Medellín’s chief resilience officer shaped by time in Johannesburg
8 Sep 2014
Oscar Santiago Uribe Rocha is Medellin, Colombia’s first Chief Resilience Officer (CRO)—the second CRO appointed anywhere in the world. His story is one of personal resilience, determination, and a vision compelling enough to bring world leaders together from across continents to address some of the most pressing shocks and stresses of our time.
For nearly half his life, Rocha has traveled between Colombia and South Africa, ferrying knowledge, support, and international delegations along with him. When he first arrived in Johannesburg as an exchange student in 1997, he did not expect to find a country from which he could learn so much, or to which he had so much to give.
It seems fitting that the world’s second CRO would come to the table with an intimate understanding of how one city can learn from another.
A HISTORY OF EXCHANGE
Medellin, like Johannesburg, has been shaped by a history of violence. Both cities face significant inequality. Both are determined to turn a troubled past into a bright future. In Pretoria, Johannesburg and Medellin, Rocha worked with youth and other vulnerable populations, searching for new ways to ensure the violence and trauma of one generation would not be passed on to the next. He traveled between Colombia and South Africa “exchanging ideas and projects about childhood and children’s rights.”
The Ambassador and he were appointed by the former Columbian President to learn about the peace and reconciliation process that was happening in South Africa, and what it looked like a decade after its implementation. At that time, we in Medellin were preparing our society to enter a post-conflict era.” Rocha’s work, developing programs devoted to the psychological recovery of children, was inextricably tied to the peace process. Having implemented programs in both South Africa and Colombia, he was uniquely positioned to facilitate a larger-scale knowledge exchange between the two countries.
In 2007, Rocha was appointed Administrative Assistant in charge of Cultural and Economic Affairs at the Embassy of Colombia in the Republic of South Africa. “I had been asked both to learn from South Africa, and to help South Africa learn from us in Colombia.”
Over the next several years, Rocha had the opportunity to meet and learn from Nelson Mandela and Roelf Meyer—Peace adviser and former Minister of Constitutional Order under President Nelson Mandela. He formed delegations that brought Desmond Tutu, former president de Klerk, the mayor of Johannesburg, the mayor of Port Elizabeth, the secretary of transportation in Cape Town, and the secretary of transportation from the national government to Colombia.
“While South Africa had developed innovative solutions in the peace process,” Rocha explained, “Medellin had developed solutions on how to improve urban development.”
Rocha lead five delegations from South Africa to Medellin. “We showed them our metros, our gondolas, our child centers,” Rocha says. “It strengthened the ties between Colombia and South Africa.”
Before the institution of these delegations, Medellin had been without a true post-conflict plan. It took sitting down and speaking with South African leaders to begin to see a light at the end of a very dark tunnel. “Like South Africa had done, we had to accept that we had made mistakes,” Rocha explains. “We had to find ways to acknowledge the past without getting stuck there. We needed to look forward and think in terms of the future.”
Rocha returned to Medellin after nearly ten years in South Africa to accept a job as the city’s Director of Social Innovation. In this role he continued his work with youth by researching the sexual and reproductive health of Medellin’s younger population, and continued to facilitate knowledge sharing with other delegations from South Africa.
Then, everything changed.
A CHIEF RESILIENCE OFFICER EMERGES FROM THE RUBBLE
On October 12, 2013, Medellin experienced a catastrophe. A high-rise residential building collapsed, and Rocha, along with over 100 other families, lost his home and everything he owned.
Within days, Rocha had become the de-facto spokesperson for the families, and spent the next weeks and months fighting to ensure the construction company would face serious consequences.
“Sometimes we don’t understand timing in life,” Rocha says with a chuckle. Eight days before the tragedy of the building collapse, he had been in the mayor’s office with a delegation from South Africa talking about peace and reconciliation. “We were talking about how to keep learning from one another. A few days later my building collapses and I have to start facing this tragedy as a representative of all the affected families…” The tragedy happened to coincide with the mayor of Medellin’s search for a Chief Resilient City Officer.
As Rocha tells it, the mayor asked three different people who he should appoint as his Chief Resilience Officer, and all three gave his name. “Sometimes,” Rocha mused, “tragedy puts you in a position where you have to prove yourself, where you have to look toward the future. And people see how you do.”
“I am very happy and very honored,” Rocha says of his appointment. “But Chief Resilience Officer is not a personal achievement. It’s a city achievement.”
The city of Medellin already has a Resilience Committee. The committee is composed of representatives from universities, municipalities, and civil society. The Chief Resilience Officer will be integrated into that body. Rocha, as CRO, will become the third member of a sub-committee, and report directly to the mayor. “We are the bridge between the resilience committee of the city and the mayor,” Rocha says. Their task is to spend the next year creating a resilience strategy for the city. The goal is to spend the subsequent year implementing that plan across the city’s communities.
“The 100 Resilient Cities Network, in and of itself, is a remarkable opportunity,” says Rocha. “An earthquake is the same in San Francisco or in the Philippines or in Colombia. What is unique is how we overcome the effects of that earthquake.”
“The ideas from another city,” he explains, “are unlike anything we could come up with ourselves because every society works differently and thinks differently.” This, Rocha says firmly, is the richness and unique value of the 100 Resilient Cities Network.
THE WORK AHEAD
The 100 Resilient Cities Network, in and of itself, is a remarkable opportunity. An earthquake is the same in San Francisco or in the Philippines or in Colombia. What is unique is how we overcome the effects of that earthquake.
“Today, the root of most of our problems is inequality,” Rocha says. “When you have a majority of citizens living in undeveloped conditions and a very few with extreme privilege, people start asking, ‘What’s going on?’ It happened in Johannesburg and Pretoria, and it happened in Medellin. Our conflicts have been largely driven by inequity.”
Rocha is hoping for nothing short of a cultural transformation. A true reduction in inequality, he says, will not be driven by the mayor or a public official. It will be driven by the collective vision of the city’s citizens.
“The people of Medellin have to say to themselves, ‘I have to do my part to make our society equal,’” Rocha says. He knows it’s an enormous challenge. Cultural transformation takes time. “But we are on the way,” Rocha says, excited by the changes he’s already seen. “We are making amazing efforts to make our society more integrated, which is part of why the city has become more peaceful.”
Medellin’s innovative Gondola system is just one example of how the city has changed the societal balance. The Gondola has made it possible for residents of the city’s economically impoverished areas to commute to the city center. This commute, which once took up to four hours and required walking, biking, and an unreliable labyrinth of buses, now takes less than 60 minutes. “It has made the city available to its citizens again,” Rocha says. “The gondola has made opportunities for education, employment and travel available. And that is a good step toward reducing inequity.”
The city seems to be skyrocketing in its next phase as poster-child for post-conflict rebuilding. And its citizens are excited to be part of what happens next. “They don’t want be waiting in their houses for a solution,” Rocha says of the people of Medellin. “They want to go out and create a solution.”
And that’s exactly what they’ve done by appointing a CRO. But the city is hoping its CRO is only the first of many solutions that will follow as part of their participation in the 100 Resilient Cities Network.
“I see this network is a bridge,” Rocha says. “But the importance of a bridge is not that you have connected one thing to another. It’s that you have made possible a great transformation. In two or three years, you will find new solutions implemented here in Medellin, because we plan to be learning from Durban, from Porto Alegre, from Byblos and San Francisco.”
In fact, one of the first things Rocha did as the world’s second CRO was to reach out to Patrick Otellini, the world’s first CRO, from San Francisco. Among other things, both cities share an exposure to seismic risk (though on far different scales). “I am not going to keep waiting,” Rocha says. “Now that the connection is there, I want to know how these other cities have been confronting their resilience challenges. I want to learn.”
Medellin expects a lot of its first CRO, but no one’s expectations are higher than Rocha’s own. “I will only be able to prove myself when I leave the office and someone else becomes the CRO of Medellin,” he says. “Twenty or thirty years later, if the office is still here and we’re still working, then I will be happy.”