Diseña Tu País: How an IIP Alum is Designing the Future of His Country

September 08, 2018

For most students on the cusp of graduating, their futures become the center of attention—what jobs they’ll have, which cities they’ll live in, how much money they’ll make. However, not for Santiago Martinez. The 2017 Italia Innovation alum is thinking differently. Instead, the future of his country, Colombia, has been at the forefront of his mind. He explains, “growing up in Medellín, Colombia has impacted me a lot. I see my country, which is very different from the U.S. or Italy. We have a very different context here. We have very good things, but we also have some bad things like inequality. We’ve had violence in the past. It has impacted my goals for the future and my wants to contribute to this country.”

Diseña Tu País is Santiago’s latest effort to impact his country by inspiring its young generations to be agents of change. He explains that in a country like Colombia, people do things the same way for generations because there are few opportunities to access knowledge in order to figure out new ways of doing. So, he has set out to educate his generation about the challenges Colombia faces and give them the tools and confidence to solve them. He says, “we want them to think of the vocation of their community or their town, and say that vocation, which seems very old, I can bring it to a new level and I can be part of it. So, I can plan and imagine how my town will be, how my region will be and I can bring ideas and make them happen.”

The program, which lasted from August 22 - 26 in Medellín, Colombia, brought together 40 young Colombians to imagine and then design the future of healthcare, agriculture, sustainability, and education. The students were a diverse group coming from top universities all over the country, and even had students from the indigenous communities in the Amazon. The program consisted of two bootcamps led by Stanford University professors and Italia Innovation mentors. Cynthia Benjamin, professor at Stanford’s, led the first day focused on future forecasting. Bill Burnett, Executive Director of Design Program at Stanford’s d.School, then spent the next two days running a design thinking workshop during which students framed future problems, researched to understand users, ideated creative solutions, then built prototypes for the futures they imagined. The projects included a system for communities to generate their own solar energy, a week at schools dedicated to teach children healthy habits, a teacher mentoring program to create better classes, and a traveling education platform creating dynamic activities where young farmers will engage with entrepreneurial ideas for agriculture.

To reinforce the exploration, Diseña Tu País also brought accomplished Colombians to offer mentorship. They included Orland Ayala, former Global VP of Sales at Microsoft; Rodrigo Arboleda, former CEO of the MIT Media Lab’s One Laptop Per Child and CEO of FastTrack Institute; Santiago Acosta, Director of Innovation at EPM Group; Mabel Gisela Torres, biodiversity researcher from Choco; Matthieu Tenenbaum, CEO of Renault in Colombia; Felipe Gonzales, Director of Innovation and Marketing at Argos Group; Ángela Restrepo, microbiologist and member of Misión de los Sabios. Most notable was Carlos Vasco, mathematician and creator of Misión de los Sabios (Mission of the Wise People) in 1994, which brought together ten of the most brilliant thinkers in Colombia including among them a literature Nobel laureate and the scientist who created the first synthetic vaccine for Malaria to write a recommendation of how the future of Colombia should look like.

Talent is distributed equally, opportunity is not

Discussing his work, Santiago mentions a few times that, “talent and ability are evenly distributed across the human race, but opportunity is not.” While he can’t remember exactly where he heard the quote by Bill Clinton, it deeply resonated with him because he witnessed its truth in his own country as he started university.

Santiago got involved in social entrepreneurship when he started studying at University of Antioquia. With a group of friends who wanted to create a social campaign, he founded Cómo Lo Cambiarías (How Would You Change It). The kids started simply by handing out cards asking people to write how they would change the world. While most answers were small actions like recycling plastic, these cards got people thinking, especially Santiago and his friends who were amazed at the little resources they needed to make a large impact; in this case just 25000 Colombian pesos ($10) could influence 1,000 people.

Inspired to make a stronger impression on Colombians, these university students evolved Cómo Lo Cambiarías into an educational program that teaches middle and high school students from underprivileged areas about global issues and then encourages them to think of a project they could create to solve it. Santiago explains that when he started doing these educational programs, he gained a lot of insight into why Colombians may be stuck in their ways. He says, “I saw that that the education system does not allow students to think for themselves. They don’t learn how to think critically or be creative. They don’t even know the problems that the world faces. How can they be agents of change?”

This was a turning in his thinking, as he remarks “a lot of who I am today is because of that initiative that we created some years ago.” As someone who was eager to make a difference in his country, he realized he could create a better future by bringing opportunities to people. He says, “Young people are really prepared to think of the future and create it, but we have to engage and empower them. We have to give them a dynamic environment for them to think then make it happen.”

Multiplying Talent

Santiago recognizes that his background has shaped him to be atypical—a young enterprising Colombian focused on solving problems and changing the future. He recalls at a early age visiting his grandfather’s electrical engineering studio every few weeks where he would be given a TV to fix. He says, “I never fixed it, but he made me believe I was fixing it.” He understands that his environment empowered him to start initiatives like Cómo Lo Cambiarías, which then gave him the opportunity to attend summits and conferences in South Korea, India, France, and U.S. where he gained a global perspective. It also led him to the Italia Innovation Program in 2017, where Diseña Tu País has its roots.

The summer in Italy was another turning point for Santiago. He knew that he wanted to create an event to expose young Colombians to innovative thinking, but it was his experience at the Italia Innovation program that encouraged him to do more than just a conference. The idea for Diseña Tu País came to life with the help of Italia Innovation mentor Bill Burnett, who continued to advise Santiago after the program. The success of Santiago and Bill Burnett’s collaboration after Italia Innovation shows that when young people are immersed in an environment that fosters entrepreneurship and stimulates creativity, they feel empowered to achieving big goals.

After leaving Italy, Santiago recalls thinking, “I’ve had the experience of great workshops through Italia Innovation, which was great. But, how can I be a multiplier of what I learned? I want to inspire other young people to think with me. To have that fire to change their country and improve things for the future. I want to create those kind of communities.” With his enthusiasm, he pulled together the resources needed to make this happen. After Diseña Tu País, there is now a community of 40 young people prepared to solve problems in their region. Now, it’s Santiago’s goal to expand its impact even further. The next step for Diseña Tu País will be a three month program for the participants to turn their prototype into a pilot project. Santiago also plans to organize more bootcamps in Colombia and beyond with the goal of creating a generation of change agents prepared to solve the world’s most pressing issues.