SOMETIMES it pays being left behind by the crowd. A group of us are being led up the zig-zagging escalators that have transformed the hillside slums of Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city. This was once home to Pablo Escobar and paramilitaries of all persuasions, but it is now held up as a supreme example of how imagination and innovation can transform a city.

Today, tourists flock to neighbourhoods like Barrio 13, with its extraordinary murals and impressive vistas across the valley.

You need to get there early to beat the rush – which is why we are here at 8.30 in the morning.

Despite the mechanical stairs lifting us up to the summit of the barrio, my feet are aching and the rum-infused salsa from the night before is taking its toll – and I haven’t had breakfast.

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They might rise early in Colombia, but the cafés are still firmly closed. In desperation I approach an old-timer lent against a mural promising love and peace.

He nods casually towards an anonymous doorway muttering something about coffee and arepa. I don’t hold much hope, but as it turns out, Casa de Doña Marina is everything I wished for, and more.

It isn’t so much a café as Doña Marina’s front room. She sits me down at her dining table. A plastic tablecloth matches the plastic crucifix on the wall. There is no menu. No espresso machine. Just coffee poured from a flask and milk heated on the stove.

I’d never been so keen on these little corn cakes until now. These are different. Marina cups the dough in the palm of her hand and fills it, with everything – chicken, cheese and scrambled egg – then folds it into a ball and throws it into the deep fat fryer. I have never tasted anything quite like it.

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She admits it’s not her own recipe but one she pinched from a restaurant downtown. No-one will know the difference, she says.

There was a time when Marina would never venture out to another barrio. Each district was controlled by a different paramilitary gang, each with its own increasingly convoluted acronym – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the People’s Armed Commandos, National Liberation Army, the Neighbourhood Armed Commandos and the Peasants’ Self Defence of the Magdalena Medio Region.

She shrugs as she describes it: “You knew the dangerous ones inside your own barrio, and you knew how to act with them, how to avoid them, but if you ventured over to the other side of the valley they wouldn’t recognise you and you wouldn’t know what was coming round the corner.”

There were regular shoot-outs, bombings, booby-trapped corpses, kidnappings and forced displacements. Young people too scared to venture out, who stopped going to school or university. In those days, Medellín was the murder capital of the world.

Much of the transformation is thanks to an academic who became mayor between 2004 and 2007. Sergio Fajardo recognised the need for co-operation – between civic society, private enterprise, policy-makers and universities – in order to disrupt the cycle of violence.

His team formulated a policy of “urban acupuncture”, injecting small-scale high-impact projects in collaboration with the neighbourhoods themselves.

Transportation was key. The slums which clung precariously to Medellín’s escarpments created isolated communities where violence thrived.

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Instead of tearing them down, the city linked them together through a network of metros, cable cars and, yes, even these giant escalators. They built libraries around the stations and encouraged art and culture to thrive.

Doña Marina recalls the struggles of lugging her provisions up the hill in the bad old days.

“So, has it changed?” I asked. “Like night and day,” she replies.

She asks me where I am from and why I am here. I talk to her about our project, a consortium of Latin American and European universities, led by Glasgow Caledonian, which has established special units to help transform other communities like Barrio 13.

Just like Sergio Fajardo, we have been working with academics, social innovators, businesses and representatives from the communities, trying to respond to the challenges that still exist throughout the region.

Despite the city’s amazing achievements, Medellín and Colombia still have challenges, and old demons still lurk in the shadows.

Even today, the country enjoys the questionable accolade as the world’s leading producer of cocaine.

Just the day before, Ana Lucia , the head of innovation at the University of Antioquia, spoke sadly of her fears that they were in danger of producing a new generation of highly educated delinquents, because unemployment is so rife. What we need are more entrepreneurs, she said.

Ana Lucia’s family fled the violence when she was still just a child, but her father was caught in a bomb attack as he took a friend to the hospital.

Like me, she believes that universities have a crucial role to play in ensuring the bad old days never return – but not just as teaching and research establishments. They need to be places that interact dynamically with the community.

She invited a hip-hop artist from Barrio 13 to speak to us. He taught us how to rap and spoke passionately about his work with the university.

A 10-year-old enters Doña Marina’s dining room. He orders four arepas for his family. She sits him down and tells him to be patient and presents him with a homemade mango popsicle dipped in lime and salt.

He stares at me as he sucks on the popsicle in that fearless way children do, with no inhibitions.

I am haunted by what this child might have been if it wasn’t for the city’s transformation, and by what he might turn into if the bad times return.

These projects of ours, in their own modest ways, are an effort to help, even in these boisterous times, simply trying to make the world a better place.

And here at Doña Marina’s it’s clearer than ever how important that is.

Mark Majewsky Anderson is director of research and innovation at Glasgow Caledonian University