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Exploring the ‘smart cities’ agenda in a developing world city: the case of Medellin, Colombia

In early October 2017,  Dr Fionn MacKillop  of The Urban Institute participated in a research trip to Medellin, Colombia, with Dr Harry Smith (also of the The Urban Institute) and Dr Soledad Garcia-Ferrari (University of Edinburgh). In this blog post, he offers some reflections on the ‘smart city’ agenda in Medellin.

Medellin is an internationally-recognised case of a city actively pursuing the ‘smart cities’ agenda. Colombia’s second city has also won the title of ‘most innovative city’ in 2013. From 2009, the city has rolled out a physical and digital infrastructure, comprising a control centre and a network of traffic cameras and sensors, aiming to improve traffic flows, curb traffic offenses, monitor water flows and air quality, as well as helping citizens to report problems (such as potholes) and traffic and other offenses, such as crime (Florez, 2016).

polluting vehicles

Citizens can report polluting vehicles to the Secretariat of Mobility using a smartphone

The Mayor’s office boasts of significant improvements in metrics such as traffic congestion and homicide rates. In the last decade or so, Medellin has emerged from very troubled decades marked by the world’s longest civil war as well as the prominence of drugs-related crime. The focus of the city has been on mobility as a vector of social integration, with significant investments in connecting poorer neighbourhoods to the city via the highly-praised metro and metro-cable systems , as well as investment in upgrading slums (a key focus of Harry Smith’s and Soledad Garcia-Ferrari’s MUI project).

cable car one

Medellin metro cable and metro system: the city has invested in high quality public transport, allowing better accessibility for poorer citizens especially

In conjunction with this, a strong emphasis has been placed on changing the culture of the city to promote safety and security and move past the image of the city of Pablo Escobar, as shown in the Netflix hit show Narcos. Interestingly, the investments in transport and accessibility are combined with the emphasis on a new urban ‘culture’, as there are repeated announcements and signs in the metro and the cable system about not putting one’s feet on the seats or offering a seat to women and elderly citizens; furthermore, increasing monitoring of traffic is seen as a linchpin in changing motorist culture, for instance in favour of a greater respect towards pedestrians. There is also a very strong presence of security personnel within the transport network and on the streets.

I interviewed key stakeholders from the Medellin Secretariat of Mobility (SMM) and academia in order to understand the shape of ‘smart urbanism’ in Medellin and lay the groundwork for future research in the field. I visited the traffic control centre, at the heart of the ‘Intelligent Mobility System’ and learnt more about its goals and the technologies in use. The traffic control centre is operated by a private contractor (ITS, Intelligent Transport Solutions) on behalf of the city and also involves the city police department in monitoring the traffic and surveillance cameras.

traffic control centre

Medellin Traffic control centre: the city’s cameras converge in this control centre

Medellin’s initiative is part of a global trend in ‘smart urbanism’, illustrated in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Korea as well as in Western cities such as Santander in Spain. It is often hard to pinpoint a precise definition of ‘smart cities’ as a variety of quality of life and efficiency measures are grouped under the aegis of the term, as discussed extensively in a recent academic monograph on the topic. Smart cities place an emphasis on technology and connectivity as a ‘solution’ to a set of common urban problems. While this can allow to leverage the promises of new technologies, it also places these agendas firmly within a techno-centric, top-down approach to social, political and environmental problems. This is in contrast to participatory approaches, which have been shown to yield greater benefits and are often less costly.

A report on the smart cities agenda in Medellin emphasises the benefits of the programme in technical terms, i.e. reductions in traffic jams and accidents, accompanied by a small reduction in traffic fatalities (which still remain very high by international standards, at over 200 per year). The main achievement pointed out is a 20% reduction in the average response time to traffic incidents. The documentation also shows a relatively small use of the opportunity to report crime to city authorities. The benefits in terms of quality of life and citizen participation do not emerge clearly from the documents consulted and from the interviews conducted, as opposed to the high impacts of measures such as the cable car system and other improvements in public transport. There are, furthermore, many criticisms of the ‘smart cities’ agenda as deployed in Medellin, which reflect general critiques seen in other contexts:

  1. Motorists see the rolling out of traffic and speed cameras as a cash-grab on the part of the city.
  2. Civil rights groups criticise the infringement on privacy from the ever-growing network of surveillance cameras.


Issues of privacy were confirmed to me indirectly by interviewees in the traffic control centre, who believed that privacy of data in Colombia was a ‘non-issue’ that did not need to be addressed by them. Another aspect is the incompleteness of the system and its lack of integration, as the traffic monitoring component does not integrate data from weather and other sensors, nor is it integrated with the public transit management system. In this sense, the smart city is actually multiple, since several levels exist in the project. These levels will clearly need more integration in order to reap all the expected benefits, as it is not realistic to manage traffic and pollution problems without integrating public transportation and air quality management into the mix. Furthermore, issues around the security and privacy of data will need further reflection, despite being described as a ‘non-issue’ in the current Colombian context.

Reflections and next steps

It is still relatively unclear what ‘smart urbanism’ means, beyond a few commonalities such as the use of modern technologies (sensing, monitoring, surveillance), an emphasis on ‘quality of life’ and a (variable) commitment to ‘greening’ cities. The local context, especially the predominant culture and political regime, exert a significant influence on the interpretation of these notions in practice. It seems difficult, if not impossible, to define a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to these concepts. It is clear however that many potential problems appear in the rolling out of smart urbanism approaches in the developing world (as well as in developed cities, but that is beyond the scope of this post). More generally, smart urbanism, with its emphasis on sensing and monitoring and large-scale data collection poses risks to personal freedom and privacy, and can easily pave the way to increased authoritarianism or at least top-down approaches to urban management, such as when mobile phone services are switched off in whole cities to prevent the organisation and reporting of dissent or other activities deemed undesirable by governments. There is also the range of risks stemming from ‘incomplete, buggy and hackable’ software and hardware solutions used by IT contractors in these projects. The reliance on private contractors is also part and parcel of a general trend towards the privatisation of public space and government functions that can have exclusionary consequences on broad sections of the population, especially the poorer and more marginalised ones.

These observations of contemporary directions of urban development require further research which will critically discuss and compare approaches to smart urbanism in a range of selected developed and developing world cities, so as the understand whether and how ‘smart’ and ‘eco’ mean greater repression and exclusion, or do indeed offer promising avenues to improving peoples’ lives in the 21st century. This research would also allow me to pinpoint alternatives to the wholesale rolling out of smart urbanism. Indeed, such ‘fashionable’ approaches often displace simpler, more low-key investments in public transport, public spaces or education which can have demonstrably greater benefits and for a lower cost, whilst avoiding trends towards the privatisation of spaces and governance in the city. Moreover, it is possible to adopt parts of these agendas, i.e. retrofitting established cities instead of building ex-nihilo smart or eco-cities from scratch, resulting in lower embodied energy and materials consumption, as well as saving space. Thus, the city of Barcelona has rolled out elements of smart urbanism, in contrast to greenfield smart cities such as Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates.

Developing countries are rapidly urbanising and facing a range of challenges around urban sustainability/resilience as well as quality of life. My recent research fieldtrips in Colombia and China have allowed me to explore potential responses to these challenges as well as their limitations. These two countries show the benefits and problems related to ‘smart urbanism’ and ‘eco-urbanism’ as frameworks for addressing the challenges of rapidly-growing cities in the developing world, in very different social, economic, political and environmental contexts. It is expected that these preliminary investigations will lead to further research on emerging approaches to the challenges of growth and urban life in the 21st century. A future post will look at ‘eco-urbanism’ in Kunming and in the wider Chinese context, and draw some preliminary conclusions.

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