For years, Agustin Pelaez — founder and CEO of Ubidots, a web-based platform that helps companies turn sensor data into actionable insights — found himself always asking the same question: “Why is the innovation in Latin America mostly about copying and pasting a model that worked someplace else?” So, after earning a master’s degree in France, he returned to his hometown of Medellín in 2012 to work on reversing the trend. “I wanted to build something we could take from Latin America to the world, not the other way around,” he says. Turns out, he was part of the early stages of a movement that’s landed Medellín among the world’s most innovative cities in reports and accolades from The Wall Street Journal, the Rockefeller Foundation, the World City Prize and others.
It’s been quite the reversal of fortunes for the city once home to drug lord Pablo Escobar and now portrayed as its 1980s self in the popular Netflix series Narcos. Since then — notwithstanding the more than five decades of civil conflict in Colombia, which came to an end in 2016 — Medellín has worked hard to put on a new face for the world. “It’s like creating a city from the beginning, and it’s not normal for a city to do that so quickly,” says Carlos Alvarez, a local innovator who’s the founder and CEO of Workep, a project management platform for G Suite (formerly Google Apps) that centralizes functions and automates tasks.
Many factors have helped the city pull it off — and one of the most important isn’t all that revolutionary: transportation. “People don’t need a lot of time to get to work here,” Alvarez says. “You have easy access to everything.” In mountainous Medellín, that means a system of outdoor escalators and the Metrocable — the world’s first mass-transit gondola system, with three lines and two more under construction. Along with many of the city’s innovation hubs, they’re built in poorer neighborhoods as part of larger revitalization efforts.
The resulting environment appeals to the Young Innovators the city needs to grow and prosper, says Diego Alejandro Guzmán, founder and executive director of Bankity, a Medellín-based personal finance app that helps users easily monitor their budgets. “I make this comparison,” he says: “Bogotá is like New York, with a lot of buildings and a lot of people working in the corporate ranks. And Medellín is like San Francisco, where the weather is amazing and the quality of life is great. That’s important for building innovation. If you need to bring people from the outside, you need to bring them to a really good place.”
Investment — both from local sources, including the government, and from outsiders eager to get in on the action early — is also key. “A lot of companies are here because of the people and their talent, and because the government is investing in transportation and infrastructure,” Alvarez says. “It’s a new movement around innovation.” Schools and universities are adjusting curriculums to focus on tech fields to feed the talent pool, he says.
The energy extends to companies innovating beyond the tech sector, too. One of them, FedEx customer and watchmaker Mistura, uses unconventional and renewable materials such as flower petals and wood from reforested trees in its products. “We wanted to break out of the classic part of this industry, and one of the ways we’ve intervened in the design is in the materials,” says Mateo Isaza, the company’s general manager.
Regardless of industry, innovators are making a name for the new Medellín. “What people don’t always see or realize is that they are not only here as a result of the transformation,” Pelaez says. “They’re part of the transformation. They have a stake in the history of the city — one that’s going to continue to attract more start-ups and innovative companies. That’s exciting!”
WATCH: See how Medellín-based Mistura crafts watches for a worldwide audience.
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