Medellin: From the world’s most dangerous city to the world’s most innovative

Measuring success by how many underprivileged people you serve or what difference you make in society, not by how much profit you make for the owners, is central to a social business. As it shrugs off the legacy of an extremely violent past, the city of Medellin, Colombia is now home to a thriving social entrepreneurship scene that is helping to reshape the character of the city.

Medellin is rapidly coming out of a dark past of violence linked to drug trafficking and guerilla warfare. As recently as 2011, the city still had a homicide rate of 70 per 100,000 inhabitants, although down from 168 ten years earlier. In the 1990s there were years where the homicide rate was close to 400. Locals I met there told me that when they were kids they were never allowed out of the house after 6 pm and that all travel between Colombian cities was out of the question. Infamous for Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, the Farc guerillas, homicide and kidnappings, the city seldom ended up on travelers’ bucket lists. In fact, between the 1980s and 2003, Medellin topped the list of the world’s most dangerous cities almost continuously. But thanks to the current progress towards peace, it has now dropped completely from the top-50 list of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Watch a video on how our IoT ecosystem is powering smart cities.

Medellin is not only rapidly becoming a safer place, the city has also decisively invested in innovation and entrepreneurship. A set share of the revenues from the city-owned electricity utility is each year invested in Ruta N, an organization that seeks to promote the development of innovative, technology-based businesses that increase the competitiveness of the city. An increasing share of startups supported by Ruta N are social businesses.

Visiting a number of these social businesses, I could feel the positive momentum in Medellin. Many of the entrepreneurs are clearly in love with their city and are working hard to improve it. Simultaneously, most have an ambition to expand their social enterprise internationally.

One of the social businesses I visited in Medellin was Arbusta.  Arbusta’s main goal is not, as in regular companies, to benefit a small group of people (owners), but rather to help people with very bleak future prospects, basically to drastically improve people’s lives. It acts as an intermediary between unemployable young people and digital companies. “Ninis” is the term given to the group of young people, often women, in Latin America that do not study and are far from the job market. Arbusta’s young employees, former “ninis”, can choose to work fewer hours, making it possible to take care of a baby at home, for instance. Their services to companies include basic data and content management, for instance taking care of enterprises’ social media flows, and usability testing of apps and e-commerce platforms. The job can serve as a stepping stone to further employment.

Arbusta is a good example of an economically sustainable social business having a clear purpose elevating people from poverty and exclusion. Other social businesses focus on innovating solutions and products that help socially marginalized groups. A wonderful example is Medellin’s own self-proclaimed MacGyver, Felipe Betancur and his Fundación Todos Podemos Ayudar, who invents ultra-cheap products that help disabled people in their daily life. His Youtube channel, where he shows how to assemble these disability aids, has viewers from all over the world. How about a computer mouse for feet made by a regular mouse and a plastic spoon?

Medellin has come a long way from being the world’s most violent place. In 2013, the Wall Street Journal and Citi Group named Medellin the “Innovative City of the Year” beating fellow finalist New York City and Tel Aviv. Its pace of progress has not slowed since.

In a few weeks I will be able to report from Nairobi, another social business hub set in a different context and with a different set of challenges. Stay tuned.

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