Greetings from the World’s Most Innovative City

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Which of the following cities was just designated the World’s Most Innovative City by the Urban Land Institute/Wall Street Journal? Tokyo, Tel Aviv, Shanghai, Medellin or New York?

If you picked Medellin, give your brain a kiss!

Last week during a speaking engagement in Colombia, I had the opportunity to view firsthand the amazing transformation Medellin has undergone. By tapping the power of innovation, Colombia’s second largest city has shifted from being a violent, drug-ravished, and stratified city of three million people, to become a “can do” community that constantly seeks ways to improve the lives of its citizens.

I went there half wondering if it was a PR ploy; I came away inspired.

Twenty-two years after cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar was killed in a shootout with Colombian police, homicides are down 80 percent. Poverty is reduced, and civic pride is up. Our guide, an engineering student named Carlos, toured us through museums (nine of the city’s largest firms funded a science museum), and one of ten new schools built and donated by Empresas Públicas de Medellín, the civic-minded local utility. Medellin, we learned, is one of the largest cities to successfully implement participatory budgeting, which allows citizens to define priorities and allocate a portion of the municipal budget.

Perhaps the biggest symbol of what Colombians call “social innovation” is Medellin’s cable car network and escalators. Cable cars now ferry people down from the hillside slums, and link them with public transportation. As a result, people don’t have to spend hours each day traversing the steep hills to get back and forth to work.

This might seem like no big deal to an outsider. But it was life-changing for the weary manual laborer we shared a gondola car with on our ride to the top. From an innovation standpoint, this was identifying and solving an unarticulated need. City officials might easily have continued to ignore this worker problem as “just the way things are” and something that was unsolvable. Instead they borrowed an idea from the ski industry, and ignited economic growth and productivity.

Just last week, another city blasted across the headlines with the opposite sort of news: Detroit declared bankruptcy, in effect waving the white flag on its ability to creatively solve its problems. Brookings scholars Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, in a just released book, call Detroit “a perfect storm of municipal mismanagement.” I’d call it a wake up call to what can happen when people stop collaborating, stop believing and stop taking charge of their destiny.

In my speech before a group of Colombian financial executives, I described innovation as a tool for progress. Corporations and entrepreneurs can use this tool to create new products and services that offer superior and unique value to customers.

Municipalities like Medellin, Durban, South Africa, and Gaborone, Botswana, where I traveled last month, are beginning to master this tool to remove barriers, promote literacy and job growth, attract industry, and raise living standards.  Just as cities are rated and ranked on innovativeness, countries are as well. Today, in a hyper-connected world, everybody wants to be citizens of innovation nation.

“We managed to transform a brand that was associated with drug trafficking into a brand of innovation, which means that we know how to solve problems, we dare to change,” former mayor Sergio Fajardo, credited as the initiator of Medellin’s transformation, told NPR.

I just wish the innovators of Detroit could travel to Medellin and see what I saw about the power of innovation and collaboration to transform circumstances and turn around even the bleakest situation.  Our guide, Carlos, would surely be glad to show them around.

“When we were considered the murder capital of the world we hated that,” he told us. “The biggest innovation here is in our hearts.”

Robert B. Tucker is one of the world’s most in-demand innovation speakers, consultants and authors. President of The Innovation Resource Consulting Group, with clients in 46 countries, Tucker is the author most recently of Innovation is Everybody’s Business. For more information: www.innovationresource.com or info@innovationresource.com

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