Why Colombia is a country facing big challenges and offering up big solutions that rest of the world would do well to take notice of.
It’s not all about Brazil – though the media might lead you to believe otherwise. Lesser known but not less exciting things are also happening in other Latin America countries, namely Colombia.
With much fanfare, Colombia’s second city, Medellín, (also known as ‘The City of Eternal Spring’) was named the winner of the ‘City of the Year’ competition early this month. The competition was developed by the non-profit Urban Land Institute and supported by Citi and the Wall Street Journal, who pronounced that the city has had one of the most remarkable turnarounds in modern urban history. The city was roundly praised for its civic spaces, libraries, and art galleries, as well as its infrastructure, which famously includes a giant escalator and cable car transportation (more to come on that later), which gives residents of some of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods access to the city centre.
More recently the national government is also promoting innovation – economic and social – as the key to increasing the nation’s competitiveness and enabling the economic growth that will improve quality of life.
Around the world, practitioners, politicians and policy-makers are increasingly framing the drive to address entrenched social problems through the lens of social innovation which The Young Foundation describes as ‘innovations that are social in both their ends and their means’. The Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) believes and promotes the idea that social innovation isn’t a concept but a movement; it is gaining widespread attention as a driver for comprehensive social development and an engine of change. To evidence this – SIX has over 5,000 members in its network including the new Colombia Center for Social Innovation, set up in 2011, within the National Agency to Overcome Extreme Poverty, whose programmes aim to reduce poverty through innovative approaches.
Colombia is a rapidly urbanising country with the third largest economy in South America and a wide gap between the rich and the poor. Estimates vary, though it is thought that 45 to 64 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. The national government has recognised that social innovation has the potential to reduce extreme poverty and has included social innovationin a strategy to bring greater effectiveness to public expenditure, higher impacts and better quality to on-the-ground interventions benefiting mainly the poorest and most vulnerable.
The national Center for Social Innovation is coordinating pilot initiatives in San José de Saco including a community waste management scheme addressing threats posed by inadequate sanitation, as well as newly rehabilitated social housing developments implemented to respond to the housing deficit. Other projects include a community mapping initiative and a solar light project working with social entrepreneurs and young volunteers to provide low-cost lighting. Undoubtedly, there is much learning that will emerge from these projects which needs to be taken on board if they are to be scaled-up to meet the magnitude of challenge of reducing extreme poverty.
Social innovation has a role to play in cities which are often the stages where our greatest social challenges – isolation, ageing, disaffected young people, inadequate transportation infrastructure, pressure on sanitation and energy infrastructures, and the list goes on – play out. Economist and urban guru Edward Glaeser muses that ‘our culture, our prosperity, and our freedom are all ultimately gifts of people, living, working, and thinking together – the ultimate triumph of the city’. 
In 2004, Medellín became the first city to use sky technology (the Metrocable) for public transportation, linking people from low income neighbourhoods settled in hilly and steep areas with the on ground Metro system, substantially increasing their access to opportunities and participation in the city. The Metrocable experiment was followed by a whole set of urban interventions including the rehabilitation of deprived neighbourhoods, recovering public spaces and building high quality infrastructure such as state-or-the-art libraries with iconic designs, schools and centres for entrepreneurial support.
In Bogotá, the Ciclovía (cycle-way) was created in 1974 has become an international reference point and inspiration for urban environmental sustainability and innovation. Every Sunday and during public holidays, Colombia´s capital experiences an urban transformation where 76 miles of its main roads and avenues become traffic free streets, exclusive for bike use (and for other non-motorised sports like jogging, skating and skateboarding among others). Around 2.2 million people use the Ciclovía, nearly one third of the city’s population.
Innovation drives investment and attracts foreign capital. As the size and influence of corporations grows, so does the expectation of their commitment to do social good. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives and sustainability programmes increasingly understand that the greatest potential for social impacts and mutual benefits lies in the bond of forces and knowledge. Thus, companies are merging and developing innovative solutions. The Innolabs, as applied in Colombia, are a Latin American regional strategy fostered by the International Development Bank, seeking to go beyond the promotion of CSR models by mobilising resources towards competitive outcomes with social returns. The strategy is the co-creation of knowledge generation and sharing innovative systems that address concrete social issues. Innolabs partners – City, Gas Natural, Microsoft, Cemex and Pespsico – have assumed the task to contribute to more sustainable livelihoods and inclusive business in Colombia.
Colombia is building on a trajectory of innovation, moving from niche to mainstream, scaling up cost-effective solutions to social problems at different levels. From major investment in public infrastructure to politically brave decisions such as giving over the roads of the capital city every Sunday, Colombia is already leading the way. This has been made possible through high-level of experimentation backed by political, popular and institutional support. Colombia is a country facing big challenges and offering up big solutions that rest of the world would do well to take notice of.
1. E. Glaeser. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (2012)
This article is written by Tricia Hackett and Diana Daste as part of the Social Life of Cities series in association with Young Foundation venture Social Life. Read the original article in Urban Times.