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Lehigh Carbon Community College

“An astonishing inspiration for leaders around the world for how to mobilize people, create change in your local community and see the international effects.”

When Dr. Carlos Cadena Gaitán ’05 was selected from more than 100 nominees across six continents to be the 2015 International ‘Future Sustainability Leader,’ he was caught off guard. “It was a huge surprise. The Colombian media quickly caught up with the news, and it was widely published all over the nation,” he said.

The award was presented by Sustainia, a Danish think tank and consultancy with partners and clients on three continents and an online audience from more than 115 countries. The announcement described him as: “an astonishing inspiration for leaders around the world for how to mobilize people, create change in your local community and see the international effects.”

Dr. Carlos Cadena Gaitán ’05

Successful Student Leader, Athlete and Scholar

A native of Medellín, Colombia, Cadena Gaitán came to Reinhardt in 2002 on a one-year Georgia Rotary Student Scholarship. An exemplary undergraduate student leader, he completed a prestigious internship with the New York City Government in 2004, played tennis, met his future bride, Reinhardt coed Carolina Daza of Barranquilla, Colombia, and earned a B.S. in Business Administration from Reinhardt in 2005. Cadena Gaitán continued his education with a Master of Public Administration from Georgia State University and a doctorate from UNU-MERIT, a joint research institute of the University of Maastricht and the United Nations University, in The Netherlands.

Putting Doctoral Lessons into Action to Produce Impactful Change

During his doctoral studies, he helped form La Ciudad Verde, a Colombian activist think tank that promotes sustainable cities through citizen participation and creativity. The organization uses social media and art to share academic knowledge. He also coordinates the World Bicycle Forum, which brings together citizens, advocates, researchers, administrators, policy makers and artists to promote cycling as a serious form of urban transport.

Since receiving the international recognition, La Ciudad Verde has become an icon for citizen-led think tanks. “We have installed an innovative approach towards promoting urban sustainability based on citizen empowerment that guarantees public accountability. All of our strategies derive from ‘creative sustainability;’ an idea that by using creative tools can we compete with those institutional dynamics that determine unsustainable practices.”  Cadena Gaitán said the World Bike Forum has been very successful. “In its fourth version, we attracted almost 7,000 participants from 37 nations and 150 high level speakers. We did this by engaging volunteers, and every single activity was free. This has been the largest ever urban cycling event on Earth, and our message directly impacted more than 800,000 Colombians.”

Combining Academic Evidence with Urban Activism

He believes in data but knows action is crucial. “It is people like you and me who have to do something. This is what we’re doing in Colombia. We are combining academic evidence with urban activism.” As a result, cycle lanes are being built all over Colombia. “Where before politicians only planned our cities to become addicted to ‘your majesty,’ the car, we are also giving people the chance, empowering them, showing them how to build their own pedestrian pathways,” he said.  He stresses making data easy to understand and readily available. “We are doing informal ‘Beer Mondays’ with experts so that we can pre-digest and digest hard numbers better. We are doing applications via social media so that we can promote better urban habits. We are also getting people, popular social figures as role models, on electric bicycles to tweet and Facebook about what they are doing with powerful messages to their followers.”

Cadena Gaitán hopes to find key allies that will help replicate their messages and strategies in other countries. He also plans to continue travelling the world, teaching and researching.