News and social media from the recently concluded World Urban Forum in Medellín, Colombia compelled me to reconsider the future of our cities. The rapid transformation of a few select cities around the globe should compel urbanists to reflect on how some cities are able to rapidly transform themselves while others struggle.
It seems worthwhile to compare two very different transformations in different regions of the world in order to begin to begin to gain generalizable insights. Medellín, Colombia, and Singapore provide the perfect opportunity to begin such a process.
By the late 1960s, Singapore had gained its independence from British rule, and emerged from a brief stint in a federation with Malaysia. It was a city-state with few natural resources, low productivity, and minimum economic development.
From the 1960s through the 1990s, Medellín, Colombia was a haven for drug trafficking, resulting in one of the highest murder rates in the world. Economic development was stunted and the city in general suffered from a lack of infrastructure, basic services, and of course safe community spaces.
For different reasons therefore, both Singapore and Medellín were poor and, from the outside, had little prospect of escaping their plights. Yet government leaders had a different vision for their respective futures.
The strategy for Singapore
In Singapore, the government requested assistance from the United Nations to help them devise a decidedly top-down economic strategy for emerging out of the poverty. Through a concerted effort over a few decades, Singapore managed to invest in infrastructure and education resulting in the attraction of significant foreign investment. In recent years, Singapore has emerged as one of the most important hubs for multinational corporations in the Asia Pacific region. The key strategies for Singapore's transformation have been:
- The government's strategic role,
- Mobilization of its human capital, and
- Continuous development of infrastructure.
I was fortunate enough to visit Singapore in 2012. The city-state is now a high-tech hub with world-class facilities and infrastructure. Singapore has invested in smart solutions to facilitate clean urban transport and to discourage personal vehicle use through a variable automated tolling system, and very high taxes for acquiring the rights to vehicle ownership. It has an excellent park system, and has also invested heavily in harvesting rainwater as part of a clear strategy to remove dependence on imported drinking water.
Despite all of this success, Singapore has significant challenges remaining. Tensions amongst lower-income classes have risen in recent years. The Gini-coefficient, a measure of income inequality where 0 is the lowest inequality and 1 is the highest, was .463 for Singapore in 2013. To put this in perspective, Denmark's national Gini Index is .230.
The culture and governmental policies in Singapore are oriented towards multinationals. Although Singapore scores relatively highly on Richard Florida's Global Cities Index, the tolerance for entrepreneurial failure is low in Singapore as is the perceived desirability of entrepreneurship as a career path. In Singapore only 50.9% of the population considers entrepreneurship a good career choice and 39.7% of citizens have a fear of failure, according to the 2013 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM).
Transformation in Medellín
Although the transformation of Medellín began with an entirely different process than that of Singapore, the results have been equally impressive. In the 1990s, the Medellín Academy began to push for a new city vision, which started by focusing on the poor communities on the periphery of the city. They brought their ideas to the city's poorest residents and began to co-evolve solutions for transportation, access to schools, work, and healthcare.
(Medellín, Colombia. Source: David Peña)
The former Mayor of Medellín, Sergio Fajardo (2003-2007), embarked on a mission to "Close the door to crime and open the door to opportunity." While Singapore's transformation was largely top down and government-controlled, Medellín's was more organic, with a significant focus on bottom-up and citizen engagement.
Having visited Medellín in 2011, I must admit I left just as impressed with it as I would be with Singapore. Both Medellín and Singapore are true success stories on a global scale. Yet, there is something under the surface that feels very different when experiencing both cities and when speaking with leaders and locals.
I believe some of it has to do with an entrepreneurial spirit. In Colombia, nearly 91% of citizens consider entrepreneurship a good career choice and 31.8% have a fear of failure according to the 2013 GEM. I don't have the data, but I do know from spending a lot of time in Colombia, and meeting entrepreneurs from Medellín, that Medellín is actually considered the home of the arts and entrepreneurial communities in Colombia. Of course not all the "entrepreneurs" from Medellín have been benevolent -- such as the infamous Pablo Escobar. Yet even Escobar initiated numerous civic projects, albeit not with altruistic intentions.
Two different cities
The top-down nature of Singapore's approach makes open innovation and civic entrepreneurship more challenging. Not to say it could never happen, but, for example, one expects civic crowdfunding and hackathons to be less likely in Singapore than in Medellín.
Medellín has a recent history of engaging its citizens in its transformation. It has a culture more supportive of entrepreneurship (and failure) than Singapore's. And it has begun to address head on the challenges and opportunities of true social inclusion in ways that I believe suggest Medellín is a model not just for Colombia or Latin America, but perhaps for cities around the world to consider.
The Medellín Declaration, signed at the World Urban Forum, reinforces their commitment, and leadership, in ensuring that smart cities are also equitable cities.
Finding that right balance between supporting a creative and civic-minded entrepreneurial economy while bringing up the quality of life for all citizens is not an easy task. But we may find part of the answer by looking to Medellín for inspiration.
— Boyd Cohen, PhD, is an urban & climate strategist, and Professor of Entrepreneurship, Sustainability & Smart Cities at the Universidad del Desarrollo, Santiago Chile.