the Medellinnovation District flourished, attracting ever more startups, creating jobs, and – seemingly — not yet suffering from real estate speculations. Then came the pandemic.

When faced with this novel challenge in 2020, Ruta N cooperated with the mayor’s office to prevent and mitigate the spread of the infectious virus. The joint initiative revolved around mass testing, developing tools for tracking, collecting public health data, innovating medical and protective equipment — including open source 3S-printed face masks and $1,000 ventilators — and expanding hospital capacities. Although the city‘s data-gathering efforts raised critical privacy issues, their success speaks for itself: Medellín’s statistics looked significantly better than those of other Colombian cities, let alone those located in neighboring countries such as Brazil, Chile, or Peru.

This record had drastically changed one year into the pandemic, when Medellín was consistently registering over 1,000 new infection cases per day, turning it into the country’s Covid-19 epicenter. The month of April 2021 saw the emergency healthcare system collapsing, with most intensive care units occupied. Medellín’s medical organizations urged the regional and state authorities to declare a healthcare crisis, reimpose lockdown measures, and step up humanitarian aid. However, their calls have gone largely unheeded. While the government advanced the narrative of individual responsibility and claimed that the lack of civil discipline and pandemic fatigue had led to the disaster, healthcare workers attributed the surge in the infection rates to governmental failures in fighting the virus. And they were not alone with this sentiment: across the country, anti-government demonstrations in late April and May amassed thousands-strong crowds. The pandemic-related tax hike proposed by President Iván Duque sparked the protests, but they continued despite Duque hastily scrapping the proposal. Exacerbated by violent police crackdowns, the civil unrest originates in a general dissatisfaction fostered by corruption and the government’s inability to address rising poverty and inequality during the pandemic.

Innovation districts often emerge despite outdated or lacking state innovation policies. However, the case of Medellín proves that, while innovation on the municipal level can lift communities out of poverty and bring about a large-scale social transformation, it needs to be supported by broader reforms and regulations on the state level to be truly sustainable. In the face of ever-increasing regional, national, and global challenges, cities cannot offer an adequate response on their own. In terms of the pandemic, the collaboration between municipal and state authorities has shown to be necessary to both implement short-term recovery strategies and tackle the long-term structural consequences. Nevertheless, the level of agility and transnational knowledge transfer inherent to urban innovation districts may pave the way for a post-pandemic recovery. Following the 2021 agenda of the Global Institute on Innovation Districts, Medellín is now challenged to “build back better.”


Edited by Andrea Gutschi; Photo Credits to Reiseuhu, Unsplash