IMG_9186I stand for a moment on the little balcony of our apartment, looking out at the city. The sun is about to set and the temperature is a perfect 24°C. Children from the neighbourhood are playing basketball in the park next to our house and I keep thinking about how nice it is to be here. In Medellín.
The city of eternal spring.

Recently, on the 1st of March, Medellín was awarded “the most innovative city of the year” by the Wall Street Journal, Citi and Urban Land Institute. The competition was developed by the Wall Street Journal in June 2012 as a global advertising program , in an effort to recognize the most innovative urban centers of the world.

Here’s how the selection process was managed:
“Cities were selected based on eight criteria: Environment & Land Use, Culture & Livability, Economic / Investment Climate, Progress & Potential, Places of Power, Education & Human Capital, Technology & Research and Mobility & Infrastructure. Consumers were invited to vote online. The three finalist cities were Medellín, Tel Aviv and New York City.”

In total, more than 980.000 votes were received, with Medellín gaining the majority, thus earning this new prestigious title.

The news spread quickly through the web, on major broadcasting companies such as the BBC and the Huffington Post, in all of the Colombian newspapers and news agencies as well as over social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Many of my friends were posting, commenting and sharing, some praising the city and its advances in the infrastructure, others criticising the award, arguing that Medellín is still ridden with violence and poverty and that such an award was diminishing the existence and importance of the problems that are still present in the Valley of Aburrá.

As for me, I didn’t share, I didn’t comment and I didn’t post. Not because I don’t think Medellín deserves to be recognized as innovative and progressive or that I don’t have an opinion on the matter, but rather because formulating my thoughts at that very moment turned out to be more difficult than I initially imagined.

Being more of an outsider than an insider, yet with very close ties to the city and its people, my first reaction was a smile and the thought that “finally, Medellín will be known for something other than Pablo Escobar”. My second reaction was the worry that such an award would undermine the more holistic picture of the dynamics currently taking place.

According to Urban Land Institute, some of the reasons why Medellín has proven worthy of this prize is because:
“Few cities have transformed the way that Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, has in the past 20 years.[…] The city built public libraries, parks, and schools in poor hillside neighborhoods and constructed a metro cable car system and escalators up steep hills, reducing commutation times, spurring private investment, and promoting social equity as well as environmental sustainability.”

They also added that “Medellín’s challenges are still many […] However, through innovation and leadership, Medellín has sowed the seeds of transformation, leading to its recognition as a city with potential for long-lasting success.”

Indeed the above quotes are based on hard facts, and as someone who comes to visit once every year, I most certainly agree that the change and development in the city’s infrastructure and cultural programs is evident. What doesn’t quite sit with me is the complacency and the appraisal of the city nearly without questioning. Sure, Urban Land Institute may say that “Medellín’s challenges are still many”, but this can be said of any place in the world. Norway’s challenges are still many.

The archbishop of Medellin, Ricardo Tobon, said that “lately, Medellin has been projected as the most educated and the most inclusive city, that it is a model of an innovative city. All of this should be true when it is repeated so often, but we know and confirm every day that our region is the most violent region in the country, that the years go by and we fail to attain peaceful coexistence and in our neighbourhoods we are still killing each other.”

Having spent some time reading, thinking and discussing this issue then, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no clear cut answer to me. Medellín winning “most innovative city of the year”-award in 2013 isn’t only positive or negative in my opinion. It is both and it is neither. It is well substantiated and ill substantiated, for I think I would not be the only one to argue that if New York had received this award no one would immediately assume that the “big apple” is void of crime, violence and poverty. This is my point in regards to Medellín; the city is changing and it is coming up with some interesting and innovative solutions to structural problems, but this is far from stating that it is the safest, richest or best city in the world to live in.It doesn’t ignore the reality, but rather focuses on attracting more investment to continue a positive trend that is already taking place. We must however, recognize that this increased attention given to the city can work against its purpose, attracting companies and enterprises whose missions and ideals do not go in line with the trend for which the city has been recognized.