Where Technology Meets Social Sciences

Medellinnovation: Metrocable (c) Goede
Medellinnovation: Metrocable (c) Goede

Science and technology have become the drivers of our societies. If SciTec wants to serve the people it needs another component: social sciences. They provide scientific progress with the right mix and balance. This lesson teaches innovative Medellín. Since the turn of the century, the Colombian city has risen like a phoenix and is according to National Geographic a destination one must visit in 2015. Also for its beauty! 

It all began with Medellín’s cable cars. The city in the beautiful valley in the Central Andes had just recovered from two almost deadly blows: the takeover by Pablo Escobar’s mafia imperium and a successive siege by the FARC guerrilla.

As a vital sign of the city’s comeback, a new type of public transportation between the steep slopes and the valley was constructed. The “Metrocable” provides the marginalized populations in the upper neighborhoods with access to jobs and thus became a unique vehicle and symbol of social inclusiveness.

City's vulnerable neighborhood (c) Capraro
City’s vulnerable neighborhood (c) Capraro

The aerial ensemble has put Medellín back on the world’s map as an innovation hub and its unique selling point.The teleferic is integrated into a sophisticated rapid transit system, the most advanced in the Americas.  The gondolas connect to a metro train and a metro bus, soon to be completed by a metro tramway of the latest 21st century design.

NOTE: If technology serves the real needs of the people and succeeds to attribute to more social equality it is well accepted. A brave design may help to make the point and make to word travel fast around the globe.

Bicycle Bonanza Thrives On Einstein Quote

And now ambitious Medellíners even want to displace the good old Netherlands as a bicycle paradise. Already 30 years ago, the city with a population of three million invented the “ciclovia”. Every Sunday, the most scenic avenues are closed off for cars and only muscle-driven vehicles are admitted.

Bicycle riders, king of the road (c) Goede
Bicycle riders, king of the road (c) Goede

In February 2015, the city hosted the “Global Bicycle Forum”1. It pursued the question how two-wheelers can be more efficiently integrated into infrastructures and create a world-wide role model for urban mobility.

The city embedded in the cordillera is aiming to set the tone. A net of several hundred kilometers long bicycle paths is being developed. They are neatly integrated into the urban structure and shall persuade one tenth of the population, 300 000 inhabitants to pedal to work. Bicycle activists form a mobile lobby out in the streets and help to protect riders from the impact of heavy car traffic.

Bicycle advocates refer in their passion and vision to Einstein. “Life is like riding on a bicycle”, he once said. “If you want to maintain your balance, you must keep moving.”

Smart City With Green Lungs

Medellíns visionaries of change and transformation were two far-sighted former mayors, a mathematician and a sociologist. The implementor and incubator of transformation are the Department of Public Works EPM and Ruta N. EPM mounts every December a world-famous Christmas illumination. Ruta N’s futuristic building connects dozens of international high technology companies.

Light Festival (c) Goede
Light Festival (c) Goede

Jointly they are creating a Smart City. At 40 spots, more than in Munich, citizens can connect for free to the internet. They provide open access to governmental offices, ensure transparency, encourage participation. The “Mi_medellín platform” has collected thousands of suggestions of the citizens and their ideas on progress and change.

Many circle around sustainability, the post-petroleum era and renewable energy, risks of climate change, protection of the environment. One half of Colombia’s territory belongs to Amazonia. The biodiversity report 2014 counts 49 046 species in the country, many of which threatened by (gold) mining and deforestation.

A recent moratorium calls for the reduction of wood harvesting around the Amazon Basin to zero by 2025. The goal: preserve the world’s green lung and protect 2768 medical plants.

Need of “Social Appropriation of Science”

A unique chain of public libraries and science parks fosters inclusive education for all straights of society. The most renowned institution of this kind is Parque Explora, Exploration Park. At first sight it comes off as a regular science center with quirky experiments, dinosaurs and cosmic phenomena, however:

Exploration Park Team w/Claudia Aguirre (r.) (c) Parque Explora
Exploration Park Team w/Claudia Aguirre (r.) (c) Parque Explora

“An essential column of our work is the outreach to the neighborhoods”, explains Education Director Claudia Patricia Aguirre. “We bring experiments to the people and thus trigger knowledge and education in vulnerable communities” 2.

This is what she calls “social appropriation of science”, a term which in Europe, even in the sophisticated language of the European Commission and its science dissemination programs is unheard of – so far. The projects range from repairing bicycles to constructing robots.

“Science and Technology Are Interwoven With Society”

“We don’t impose”, Aguirre stresses, “but move at the pace of our constituency, so they may gain confidence in their own capacity – sometimes not fast enough for our politicians”, she shrugs.

In Colombia, a whole new dimension of science and science journalism as a means of social empowerment is unfolding. Lisbeth Fog, one of the country’s leading science journalists, endorses the new scientific culture.

Colombia's leading science journalist Lisbeth Fog (l.) (c) Goede
Colombia’s leading science journalist Lisbeth Fog (l.) (c) Goede

“Science and technology are seamlessly interwoven with society”, she observes in a recent science supplement of Colombia’s weekly journal “Semana” 3. “Once our citizens realize this and initiate more science on their own, Colombia will be a different country”, Fog concludes.

Yaneth Giha Tovar, CEO of the country’s top research organization “Colciencia”, reiterates that Colombia is committed to utilize science and technology as the prime tool to become one of the most advanced societies of Latin America. This fierce determination has sent a wake-up call to the German Max Planck Society.

World’s Top Priority Is Research On Conflict Resolution

The research cluster signed a collaboration contract with Colciencia, sealed in February 2015 by Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Both organizations will engage in bilateral research of biodiversity and tropical diseases. Medellíns Antioquia University is one of the partners.

Like Germany, many other countries are starting to get more involved in Colombia and its scientific work. In this the social sciences play an increasingly important part. This is the result of the realization that only these can contribute to real stability which in turn is the best condition for the prosperity of hard sciences and technology.

Human Suffering (c) Casa Museo de la Memoria/Goede
Human Suffering (c) Casa Museo de la Memoria/Goede

For example Norway is monitoring the peace negotiations between the FARC guerrilla and the Colombian government in Havana. This year, the conflict shall be settled and put an end to 50 years of violence. It has been diligently documented by Medellíns “Memorial Museum” 4. It nails down our overall incompetence to deal with conflict, despite all our scientific sophistication. Conflict resolution, as a message must become the top research priority.

Social Engineers Mine For Human Resources

Most recently, also US American NGOs have stepped forward to lend their expertise to peace making and innovative community building processes. A seasoned expert in community development, Jim Capraro from Chicago and there co-founder of Praxis International, held a three day conference at the University of Antioquia.

It dealt with the social technique of building relationships and thus tapping undiscovered human resources. They help to strengthen neighborhoods and make folks more resilient5.

Community Empowerment Conference w/Jim Capraro (stage) (c) Mauricio Celis
Community Empowerment Conference w/Jim Capraro (stage) (c) Mauricio Celis

As to a closing, let’s quote the Colombian journalist William Ospina. In his just published book “The secret design of Latin America”6 he argues that the modern civilization is not merely about marketing strategies, technology and growth. They need to be counterbalanced by “dignity, austerity, creativity, warmth, happiness, art and beauty”, in other words: human equilibrium.

These qualities flourish under the spacious roof of social sciences. What many of us have suspected all along: They can make the difference, indeed!

1 World Bicycle Forum 2015 Medellin http://www.fmb4.org/en/home/
2 Claudia Aguirre: Science Centers and which role can they play to participate in a city social reconstruction
6 William Ospina: El Dibujo Secreto de America Latina, Bogotá 2014, http://www.megustaleer.com.co/ficha/9789585846296/el-dibujo-secreto-de-america-latina

Andean Innovation Hub and Social Lab (c) Goede
Andean Innovation Hub and Social Lab (c) Goede