THE RAINAISSANCE OF A FAILED CITY
HOW MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA, RETURNED FROM THE ABBYS
On October 16, 2002, Colombian army and police, supported by helicopter gunships, invaded Commune 13 in Medellin, Colombia, street by street, house by house, school by school. For many years, the police did not dare to enter this neighborhood of low and middle class citizens. Slums or fabelas, here called “comunas” (Communes in English), constituted the center of urban FARC guerrillas, drug traffickers, gangs of different nature and / or activities during the bloody times of Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels. These communes were involved in constant battles to dominate the underworld. It looked like Beirut, circa 1972.
Operation Orion, as the recently inaugurated government of President Alvaro Uribe called it, was initially praised for several years, recently exposed to bitter criticism for arguments related to the perception of excessive use of force, even outright murders of innocent civilians and for having allowed criminal gangs to reign with impunity. These late reassessments or perceptions have somehow blurred certain positive aspects that this operation brought into Colombia’s battle against drug cartels and urban guerrillas. Information labeled as half-truths and other frankly questionable, abound in recent years as to whether the State, headed not only by President Uribe but by President Santos, allowed the gangs to return in rampant impunity, something that many young people perceive as a disastrous government intervention and, worst of all, as cold blooded strategy. So much that in several of today’s famous graffiti, (see photo of graffiti at end of this post) these leaders are depicted as two snakes, one in green (Uribe) and the other in red (Santos).
One can only talk with confidence of one’s experiences. Thus, I provide here my own participation in what I believe is a more realistic description of what happened in this part of town at that moment in time and the effort by the government (national, state and city), that marked an unquestionable milestone in the rebirth of Medellin, from what was considered a failed society into a vibrant and modern one of today. Medellin, the Phoenix of Latin America.
The commune and the valiant efforts to bring peace at that time became the trade mark of a complete dedication by the city’s living forces, public, private, academic and NGOs, to resuscitate the city, this time, curiously, under the banner of Innovation, Science and Technology. In the public imaginary, there is talk of an epiphany similar to the one President Kennedy had when he suddenly realized there was a Soviet Union satellite in space called Sputnik and an astronaut circling the world from space every 90 minutes called Yuri Gagarin. Mustering all his communication skills and his power of convocation, he decided to try to bring together the energy and inner fiber of the American people into a single purpose, a coherent energy and mental focus, and created the idea of bringing to, and bringing back from, and in good health , humans to the moon. He added an important element: it had to happen before the end of the decade.
Little is known about the importance Commune 13 had in this effort to bring hope to a hopeless society. To this effect, a project called “Digital Nations” developed at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) where I was a Visiting Scholar and Alumni, played an instrumental role in this transformation. This experience goes against many descriptions blurring the importance the commune has had throughout these 17 years in the awakening of Medellin to the Digital World. The time has come to set a portion of the record, straight.
Most likely due to this change in mentality, Medellin leapfrogged from a city known as the most violent city in the world, with an average of 365 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, to become recognized in these 17 years as the World’s Most Innovative City in 2014, it would sound like science fiction. This recognition, granted by the Wall Street Journal, the Urban and Land Foundation of the UN and CITIBANK, over and above Tel Aviv and New York in March 2013 was inconceivable a decade before. As if that were not enough, in 2018 it was recognized as the most Innovative city, socially speaking, by the Lee Kuan Yew Foundation in Singapore. With 19 violent deaths per 100,000 residents today, it is considered safer than cities like Washington DC to name just one. There is still a long way to go towards a single digit stature, such as Scandinavian cities, or some Asian ones. But comparing 365 deaths against 19 is in itself an impressive paradigm shift. However, these milestones culminate with the designation in January 2019 as the host city of the Latin American Center for the 4th Industrial Revolution, granted by the World Economic Forum (WEF).
HOW IT HAPPENED?
MIT’s “DIGITAL NATIONS” PROGRAM AND COMMUNE 13:
During the 1980s and 1990s the MIT Media Lab had a subsidiary in New Delhi, India called The Media Lab India. Among the various projects developed by this entity, one had to do with a situation of extreme violence in Kashmir. This zone of perennial conflict between Pakistan and India, with 285,000 inhabitants, had a series of garrisons with a total of 65,000 military personnel , and even with this disproportionate number of soldiers in relation to the population, violence did not subside.
General Arjun Ray (https://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arjun_Ray ) Commander of this military contingent, was frustrated and distressed at not being able to pacify the region. He decided to put the 65,000 military personnel to build schools, hospitals, aqueducts and sewer pipeline and treatment plants. On the subject of schools, he contacted the Media Lab India so that they could design a way of putting military personnel not only to build the classrooms, but to become more engaged with the boys and girls as a way to gain the respect and acceptance of the community. In his original conception, he thought of traditional teaching activities because he knew of nothing else. Several faculty members at the Media Lab devised a way for the police and military to be trained in the use of computers, something unprecedented, especially in relation to teaching children to write code, that is, to program. This was made possible by a computer language called LOGO, invented by Seymour Papert, one of MIT’s scientist-geniuses. Through this language, a 5-year-old infant, or an untrained police, could learn to program by playing on the screen with the figure of a little turtle to which the boy or girl instructed to move in this or that direction, so many units, and so on. This process is known as “Linear Programming”. This seems trivial. But it was part of an entire educational philosophy invented by Papert, the father of modern pedagogy together with his mentor, Jean Piaget. In short, when the child becomes an actor and not a spectator, (still the norm today), the footprint of memory is deeper and long lasting, and acquires in addition to learning to write and read code, practices and disciplines of the mind such as Critical Thinking, a Problem Solving Oriented Mentality, the habit of Sharing, (different from copying or “cheating” as it was mistakenly perceived in the past when working as a team ,) and Reflection (all with capital letters). This methodology has been called “Learning by Doing”, instead of “Learning by Memorizing”.
Within 18 months of deploying General Ray’s program, along with the other activities listed above, violence was reduced by 80% and General Ray became an international celebrity. Today, almost 30 years later, the foundation that he directs from Bangalore is an international benchmark in Southwest Asia on how to pacify conflict zones, through non-traditional military practices.
I was at that time a “Visiting Scholar” at the MIT Media Lab. My job was to try to disseminate this educational philosophy in Latin America. News of what we did in India reached President Alvaro Uribe in those months of the end of 2002 and soon I was put in contact with Medellin’s Mayor, Luis Pérez. Mayor Perez had just signed a contract to manufacture desktops with Hewlett Packard (HP) and upon learning in more detail about us, decided to implement a process similar to our Kashmir project.
In March 2003, just 6 months after the reclaiming Commune 13, I landed with two professors who had been in India, led by Professor David Cavallo. In addition, we brought people from our Bogotá Digital Nations team, Sandra Abreu and Fernando Chaparro (the latter, former director of Colciencias, the national science foundation).
For two weeks we went up and down every day the steep mountain of Commune 13, very well protected by police and soldiers, to train police on how to use HP desktops and the LOGO language (known today as SCRATCH in association with LEGO of Denmark, nowadays the world’s most advanced children’s game in educational robotics (Several million games have been sold, called MINDSTORMS).
The first visit was a brutal impact for those of us who attended. We went to see the site where there used to be a school, and we found it was recently blown up by one of the gangs when they had to leave the place so nobody else could use it. It was reduced to rubble. Located on a strategic hill, from where snipers killed enemy gang members at another school downhill. (see photo). We then were taken to a school where they told us that when the social team (sociologists, psychologists, dietitians, nurses, doctors, dentists) arrived a few days after Operation Orion, they found some mothers and boys so affected, terrified, fearful, traumatized, that they could not speak. They were mute, petrified by fear. The mothers told them that they had been without food for several days prior to the armed forces incursion, because there was so much terror from the bullets and grenades and the launching of rockets with which the gangs tried to acquire more territory, that several innocent people had died trying to go to buy food or medicine. They could not leave their houses and even inside them they crawled on the ground because the bullets were of such caliber that they pierced the walls, not only the exterior ones but also the interior partitions.
The social workers from the Mayor’s office chose to start a therapy with boys and girls based on giving them canvas for painting and pencils and brushes, colors, etc. They also played relaxing music in the classrooms to calm them down. In other words, a soothing, pasive sensory therapy (music) and an active one, painting. The infants began by painting scenes, and not surprisingly, they were all very depressing. Strong drawings, with primary colors, with figures of people in gestures of terror, rage, helplessness, pain, or in bellicose attitude, with weapons, shooting scenes, explosions, rockets, etc.
IN THE 1990s NOT EVEN THE POLICE DARED TO VENTURE INTO THE COMMUNE 13
Several weeks later they started painting less dramatic scenes, but more importantly, they started talking!. At the beginning, little by little. Suddenly, like the eruption of a volcano, exuberance took over in verbal and body language. They began to express themselves in a more natural way, externalizing the repressed energy that for months or years lied in their bodies. The music became more festive. They danced and they sang. On that first visit to the school we were all surprised trying to understand the horrendous hell lived for so long by the community and admired the apparent joy, laughter, screams, greetings, asking to take photos with us, doing pirouettes, faces, gestures and expressions that we took as a demonstration of their joy of returning to life.(see photos).
Then began a patient task of training the police by the MIT faculty and us as an element of support, more psychological and security oriented. We saw a restoration of self-esteem, of desire to get out of the tragic environment and return to being effective citizens in a city that needed it and cried out for it. All this, cared for and surrounded by impressive military personnel, with long-range weapons, bulletproof vests, and a watchful eye … (see photos).
For 90 days, one of the most emblematic construction companies in the city and the country, CONCONCRETO, built, in record time, in the same place where the first school had been dynamited when the band that dominated it fled, a police station for the commune, more similar to a war bunker than a normal police station, (see photo) for obvious protective reasons. We were invited to the dedication ceremony which coincided with the beginning of the mass distribution of HP computers to schools.
I brought Nicholas Negroponte, my classmate, founder and head of the Media Lab, colleague in the launch of the “Digital Nations” project who had supported my effort. It was with him that we designed this educational adventure of peace in a zone of violence. In the emotionally charged ceremony the boys in a symbolic act gave us some of the paintings they had created at the beginning of this rebirth. (Photos of this process accompany this story).
It was the first time that a technology instrument of the Digital Age was used in Medellin (and in the country), to begin to change an environment of violence into one of entry into the modernity of the 21st century. The process was so significant that Nicholas Negroponte was honored, as head of the Media Lab, as receipient of the Keys to the City from Mayor Pérez.
Years later, in 2008, the Minister of Defense of President Alvaro Uribe, Juan Manuel Santos, understanding the importance of the fundamental change that had been achieved, set up a similar program, but this time in a much more mature project with a global impact trajectory, that of One Laptop Per Child, the emblematic project launched at the Media Lab with global repercussions. By then, I had become the CEO of this project, worldwide. The most significant of all of this effort, was seeing the soldiers themselves, previously trained by our team, and based on the experience of Commune 13, being the ones who not only delivered the laptops to the community. (see photo. The project was called Education For Peace (ExP) had an international impact. It was based on the old principle promulgated by General Ray in India and by the experience lived in Medellín years ago. When the military forces deliver the most effective weapon to end violence, education, momentous transformations occur.
Obviously, the transformation of Medellin was not only due to this project in Commune 13. It did, however, initiate a transformative mentality based on technology, innovation and science.
Around 2009, Medellin began an urban transformation project named Medellin 2021, based on the mass transportation system already in place since the 1980s, it was complemented by what has been called Architecture of Social Urbanism. The first thing done was to equip the communes, almost all of them located on the steep slopes of the mountains, with a transportation system based on gondolas used in the ski fields, with which it was possible to decrease from two and half hours to 40 minutes the time it took to get its inhabitants down to the job centers in the city. Fortunately, Medellin had a large backbone of mass transportation, called the Metro, which ran through the long and narrow valley from South to North, to which the gondolas, called Metro Cable, began to connect. But the city did not stop there.
Precisely in Commune 13, series of outdoor escalators, protected by plastic roofs climbed the tortuous and labyrinthine mountain, complementing the combined Metro and Metro Cable system in a large, integrated mobility system. As if this were not enough, complementary ideas were emerging. The so-called architectural installations of social impact.
Through public architectural competitions, the communes were equipped with functional and aesthetically pleasing schools, libraries and Community Centers in the upper part of the communes, where the Metro Cable’s gondolas ended. The sense and pride of these collective properties, complemented by that of a substantial improvement in citizen self-esteem, took root and created a new urban-social narrative that began a virtuous circle, consolidated today.
Simultaneously, the city shaped this public-private-academic alliance in an organism that until now has no competitor in the region. The innovation, science and technology hub suddenly had a headquarter, which they called “Ruta N”. The name is very significantt: The “N” represents “the North”, the idea of the compass pointing towards that symbolic concept of finding “the direction” of a vision. And then they put it in a context of scientific annotation, that is to say “exponential”. Like saying Route N (find the direction) but to the “n” power. Medellin hereby entered the exponential age.
Route N is a weird-out-of-the-box entity. Financed in its part with money from the Utility Company of Medellin, called EPM (Empresas Públicas de Medellin) that is to say from the municipality, its governance is however shared with the private sector, academia and NGOs, where the latter have a majority on its Board of Directors. Something unusual until then, unthinkable, others say. In this way, a new Mayor who comes into office must keep a general narrative consistent with a long-term plan, thus shielding the entity from the political vicissitudes that overwhelm other institutions. It has been the most effective and practical channel for technological transformation that a modern city has today. A true example for other cities that visit it every day looking to imitate, not always easily, this strange little-giant the city managed to create. It has produced incredible dividends. For one, it has achieved the goal of attracting more than 250 foreign companies and created more than 8,000 direct jobs in innovation, science and technology. Something unthinkable 10 years ago when people did not approach Medellin because they still considered it the drug traffickers’s kingdom. Innovation, therefore, has been the engine of development of Medellin, XXI century, the new engine of growth and prosperity, replacing mining and textile industries of the early and mid-twentieth century.
Various other creative ways of bringing neighborhoods to life were devised. The large water tanks located in the upper parts of the mountains, to supply water by gravity, once closed with fences to protect them from terrorist attacks, were opened and turned around them into true communal and recreational centers which they called UVA, “Articulated Life Units”. All the above has resulted in a fabric of social redemption that, believe it or not, was catapulted in part by that educational experiment of early 2003.
Many times things start on such different paths, some hard to imagine. True labyrinths of fait and destiny. Certainly what happened in Commune 13 at that time, was one of them. Today the commune is a thriving, joyful organism, where visual arts, music, poetry, dancing, and even serious sociological events take place. It is the most important tourist attraction. Thousands of young students and backpackers from all over the world, come here to become inspired by the social transformation and by the immense sense of belonging that the citizens now exhude. It was an immense joy and satisfaction to have been part of this process.
Published by medium.com on June 6, 2020
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