Week One: Urban Density Fuels Innovation in Bogotá

In conjunction with our recently published white paper, UP Global is spotlighting five communities, on five continents, that exhibit one of the entrepreneurial ingredients documented by our research: density, talent, culture, capital, and regulatory practices.

Over the course of five weeks, UP Global is highlighting these key ingredients in Bogota, London, Seattle, Tehran, and Nairobi– to get a local view of the challenges and opportunities facing entrepreneurs.


Innovation is sewn at the intersection of great minds; where the density of talented thinkers and makers is high, the potential to “Make Your Own Silicon Valley” dramatically increases. Silicon Valley’s magic is that the five innovation ingredients coexist with high density.

In Bogotá, Colombia, entrepreneurs face complex and long-standing challenges regarding innovation density– challenges that must be accounted for by those hoping to launch a startup.

Design Your Space, startup weekendLocal Innovator at Startup Weekend Colombia, “Design Your Space”  

“Bogotá’s urban expansion has been ‘oil spill development,’” Luis Borrero, a third-generation Colombian architect and an expert on global practices in urban sustainability, said. “A drop here, a drop there, and eventually, drops spreading out into one another.”

Borrero is a fellow at the University of Washington Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies, and serves on the Seattle Planning Commission. Borrero said that parts of Bogotá are extremely dense, but that the city’s 613-square-mile footprint is dominated by low-rise structures; built against and on top of each other, and spread vastly across a plateau.

ColombiaPhoto: Ross Buchanan

Colombia is a nation whose human and natural ecosystems have been ravaged by war. Ten percent of the country’s population left the country during the 1990s, and in 1992 the country’s murder rate per 100,000 citizens was the highest in the world. Colombia maintains the third largest population of internally displaced refugees on the planet, and is a seasoned battleground for the War on Drugs, and the War on Terror.

“Through rapid urbanization, rural communities were forced to become a part of [Bogotá,] and it forced communities to come up with a new plan for managing density,” Runstad Center fellow Eric Hadden said. “The creation of bicycle highways, caught our attention because their popularity has been building steadily, and they’re a good example of bottom-up pressure as a force for density innovation.”

Hadden traveled to Colombia in March of 2014 as part of the Runstad Center’s annual fellowship in urban sustainability. Hadden and the Runstad team visited Bogota, Cartagena, and Medellín, and with Borrero’s guidance, the group analyzed patterns in urban resilience, sustainability, and density.

“The automotive congestion [in Bogotá] was horrible… Urban developers have done a good job of actually engaging leaders from the community when expanding the mass-transit and bike highways around the city,” Hadden said. “The city brought informal settlements and neighborhoods into the fold with the Transmilenio [bus lines] and bike highways.”

Recognizing the migration of business density away from the city center, Urban developers created Plan Centro, a strategy to reinvest in business, retail, and governmental density in downtown. The plan uses robust mass-transit and a 180-mile bike transit highway to encourage worker mobility across a larger metropolitan area.

Borrero notes; however, that without the feeling of safety in a dense, urban space, startup ecosystems cannot begin to flourish. Banks and financial services relocated out of El Centro (the city’s business core) over Colombia’s thirty-year period of dramatic corruption, violence, and crime.

“The Wall Street Journal noted in 2013 that, ‘Arguably, no place has been more resilient or more innovative in the face of challenges than Colombia,’” Hadden said. “[As a fellowship] we were looking to study urban spaces that were overcoming trauma, corruption, and political instability­– in a way that actually made the community stronger.”

To account for Bogotá’s informal settlements in urban planning, city government turned to community leaders for their expertise.

“We were continually told by the communities we went into, ‘You can’t just go about installing municipal hardware ….you need the software to go along with it,’” Hadden said. “A city may install a library (hardware), but if they have no infrastructure for informing the populace, or bringing citizens to the institutions (software), the project can’t function as a hub for the community.”

BD Bacata is another notable example of density redevelopment in El Centro. The project is in the redevelopment zone set forth by Plan Centro, and upon completion, the two-towered, skyscraper will be the tallest structure in the country, and will host 1.3 million sq feet of commercial/residential space.


Perhaps most intriguing to entrepreneurs, the building will be financed entirely through crowdfunding. It will house businesses, families, and international ‘feducies’– or banks– on the same premises.

Prodigy Networks, a New York financial group, is responsible for curating the crowd-funded structure. The company advertises that up to 80% of the building’s 3800 investors are Colombian, and that the skyscraper is a way for middle class investors to build wealth.

BD Bacata hopes to be an advanced physical hub, and the first crowdfunded superstructure. It will host office and commercial space and many condominiums. It will offer density, and an enormous jolt of capital– into a small, accessible location, in a city of eight million people.

As a burgeoning and complex cluster, Bogotá is a reminder that startups need not only the five essential ingredients for fostering innovation– but also a cultural resilience to the unique challenges that face their community. It is through this resilience that Bogotá hopes to redevelop its urban density on behalf of startups.


We invite you to read along and lend your perspective.
What challenges are you facing in your community?
What solutions have you developed?
What questions do you have about these communities?