Cities Kick-Start Innovation

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Context matters in rankings, whether it is for universities, sports teams or cities. Columbus, Ohio and Medellin, Columbia, are two cities that were recently singled out for recognition. In the case of Medellin the title bestowed was Innovative City of the Year by Citi Group, The Wall Street Journal and the Urban Land Institute. Columbus is the only U.S. city among the list of Most Intelligent Cities adjudicated by the Intelligent Communities Forum.

Although one can always argue over the selection process and the qualifications of the sponsors to properly judge the final selection, it’s hard to find fault with the innovative work being done in these cities that pushed them up to the top of these rankings.

Consider Columbus, Ohio, one of this nation’s “legacy cities” in the industrial heartland. In a review of the city’s accomplishments toward earning the Most Intelligent title, Robert Bell, founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, cites assets including Ohio State University, the Columbus Metropolitan Library and the innovation incubator TechColumbus as significant advances in smart technology application and education. The city is further lauded for its multi-sector partnerships, inclusion of citizens in visioning and transparency of process in decision making.

The astonishing transformation in Medellin bears some of the same hallmarks that define the experience in Columbus. However, Columbus never had to battle the horrendous crime problems that accompanied the drug cartel wars (1975-1995) nor the extremes of poverty that plague so many developing democracies. What gives this city its credibility as “innovative” is its leveraged public investment with private sector partners, a determination to nurture citizen inclusion (participatory budgeting being one example) through the use of social media tools, and real progress to improve the human and social capital of the city’s poorest residents.

To be sure, the story in Medellin is capturing so much attention because so many of the projects pursued are being replicated elsewhere, much in the way Curitiba, Brazil led the field in bus rapid transit. For example, Medellin invested in aerial skyways employing gondolas that link citizens living in poor mountainside villages to jobs in the valley below. A similar system was rolled out in Rio de Janeiro in July 2011. A skyway across the Thames in London, the Emirates Air Line, debuted for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Cities are hotbeds of innovation and city leaders love to share a good story. It is in the sharing of both success and failure that innovation spreads and achieves a long-term impact.