Colombia is a country in the midst of a modern-day renaissance. As little as a decade ago, the country seemed off-limits to the casual visitor because of an ongoing guerrilla war between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, as well as rampant drug trafficking in certain parts of the country.
A peace deal struck between FARC and the government in 2016 that called on the rebels to trade their guns for ballots brought an end to some of the violence and crime that had plagued many areas of the country.
Although recent events have called into question the long-term viability of the peace deal, the country is dramatically more peaceful now than it was over the 52 years of conflict that resulted in the deaths of at least 220,000 people, with over 7 million people displaced from their homes.
Colombia’s renaissance centered on the town of Medellin, former home of drug kingpins and a focal point for narco-trafficking. The city has received numerous awards recently, including the world’s most innovative city award from the Wall Street Journal and CitiBank in 2013, as well as the biennial Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize in 2016. Both awards cited the city’s progress in overcoming crime and transforming its urban areas by finding “new solutions to classic problems of mobility and environmental sustainability.”
These solutions included new gondolas and escalators that transport people from steep mountainside homes to the city center in minutes as opposed to their previous multi-hour commutes. The city also has a new metro system as well as new museums, cultural centers, libraries, and schools.
As I was planning a trip to Colombia with a focus on innovation, I decided to apply one of my own maxims to the voyage.
The intuitive decision would have been to go straight to Medellin to see firsthand the implementation of these innovative ideas. After all, Medellin has gone from a feared drug-trafficking capital to a wonderland of urban innovation in just a few short years. In fact, many Americans are now moving to Medellin to take advantage of the perfect climate and low cost of living.
Yet so much has been written about Medellin that I was concerned that adding my voice to those others might not have been truly innovative. Rather, I decided to save Medellin for a future trip and chose to spend my time in other Colombian cities: Cartagena, Bogota, and Villa de Leyva.
What I found in these other cities were worthwhile examples of innovation with more of a historical bend than what is taking place in Medellin.
The National Flag and Motto
The Colombian national flag, adopted on November 26, 1861, is striking and simple, with bold stripes of yellow, blue and red. The three stripes are not symmetrical, as yellow occupies 50% of the flag, with red and blue occupying 25% each. The story behind these colors aligns with Colombia’s natural wonders and its history. The color yellow represents both gold and the sun.
For indigenous cultures in Colombia, such as the Muisca peoples who inhabited the area around Bogota, the sun was the most important god and gold was a way of representing drops of sunlight on the Earth. The band of blue in the flag represents the oceans that surround the country as well as the numerous lakes and rivers of Colombia. Colombia is the only country in South America with coasts on both major oceans (Atlantic and Pacific). Colombia is also blessed with a large number of rivers with strong flows from their sources to the sea.
The color red in the flag represents the blood that was shed to achieve independence from Spain in 1810, as well as the strength and perseverance of the Colombia people.
In addition to the messaging from the colors of the flag, the official seal of Colombia contains the phrase its Libertad y Orden, or liberty and order. From the standpoint of a political scientist, these terms are inherently contradictory from a governance standpoint.
A society focused on liberty may not have order, whereas a society focused on order may not have much liberty. Combining the two into a viable political system is truly a challenge. However, doing so successfully can result in the operation of a society that is quite fulfilling for its citizens.
Innovation Perspective: My plan for all future innovation workshops is to call them “Colombian Innovation Workshops” in the invitation. I assume this will raise some eyebrows and might even lead some invitees to reject the invitation (fearing that we are alluding to some illegal activity in the workshop), so I might need to explain the workshop concept as part of the invitation.
The workshop will prominently display the Colombian flag with the yellow, blue, and red bars. The yellow will represent gold, which aligns with the objective of the workshop – to find those nuggets of innovation that will demonstrate great value to the sponsors of the workshop.
Yellow also represents the sun, which emphasizes how the workshop will shine a strong light on whatever topic is being discussed, leaving no areas in the dark or unexamined in our quest for new thinking.
The blue represents the vastness of the seas, which corresponds to the lack of limitations on what we will explore in the workshop. In other words, we don’t want necessarily to limit ourselves to a small set of ideas in out quest for innovation.
We want to be bold in our investigation.Red will demonstrate our commitment to the work effort involved in the innovation project, which we know will not be easy. While we don’t plan on shedding any actual blood (papercuts notwithstanding), the work will certainly be challenging and may involve long hours.
Finally, the motto for our workshop, just like the Colombian Seal, will be liberty and order. The workshop will be free-wheeling as we exercise our liberty in exploring new ideas and topics, but this freedom will be bounded with a sense of order that will keep the workshop running on a schedule with a focus on specific outputs. Should we encounter additional skepticism about the Colombian workshop, we could always just say that it is going to be fueled on the world’s best coffee – that grown in Colombia.
No discussion about Colombia would be complete without mention of its famous coffee, as exemplified by Juan Valdez in his traditional Colombian garb. Indeed, the Juan Valdez Coffee Shops in Colombia rival the ubiquitous Starbucks Coffee stores in the US (and elsewhere). The question thus arises as to why Colombian coffee is so good.
According to locals, in addition to attributes such as the proximity to the equator, the richness of the soil, and the amount of rainfall, the nature of the terrain in the coffee-growing regions of Colombia have a hand in making its coffee among the best in the world.
The areas where coffee is grown in Colombia, known as the zona cafetera (coffee zone), tend to be more mountainous and have very little flat land. Flat land would rend itself more prone to mechanization in terms of harvesting, so the net result is that much of the Colombia coffee crop is picked by hand.
Unlike a machine that would grab the entire plant and harvest all the beans at once, hand-picking allows the farmer to select only the ripest beans and leave the others on the plant for future harvesting. In addition, by not taking the entire plant at harvest time, the farmer can come back again and again to pick ripe new beans at the appropriate time. The result is a rich and robust coffee bean that, according to many, makes some of the best coffee on the planet.
It should be noted, though, that the laws of the marketplace dictate that the best beans (which can garner the highest price), are shipped overseas, leaving the locals in Colombia with the middle and lower tier of coffee beans. However, based on comments from people who have tasted the coffee in Colombia, even these lower-quality beans are still top-notch compared to others around the world.
Innovation Perspective: When working in the field of innovation, automation and substitution of machine labor or intelligence in place of human effort or intelligence is often a siren song that draws us towards these types of solutions. While there are cases where automation results in a superior solution, in terms of a more efficient or faster process, the coffee bean example reminds us that there are cases where human effort results in a more effective process, even if that process is not more efficient.
The innovator should be cautious to define multiple objectives upfront in an innovation effort so that the focus is not solely on increased efficiency or lower cost.
That way the innovator can be sure not to miss opportunities to create value that lay outside the traditional realms of cost/benefit analysis.
Living in a modern, hustling and bustling city in the United States makes one forget about some of the older ways of life that have been predominant around the world for centuries. These traditional ways of life come roaring back to me when I travel in the form of something as simple as the church bell (or the muezzin’s call to prayer from a mosque in a Muslim area).
In Colombia I visited the small town of Villa de Leyva, which is a tiny, picturesque town northeast of Bogota that looks like something right out of a Hollywood movie set.
The town, dominated by an enormous main square, is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site, with row after row of nearly identical, two-story white colonial stucco buildings with black, brown, or green wood trim and balconies. The town is easily walkable, and one setting out to walk around town quickly reaches the end of the main town area and returns back to the central square.
What struck me here, and in visiting other villages in Colombia, were the regularity of the church bells. The bells could be heard anywhere in town and announced to the faithful that mass was about to start, or had ended, or were announcing that the clock had reached key times of the day, such as 12 noon.
Hearing the bells echoingacross the different villages transported me back to an era where villagers would not have their own timepieces (much less smartphones) and would rely on the bells to provide a sense of structure to the day, as well as reminding them not to miss their church services or other important events.
Innovation Perspective: The bells seem like an interesting way to think about communication on an innovation program.
Spreading the word about one’s work in innovation is important for several reasons. First, one needs to make sure that anyone who might have valuable input for an innovation effort is aware that one is working in that area. Communication can thus ensure that experts will find their way to assist the innovator.
Second, communication provides a reminder to executive sponsors that the project is underway so that there are no surprises in terms of support for the effort.
Third, given all the information bombarding workers in modern society, regular communication can keep the innovation effort near the forefront of people’s minds and thus its relative importance will seem high, especially if people are making decisions concerning whether to be involved in the work effort.
The frequency of ringing of church bells in a small village seems about right in terms of the amount of communication. The bells ring at set times on a daily basis (key times of the day), ring to announce important events that are a couple of times per week (mass), and ring voraciously at major events that are annual in nature (Easter, Christmas).
An innovator could use this model to lay out a communication plan that breaks messages down into these three groups, and thus stays top of mind with an audience but is careful to reserve communication for more important events as is warranted.
In other words, an innovator should have some sort of daily messaging about the innovation program in general, a more intense message when workshop sessions are about to take place, and a highest level of messaging when the innovation effort is announcing a major milestone, a new idea, or starting a new phase.
The small town of Villa de Leyva has all of the attributes of a lovely, quiet colonial village surrounded by mountain peaks and bathed in brilliant sunshine with mild temperatures. The streets and the central plaza in this village are predominantly made of smooth, large cobblestones. These cobblestones prove to be challenging for cars (they are bumpy and require going slowly) but their unevenness is also unnerving for pedestrians.
Whatever one thinks of the transportation difficulties caused by the cobblestones, one is left with the distinct impression that these cobblestones are very old, which aids in the ambience of the colonial village. Yet in this case one’s perception does not match reality, as these cobblestones are not very old.
The original roads in Villa de Leyva were made of dirt, as was the case with many older towns in South America. As part of an initiative to increase tourism in the town, city leaders decided that they would convert the dirt roads to cobblestone. The transformation worked, as Villa de Leyva is now an extremely popular weekend destination for Bogota residents (and foreigners as well).
In addition to adding to the ambience of the town, the cobblestones also serve the purpose of slowing down traffic and help avoid the dust and mud that can come from dirt roads.
Innovation Perspective: An innovator should always be on the lookout for ways to make improvements by step-function. In other words, an innovator presented with a dirt road would inevitably recommend paving the road. After all, this would solve dust and mud problems and would make it easier for cars and pedestrians to navigate.
Yet in taking this leap, an older town would lose some of the character and charm that provides as much value to the location as would the incremental improvements in transportation. In the case of the cobblestones, Villa de Leyva took a step back towards the past but in doing so it created something that had much greater value than a small improvement in speed of moving about the town.
Ever since my days studying Latin I have always enjoyed seeing the word “defenestration,” which means throwing something out of a window. Unfortunately, most of the episodes of defenestration in history have negative connotations, as they involve throwing people out of windows and starting major wars. The most famous is the second defenestration of Prague in 1618 (yes, there was a first defenestration of Prague in 1419), which was a triggering factor in the Thirty Years War. The window in question was about 70 feet above the ground, the men who were thrown from the window survived the fall by landing in a pile of manure.
In my travels around Bogota, I encountered a much gentler defenestration that was historically significant could, finally, be a defenestration that resulted in a positive outcome.
On September 25, 1828, Simon Bolivar, the famous liberator of several South American countries, was asleep in his Bogota home with his mistress, Manuela Saenz. Some of Bolivar’s enemies broke into his house with the intent to assassinate him. Manuela woke him up and urged him to flee rather than fight, ultimately pushing a reluctant Bolivar out of the bedroom window where he was able to escape into the night.
This defenestration of Bogota thus permitted Bolivar to survive, though some say that his fleeing into the cold, night air without proper clothing may have resulted in an illness that eventually took his life in 1830 from tuberculosis.
After this event, Manuela Saenz became known as the Libertadora del Libertador, or the Liberator of the Liberator, as she had also saved his life six weeks earlier when she learned of an impending assassination attempt on Bolivar at a party he was attending. Manuela came up with a ruse to lure him outside of the building to safety. She first tried to gain entry to the party by dressing a soldier but was refused entry, at which point she dressed in tattered old clothes and stood outside the building shouting Bolivar’s name as his lover, pretending to be inebriated. Embarrassed by her behavior, he was forced to leave the party and thus escaped the assassination attempt.
Innovation Perspective: The lesson of Manuela Saenz and the defenestration of Bogota is that there will always be occasions where one has to think quickly of creative ways to pursue an overall objective.
In an innovation initiative there will always be unexpected events to which we must react quickly. While none of these will be the life and death situations that Simon Bolivar faced in Bogota, these situations will nonetheless be important in terms of protecting the overall work effort.
Fighting back against these challenges is not always the best option. Sometimes clever misdirection is needed to maintain momentum.
It should be noted that the deceptions deployed by Manuela Saenz were not illegal or even dishonest acts. Honesty is always the best policy in all situations. Yet the acts undertaken by Manuela could be categorized as creative misdirection.
Sometimes in the course of an innovation initiative we need to think several steps ahead to keep our project going. It may mean combining our efforts with those of a more politically-popular innovation initiative from another part of the company.
Alternatively, it may mean making an alliance with someone with whom we don’t normally interact so that we can leverage that person’s influence to continue our efforts. In these cases, the key is that we remain focused on the overall objective and ensure that the steps we are taking are as honest as we can be given the various forces working against us.
To this day, the Colombians make it a point to note that Manuela was honestly able to tell the soldiers in Bogota that she did not know where Bolivar was, because once she pushed him out of the window, he disappeared into the night and she did not watch to see where he went.
In the beloved Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book about Bolivar’s final years, The General in His Labyrinth, Marquez goes to great lengths to point out that Manuela did not even lie to the assassins when they asked her why the bed in her room was warm. She said that it was because she had been sleeping in it, which was true. When Manuela found a way to get Bolivar away from the party where he had been targeted, she also appealed to honest and true love to get him out of the building.
High above the city of Bogota is the peak of Monserrate, situated at an elevation of 10,341 feet above sea level. The site was considered sacred ground by the indigenous Muisca peoples, who saw the sun as a key god and thus wanted to seek out a summit that would place them as close as possible to the sun.
At the time of the December solstice, the sun rises over Bogota precisely at the summit of Monserrate, thus cementing its importance for the Muisca civilization.
The Sanctuary of Monserrate, built at the top of the peak in the 17th century, houses a surprisingly lifelike statue of Jesus known as El Senor Caido, or the Fallen Lord. Legend has it that the hair on the statue sometimes grows, and the locals treat the statue with deep reverence.
At one point many years ago, the Bishop of Bogota wanted to have the statue in Bogota for services. Church members carried the statue down the winding foot path to the old city of Bogota and placed it in the cathedral in preparation for services. The next morning, the Bishop opened the cathedral doors and was shocked to find that the statue had disappeared.
The Bishop frantically called in assistance from the local community and people began searching far and wide for the statue but were unable to find it. One person had the idea to go back to the summit of Monserrate to look for the statue there, and when he opened the Sanctuary, he found the Fallen Lord above the altar, back in his original position. From that point forward, the locals decided never to move the statue again.
Innovation Perspective: As innovators we spend a lot of time searching. We are searching for new ideas, or searching for experts to help us with our initiatives, or we are searching for new opportunities to which we can apply our innovation. When we search, we may inadvertently move farther and farther away from our starting point. After all, it would not make much sense to spend a lot of time searching in the same area where we started.
We believe that the further afield we move, the better chance we have of finding something completely new or different from what we originally thought. Yet the legend of the Fallen Lord at Monserrate suggests that there may be merit in some cases to spending a little time reverting back to where we started from in a search effort.
It may be a worthwhile step in our process that after searching a period of time, we take a pause and go back to revisit the assumptions we made at the start of our investigation.
Colombia is forever entwined with the search for gold. One sees this as soon as one arrives in Bogota at El Dorado, or “the Golden,” International Airport. The indigenous Muisca peoples were highly reverent of gold, seeing it as equivalent to drops of light from the sun god. As such, they used large amounts of gold in their ceremonies and costumes.
Upon arriving in the region, the Spanish saw this gold and heard tales of even more gold to be found in other places. Spanish explorers set out on numerous quests in Colombia to find the mythical city of El Dorado, where they thought that gold would stretch as far as the eye could see.
Yet they never found this city in their explorations. The closest they came was a sacred Muisca site known as Guatavita Lagoon, north of Bogota.
A Spanish priest heard the story from the Muisca of a ceremony that took place at Guatavita when the Muisca ordained a new leader for their community. The new leader was covered in gold dust and taken out onto a small lagoon in the mountains. The lagoon was encircled by hundreds of followers who would bring gold offerings to the shoreline to give to the new leader.
The Spanish soon found this lake and forced the locals to begin draining the lake by hand (scooping out water one cup at a time). After draining about a meter of water, the Spaniards found thousands of gold offerings that had been left in previous ceremonies. The Spanish seized these gold offerings and melted them into ingots to be shipped to the King in Spain.
Next, a group of Germans decided to cut a huge gap in the mountain to drain the lake level even more. They continued to find gold pieces and hatched a plan to drain the entire lagoon by tunneling underneath it. In the course of trying to build this tunnel, several workers died and eventually the work effort was abandoned, with the lake remaining today with a large gap in the side from the original project to drain it.
As the melted gold arrived in Spain, the King was not pleased because he realized that most of the gold offerings contained copper that the Muisca had melted together with the gold to make it more malleable for their designs. The Spaniards recognized that the expense involved in continuing to try to find gold at this location was not worth the resulting metals that were found. After all, copper could be obtained much more easily and cheaply at other locations.
Innovation Perspective: When we are heads down in pursuit of an innovation objective, we can sometimes behave like the Spanish in search of El Dorado. We know what we are searching for and we attribute great potential benefits to the innovation, sometimes to the point where we may over-estimate the value of the end result. We pursue this goal with a dogged determination and don’t let things get in our way in this pursuit
Yet in the end we may realize that all the effort that we undertook in pursuit of this goal was for naught, especially if the innovation fails to come to fruition (as if often the case). The Spanish were maniacally focused on the search for El Dorado and committed horrible acts against the indigenous people in search of gold. In the end, after all this pursuit, they found themselves with a lot of copper and not as much gold as they thought they would obtain.
In the meantime, they destroyed the sacred Guatavita lagoon of the Muisca and damaged it to the point where it will never look again as it did for thousands of years. Around this lagoon there were also many species of plants and animals that thrived in this unique ecosystem, yet many of those were damaged or destroyed as well.
From an innovation standpoint, this example serves as a reminder that one should periodically re-verify one’s overall objectives to make sure that the thing that one is pursuing is still relevant and that in the course of the pursuit one is not creating new problems whose costs outweigh the benefits of the potential innovation.
One should look not just at the project cost for the innovation initiative (in terms of direct spending on the work effort), but also at the opportunity costs and collateral costs associated with the project. In other words, one should think about what one is forgoing by not pursuing other opportunities as well as whether one’s work effort is creating new problems that must be addressed elsewhere.
The current debate about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its potential negative effects on society is a good example of this phenomenon.
In addition, the Guatavita example and the pursuit of El Dorado provides us with another lesson. In the old city of Bogota one of the sights that should not be missed is the Museo del Oro, or the Gold Museum. This museum contains thousands of gold artifacts from the region and chronicles the importance of gold to the indigenous peoples of the area.
When one sees the intricate, detailed work that went into the creation of these gold pieces in the museum, one shudders to think about how much cultural damage occurred each time a Spaniard threw one of these items into a flaming cauldron to melt the object down into a gold ingot for shipment to Spain.
Yet as one walks through this museum, the anticipation builds as one approaches the single most valuable and amazing piece of goldwork that was found at Guatavita. Somehow this piece, found in 1969, miraculously survived hundreds of years (or longer) in the mud without being damaged and escaped the eyes of those in search of El Dorado.
The piece, known as the Muisca Raft, shows the ceremonial raft that the Muisca used to transport their new leader out into the lagoon. The raft, as well as the figures on it, are intricately detailed in tiny proportions and it appears that not a single piece on the artifact is damaged.
The fact that there even exists a gold museum to house this masterpiece is a result of innovative thinking by the Bank of the Republic of Colombia in 1934 to establish this institution to preserve the country’s patrimony. This serves as a reminder that sometimes the best things are not those that are consumed, but are saved.
Bricks from Glasgow
Walking inside the walled colonial city of Cartagena takes one back in time to the 1700s. Narrow, non-checkerboard streets, lovely colonial facades, cool ocean breezes, and the sudden appearance of small, pleasant plazas reminds us why even during Colombia’s rougher years, the city of Cartagena always beckoned outside visitors as a warm, inviting place.
In the Plaza Santo Domingo in front the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, though, there is a puzzling appearance of objects that seem out of place. Looking down at the bricks in the plaza, one notices that many of them are stamped with English writing which says “Cleghorn – Terracotta – Glasgow.” Scottish bricks definitely seem out of place in Spanish-founded and settled Cartagena.
The story behind these bricks dates to the Eighteenth century. Over the course of its existence, Cartagena had to fend off numerous attacks from the French Navy, the English Navy, as well as freelance pirates, which explains why the city was so fortified (and why many of those walls and fortresses survive today). In 1741, the English Admiral Edward Vernon launched an assault on Cartagena. Vernon had come from England with his ships and troops and vastly outnumbered the Spanish defenders of the city.
Through resilience and cunning, the Spanish were able to defeat the English and save their city from invasion. The famous bricks arrived on one of Vernon’s ships, likely brought over as ballast to stabilize the sailing vessel on its long voyage.
The English probably expected to use the bricks to build structures in the newly-conquered territory and replace that ballast with gold or other valuables for their return voyage home. When one (or more) of their ships were sunk by the Spanish, the locals were able to salvage the bricks and put them to use in the plaza where they appear today.
Innovation Perspective: The innovator can benefit from considering the case of the Glasgow bricks in two ways. First, in terms of the decision Vernon made for ballast materials for his ships, his idea to use bricks instead of rocks or sand or other material was instructive because it showed he was thinking ahead about the expected victory over the Spanish.
Rather than throwing any old material in the ship, he wanted to make that weight into something that would be productive (building materials) in the next phases of his campaign. Second, the Spanish salvaging and use of the bricks shows a resilience that goes beyond any questions of pride concerning the origin of the bricks.
The Spanish could have let the bricks degrade in the ocean and disappear over time. After all, the despised British had created them and wanted to use those bricks to build structures after they subdued the Spanish. The British even had the temerity to stamp their bricks with their company’s name so that everyone would know who had created them. The Spanish ignored these concerns and realized that good building materials should be put to use whenever, and however, they are discovered.
From ancient times, a mountainous region to the north of Bogota, around the town of Zipaquira, has been the source of key minerals for the inhabitants of the region. From the time when the ocean flowed inland over this area, enormous salt deposits were left behind and were mined by the indigenous Muisca peoples.
The Spanish found these mines and accelerated production of the minerals, yet there was a key problem with the mining technique of the time. The mines could be unstable, and many miners lost their lives to cave-ins and other disasters.
In 1801, the famed German Naturalist Alexander von Humboldt visited this mine as part of his explorations across the continent of South America. Humboldt saw the challenges of the mine and noted that the old techniques were both dangerous and not extracting the amount of materials that one would expect from such an amazing deposit of minerals.
Humboldt recommended that the locals leverage mining techniques from Prussia to created underground caverns to extract the minerals rather than the open quarries that were used at the time in the area. Humboldt’s model consisted of a single shaft with regularly-spaced, deep perpendicular caverns alongside, leaving enough material in between the caverns to protect the overall integrity of the mine.
The results of his suggestions can be seen today in one of the most amazing underground spaces in the world – the Zipaquira Salt Cathedral. The cathedral was created to honor the many miners who lost their lives in the area over the years, and consists of a huge, main cathedral as well as several artistic crosses and worship spaces that align with Christ’s journey on the day of his crucifixion.
Innovation Perspective: Zipaquira provides a simple lesson to the innovator – sometimes one can obtain more by taking less. This seemingly counter-intuitive advice is embedded within the mining strategy advocated by Humboldt. By maintaining a consistent structure underground, Humboldt’s design enabled the miners to dig deeper and longer than they would be able to do using traditional methods that would run the risk of a collapse.
Indeed, the underground open spaces created in the Zipaquira mine are enormous, rivaling the size of the world’s greatest cathedrals in terms of the length and height of the caverns. Thousands of people are able to worship in this underground church, with many more able to worship at the stations of the cross as well.
Our standard approach to efficiency assumes that we can always find a small, marginal improvement to any work effort. When one sees the size of the caverns created at Zipaquira, one assumes that adding another few feet of extraction on either side of the cavern would result in huge additional amounts of minerals to extract.
Yet this small amount of additional material could jeopardize the stability of the entire operation. In this case, the innovator (Humboldt) was able to determine the precise amount of extraction that would align with the integrity of the underground structure. By digging a little less, the miners were able to obtain more than they ever could using their old methods.
Just outside the town of Villa de Leyva, the Muisca established what is believed to be an astronomical observatory on a hill with 360-degree views in a region that has more cloudless skies than one would find further south in Bogota. The area is popular today for stargazing, given the clear air and open vistas and lack of light pollution.
When the Spanish discovered the site in the 1500s, they considered the phallic symbols and aligned rocks to be an area of pagan worship and named it el infiernito, or “little hell.” The Spanish built a monastery nearby and set out to convert the Muisca to Catholicism.
Recent archaeological investigations into the area have discovered that the site aligns precisely to various astronomical events (as well as a calendar) and that the site contains sacred tombs for the Muisca.
On the summer solstice, the main set of pillars at the sites aligns precisely with the sacred lagoon Iguaque, which is believed to be the birthplace of the Muisca civilization.
It is also hypothesized that the phallic shape of some of the pillars represent the union of the sacred Earth with the sky and sun. In front of one of the uncovered tombs, the Muisca built six small pillars outside that are believed to represent a calendar indicating when the person in the tomb died.
Innovation Perspective: Jean-Paul Sartre once said that “hell is other people.” In Colombia, hell is a Muisca astronomical observatory. In other words, one person’s hell is another person’s astronomical observatory. An innovator should adopt a perspective when encountering a new finding that enables him or her to see an astronomical observatory where others might see phallic symbols and pagan worship areas.
This perspective requires at a minimum an open mind, which is perhaps best exemplified by immediately challenging one’s first reaction. Although it is important to capture that first reaction (and sometimes that first reaction can provide valuable
information), one should also discard that impression and consider other possible interpretations of the information one is receiving. That approach is a more effective pathway to innovation than would be the case if one always reviewed new information through the lens of past experience.
The El Infiernito site demonstrates this in two ways. First, the initial impression of the Spaniards was correct in that the site was sacred and the stone pillars had a phallic shape (there were tombs at the site and the pillars represented the union of Earth and sun). However, subsequent analysis by the Spanish could have helped them recognize the astronomical importance of the site, especially in terms of the alignment of the stones with key astronomical events. The stones might also have told a story in terms of stargazing and the history of the Muiscas. It should be noted that when Humboldt visited the site in 1801 he surmised that it was as astronomical observatory.
Although it is not altogether appropriate for us to apply a modern, inquisitive scientific ethos to a Spaniard from the 15th century, the example still holds merit for the innovator today, as we can imagine how much knowledge could have been obtained about the Muiscas, and potentially the stars, had the Spanish spent time interviewing locals about their site and writing down for future generations what they heard.
Since the Muisca did not have a written language, much of this information has been lost. Indeed, simply knowing what the 6 pillars in front of the tomb meant would be fascinating information to have obtained. Likewise, a modern innovator should always capture as much information as is meaningful about a legacy process prior to transforming that process.
Photos courtesy of the author
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The General in His Labyrinth (New York: Vintage Books, 2003).
Carlos López Galviz, Paul Dobraszczyk, Bradley L. Garrett, Global Undergrounds: Exploring Cities Within (London: Reaktion Books, 2016).
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Scott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has Ph.D. in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sgbowden