More notes from Medell??n, Colombia


The role of the City in Infrastructural Extension

An interesting aspect of the Medellín story in the last post is not just the enormous success of EPM, but also the role of the City.

Among key challenges with respect to the provision of municipal utility services today (in my opinion) is the strong current in the academic, practitioner, and donor agency literature that local government’s role in the provision of utility services is essentially to stay out of the way. The utility is to be as independent from municipal government as possible, and the municipal government should not interfere. I see a couple of problems with this: (1) ensuring access to and the consumption of services like water involves social action that is beyond the scope of utilities; and (2) the success of utilities cannot be made sustainable in municipalities that are not themselves stable, i.e. the health of municipalities has a direct baring of the health of local utilities. I will deal with point (1) below and point (2) in the next post on Canada.

In the case of Medellín, despite the fact that they have 100% coverage (or very close) in water, sewer, and electricity throughout the urban region, they have a significant problem with access to consumption. Due to high levels of poverty and displacement within and to the city, there are also high levels of disconnection from utility services. Several programs at the state, municipal, and utility level try to help to improve the economic access of poor households (as physical access already exists). On the state level, these include nation-wide cross-subsidy requirement from wealthy to poor neighborhoods and price regulation. On the municipal level, programs include a monthly water allowance of 2.5m3 per person per month for poor households (the “minimo vital”) that is paid for by the City, as well as a version of Contratación Social in which the city pays for the infrastructure extension done by EPM instead of the community taking on a loan from the company.

In addition, a probably more interestingly, the City has implemented a range of programs to help raise the standard of living in marginalized barrios. In a presentation on the “minimo vital” at last week’s Interamerican Dialogue on Water, Mauricio Valencia Correa, a municipal representative, discussed the relevance and potential impact of the “minimo vital” as one tool among a series aimed at improving the quality of life and reducing inequality in the City. The “minimo vital” was of no relevance without a host of other programs including, the construction of quality day cares, libraries and colleges in poor neighborhoods, programs to improve mobility and livability (like stairs on the steep paths, paved walkways etc.) and transportation access like the Metrocable (metro by cable car) to the marginalized neighborhoods (see pictures).

I think that this makes a very important point. This is that access to water services is not strictly a technical problem to be solved by utilities. Rather, it speaks to broader social problems that must involve local government in their resolution. These include improvements to social cohesion, social equity and mobility, education, opportunities for women (day care), and quality of life. Without these, access to a “minimo vital” in water means very little. For utility services to be accessible in a meaningful and sustainable way, a holistic approach to the municipality must be taken rather than one that seeks to separate utilities from municipalities and focus on services while ignoring broader social problems.


More notes from Medell??n, Colombia


The Empresas Públicas de Medellín and Habilitación de Viviendas

Medellín is Colombia’s second largest city with a population of approximately 2.3 million. Like many large cities in Latin America, a significant portion of its population lives in extreme poverty. According to Colombia’s most recent census, conducted in 2005, 12.4 percent of the then population could not meet their basic needs (DANE, 2005). Medellín’s Development Plan for 2008-2011, registered the number of informal housing units at 85,168, or nearly 17 percent of all homes in the city (González Zapata, 2009, 129). Surveys conducted in the informal settlements of La Cruz, La Honda and Esfuerzos de Paz Uno, show a high percentage of displaced among their inhabitants (up to 76%), a predominance of female headed households (up to 65%), dependence on work in the informal economy (up to 70%), and a majority of persons earning less than the minimum wage (up to 90%) (Associación Cambiemos, 2010, RIOCBACH, 2010).

 The Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM, The Public Utility Companies of Medellín) is a multi-utility corporation owned by the city of Medellín, its sole shareholder to which it pays a minimum annual dividend of 30 % of net revenue. EPM provides water, sewer, gas, and electricity services in Medellín and in a number of other municipalities in the Department of Antioquia and Colombia. EPM’s net profits in 2010 were US$ 773.4 million of which US$ 450 million was transferred to the City of Medellin (EPM, 2011a). It is among the City’s primary employers with 5,830 employees. EPM is also the majority shareholder in a range of affiliates across utility sectors; the “Grupo EPM” boasts over 10 million clients and 10,644 employees (Empresas Públicas de Medellín, 2011b).

Through a program called Habilitación de Viviendas (rehabilitation of homes), EPM has been extending utility networks to the city’s marginal inhabitants since 1964. This program provides long-term low-interest loans to marginal neighborhoods in order to enable them to pay for infrastructure extension. Today, 35 percent of EPM’s “clientes” have become so through this program.

In 1998, EPM modified the program to “Contratación Social” (social contracting). Instead of contracting to a private construction firm to do the work for Habilitación de Viviendas, EPM contracts to the local community leadership (the JAC), which hires all local labor. The program helps to generate employment, results in a variety of urban improvements (stair cases, reinforcement of walls, paved walkways etc), generates profits in the community, results in better infrastructure, and helps to build the JAC’s capacity to continue acting as a contractor for other projects in the City, thus generating more local employment and income.

Photos @Juan A. Aristizabal 2011

Greetings from the 7th Interamerican Dialogue on Water


In Medellín this week (November 13 to 19), among a host of other events, is the 7th Interamerican Dialogue on Water ( This conference takes place every three years. It is meant to act as a regional conference in order to prepare documents on five core themes as contributions to the World Water Forum in Marseille, France in February 2012. The themes included: water governance, a culture of water, financial sustainability, managing knowledge and information, and confronting challenges and needs.

The conference was organized try to get as much input from all the participants as possible. The first three days were organized along the “world cafe” model. A “mesa” or a round table was held for each core theme and participants (more than 1000) could pick which theme was on interest to them. Over two days the mesas met many times and in each, the group was broken up in nine further sub themes and in groups of 4 or 5 everyone circled the room to discuss themes, come up with key issues, later strategies, and later commitments. The leaders of each mesa worked long hours to develop a synthesis document on the core theme that was presented to large assembly on the last day of the conference.

There were also side working groups according to interest group (utility operators, transboundary issues, governance, rotary…) as well as panel presentations on issues such as water and energy, ecosystems etc.

The model of the conference was extraordinary for facilitating the development of relationships between people within such a large group by given everyone a chance to work together. This was very fruitful.

One of the things that struck me though was the overlap between the outcomes of the working groups on the key themes. Many issues kept popping up that could be said to fall into the governance category (bringing us back to questions of the breadth and utility of the concept). People were often concerned with oversight, accountability and transparency, and the human right to water came up again and again.

One interesting intervention that I heard on this point was from the head of the water division of Medellin’s public utility EPM. In his presentation, he underscored the point that without a definition of what the human right means, it is rather inconsequential. For example does it mean free water in every home? Free water within a reasonable distance (say 100 m)? Does it mean water within a reasonable distance at an affordable price for each socio-economic group? He also made the point that the human right to water must involve the state. That reaching such a goal largely depends on improving people’s lives and socio-economic opportunities, it cannot default to utilities. A final thing he noted was the confusion between 100% infrastructural coverage and the right to water; without the ability to pay, access to infrastructure does not mean access to water.

I think these points deserve some attention. I have attached some pictures of the conference venue (including a concert given by a local band). In the next post, I will attach some pictures from the infrastructure extension projects in the disadvantaged barrios.

Networked infrastructure and the black box

Greetings from Montreal, soon Medellín… some thoughts on opening the “black box”.

In the recent article Small technologies, big change (PHG 2011) that Nicolas drew your attention to, I was trying to bring geographical and STS approaches to networked infrastructure into interaction for the specific purpose of moving away from the “black box” metaphor of networked infrastructure.

In the geography literature, a variety of metaphors about infrastructure (e.g. exoskeleton, cyborg urbanism…) place networked infrastructure as stabilized and isolated from users. It supports their daily lives, but they do not interact with it or influence it. Similarly, in the large technical systems literature, LTS are taken as black boxed, and purposefully so. They are built for durability and immunity from users.

However, what I found in my research was that many utility managers actually seek to engage a variety of user groups in the management of the infrastructural network through the introduction of relatively simple technologies into homes and businesses. These technologies, which I dub mediating technologies, can have a significant impact of the network. For example, they can reduce the strain on network capacity and on the environment. The technologies that I examined included a variety of home and business retrofits to improve water efficiency (reduce consumption) as well as different types of software to assist homeowners and large industrial consumers to detect leakage beyond the property line, encouraging them to fix problems themselves.

So, not only was the LTS (in my case, water and sewer infrastructure) malleable rather than rigid, managers actively sought to open up the black box and integrate users into its management, rather than striving for invisibility. All this could be accomplished, not through a gargantuan unearthing and remodeling of the system, but through the addition of relative simple technologies to its peripheral nodes.

Here, STS theory on the interaction of users becomes very important because it tells us that users can interact with technology in a variety of unintended ways, producing results that were not the intention of the developers of that technology. Thus, with the purposeful integration of users into the management of LTS, they become both more malleable and less predictable.

Such a shift, from stabilized black box to malleable and interactive, has the potential to generate a variety of progressive benefits. In Montreal, where I live, for example, there is no water metering and thus very little user information about their relationship to the system. The black box is retained, as are high levels of consumption and leakage. In other communities in Canada, utility managers found that by increasing user information, through metering, and giving users the tools to manage their consumption (e.g. low flow devices), a variety of positive effects resulted. These included reduced consumption (and sewage outflows) and delayed infrastructure expansion.

In Medellín, where I’m heading, users are integrated into the system in a variety of ways. Beyond, the standard mediating technologies that I discuss in the article, users are integrated directly into the construction of the infrastructure. In order to create jobs in Medellín’s low-income barrios, in 1998, the local utility EPM began contracting to the barrio councils (the JACs) to build needed infrastructure. EPM guides the JACs through the process and the JACs hire all local labor. Both residents and EPM staff find that by employing local people to build the infrastructure, it is built to a much higher standard than when the utility contracted the work to private construction firms. The process also develops the capacity in the JAC and the community to monitor the new systems and alert EPM of any problems. Thus, the black box can be opened up in a variety of ways with a variety of interesting consequences.

Hello from Montreal!

Thank-you Nicolas for the introduction and thanks to Endre for his interesting posts over the last month. I like the idea of following a theme. So, taking my inspiration Endre, I’m going to focus not parliaments but on underground infrastructure. Given that this is admittedly a very broad topic, I’m going to try to hone in on a couple of themes that Nicolas has suggested are of interests to followers of Installing (Social) Order.

So, in short, over the next few weeks, I will endeavor to get us into a conversation on the following issues related to how we conceive of infrastructure as people who study it, who use it, who build it and who manage it.  First, following up on Nicolas’ poste regarding the Small technologies, big change article, I will take another look at the concept of the black box and the relationship of the users to infrastructure. In subsequent posts, I will look at scale and the role of municipalities in questions of infrastructure management, users and the politics of infrastructure, the idea of “differentiated” infrastructures for low-income users, and infrastructure as “sunk cost” versus infrastructure as a “base” for community investment. Having, focused mostly on the municipal scale, in my final posts at the end of the month, I would like to take a look at other scales (including different kinds of scale not based on administrative boundaries) in thinking about infrastructure.  

I’m looking forward to your reactions and feedback on these issues.

Before, getting started, I think that it would be great to try to keep in mind some of the ideas that are being discussed on the blog as we think through questions related to infrastructure. Following up on the Endre’s statement with respect to parliaments that “the legislative machine should operate smoothly, but not too smoothly” and the recent posts on Foucault, I would draw your intention to the work of James Ferguson. In his book The Anti-Politics Machine (1994), he asks us not to focus on why development projects don’t work, but why they do work the way they do, i.e. whose or what purposes does it serve? Ferguson, draws this notion from Foucault’s analysis of the prison. On page 254 of his book he writes:

 In a situation in which “failure is the norm”, there is no reason to think that the Thaba-Tseka [a development project in Lesotho] was an especially badly run or poorly thought out project. … But it may be that what is most important about a “development” project is not so much what it fails to do but what it does do; it may be that its real importance in the end lies in the “side effects” … Foucault, speaking of the prison, suggests that dwelling on the ‘failure’ of the prison may be asking the wrong question. Perhaps, he suggests,”one should reverse the problem and ask oneself what is served by the failure of the prison; what is the use of these different phenomena that are continually being criticized; the maintenance of delinquency, the encouragement of recidivism, the transformation of the occasional offender into a habitual delinquent, the organization of a closed milieu of delinquency.” (Foucault 1979: 272).

These ideas have a lot of resonance in infrastructure, the management of which has been heavily criticized leading to a host of solutions which themselves seem to create other types of problems, but also other types of benefits. Good ideas to keep in mind.