2013 Innovative City of the Year
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.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
I spoke last week with Krishna Desai from Cubic Transportation, and we discussed three big problems facing transportation, and the ways that Cubic is approaching these challenges:
1) If (or when) more workers return to traditional on-location jobs, but feel a lingering distrust of crowded spaces, people who can afford it may opt for private cars instead of using public transit for their commute. This will create a massive influx of cars on roads that were already crowded, and more financial woes for transit agencies already dealing with budget shortfalls. Krishna told me about a suite of optimization tools Cubic is deploying in places like Mexico and San Francisco to make public transit more efficient, more transparent, and, overall, more attractive to riders.
2) For the time being, though, we’re dealing with the opposite problem. How can transit agencies find ways to influence user behavior in a way that complies with social distancing and capacity requirements? How can you incentivize riders to wait for the next bus? (In a way that doesn’t alienate them forever – see #1). Cubic has deployed a loyalty/advertising program in Miami-Dade County that was originally intended to increase ridership, but is now being used to help control crowding and social distancing on transit.
3) Transportation infrastructure, in generally, was not built to accomodate 6-feet of separation between riders – or between workers. Little things like, for example, opening gates, requires workers to be closer than 6-feet to riders, and there are examples like that throughout every transit hub. Technology can help, but creating and implementing software/hardware solutions quickly and efficiently requires experience with innovation, deployment, maintenance and more. Cubic has a program called Project Rebound that shows the possibilities.
Advanced Urban Visioning offers a powerful tool for regions that are serious about achieving a major transformation in their sustainability and resilience. By clarifying what optimal transportation networks look like for a region, it can give planners and the public a better idea of what is possible. It inverts the traditional order of planning, ensuring that each mode can make the greatest possible contribution toward achieving future goals.
Advanced Urban Visioning doesn’t conflict with government-required planning processes; it precedes them. For example, the AUV process may identify the need for specialized infrastructure in a corridor, while the Alternatives Analysis process can now be used to determine the time-frame where such infrastructure becomes necessary given its role in a network.
The introduction of intelligent transportation systems, which includes a broad network of smart roads, smart cars, smart streetlights and electrification are pushing roadways to new heights. Roadways are no longer simply considered stretches of pavement; they’ve become platforms for innovation. The ability to empower roadways with intelligence and sensing capabilities will unlock extraordinary levels of safety and mobility by enabling smarter, more connected transportation systems that benefit the public and the environment.