Between February and December of 2013, I worked in Ruta N, Medellin’s leading public agency for innovation and fostering entrepreneurship leading the community engagement strategy for the new Medellin Innovation District (MID). I came to Ruta N after spending a semester at MIT as an intern at CoLab. While attending a workshop at the Media Lab with a set of leaders from Medellin, in which I was only expected to act as an interpreter and help out with logistics, I ended up debating critical issues about the upcoming project and expressing my interests and concerns with the project. Upon my return to Colombia, I was offered a job in the Innovation District team. It was my first job after graduating from college.
The transformation of Medellin, from murder capital of the world, to a city famous for its social urbanism approach was also accompanied by successful marketing campaigns that lured entrepreneurs and startups to Ruta N and the Innovation District. However, many of the assumptions that were made in early stages of MID’s design phase are now coming back as challenges and issues that have affected Ruta N’s capacity to implement the project. On one hand, as many place-based economic development strategies for innovation, we assumed that capital, talent and knowledge were mobile and that with the right incentives and strong anchor institutions, you can have a thriving innovation ecosystem in a few years. The city had envisioned a shift in its economic development agenda by focusing on knowledge-based businesses and incentivizing innovation, moving away from the service-based economy that had itself evolved from an industrial economy that positioned Medellin in the 20th century as a hotspot for textiles, manufacturing and construction.
Behind this vision stood EPM (the local utilities company, now a multinational telecom and infrastructure corporation owned by the Municipality) and a set of companies that are considered the backbone of Medellin’s transformation. A working group at EPM was tasked with researching what the best option for anchoring a knowledge-based economy was. Their analysis pointed towards transforming the neighborhoods around the shiny new Ruta N Complex into a prosperous district for tech entrepreneurs and startups. As a spin-off from EPM, Ruta N is now the largest innovation agency in Colombia and they’ve become the role model for other municipalities. The problem that was initially identified by EPM is now a city-wide strategy that has survived three different mayoral elections and has generated buy-in from the private sector.
After a year of work with MIT faculty, labs, world-renowned architects and business consulting firms, Ruta N received a Master Plan with recommendations about how to move forward with the project and what the metrics for success should be. In order to transform this strategy into vehicles for implementation, Ruta N had to incorporate it into the existing tools for physical and economic development planning in the city. This meant they had to socialize the project and involve local communities in the design and implementation phases. This introduced us to the biggest challenge so far: understanding what we meant by community, starting a relationship with our neighbors, and finding the best ways for mitigating the gentrifying effect that come with this type of strategies.
Soon after I left Ruta N, they launched the community engagement strategy and public participation mechanisms that opened the door for communities to become active stakeholders in decision-making processes for the District.
I still think that some of our assumptions where off-base. Capital, talent, and knowledge are not as mobile as we thought and there are cultural and political barriers that we didn’t account for. We didn’t fully consider that our metrics of success (number of jobs created, new real estate development, strengthening local economies) create significant blind spots and distanced ourselves from the real challenge, which is how do we leverage Ruta N’s capacity and innovation to shrink the inequality gap in Medellin. However, I do think there are spaces for having this conversation in Ruta N now.