Bringing Cities into the MBA Experience

+ Brandon Fuller

Given the tremendous opportunities presented by growing cities, The Financial Times wonders why more MBA programs don't see cities as a unit of analysis.

With more than 2bn people expected to move to cities by 2050 and the resulting business opportunities that this presents, urbanisation would seem to be a topic that business schools cannot ignore.

But ignore it most of them do, with urbanisation rarely impinging on the MBA curriculum and just a handful of business school evangelists promoting the topic. Reuben Abraham, former star professor at the Indian School of Business [and non-resident scholar at the NYU Stern Urbanization Project], is one such crusader.

“I left [ISB] because I was running against a wall,” says Prof Abraham, who now has “a new gig” as partner and head of urbanisation at the IDFC Foundation in Mumbai.
“Urbanisation is the biggest macro trend out there. It opens up entrepreneurial opportunities and business opportunities.” He cites the demand for low-cost housing – in India alone there is a need for 35m new homes. “If that isn’t the biggest [business] opportunity staring you in the face, I don’t know what is.”

The NYU Stern Urbanization Project is part of NYU's broader effort on cities, the Marron Institute of Urban Management. The Urbanization Project believes that business schools can help to shape urbanization in ways that improve the academic understanding of cities and speed up progress on the ground.

Economist Paul Romer, director of Stern NYU’s urbanisation project and arguably the guru of urbanisation studies at business schools, believes the fundamental issue is whether the unit of academic study should be the business unit, as it is today, or the city.

“I hope one of the things we can do [at NYU Stern] is set a model for the sort of things we can teach and do research on,” he says.

Arguably the biggest impediment to successful urbanisation projects is the lack of high-quality management he adds. “Urbanisation gives you the opportunity to do tremendous good. Any project of this scale can be managed well or it can be managed poorly.” But the scale of the problem and the speed with which it is unfolding is huge and only compounds these management issues.

The article also highlights the ways in which Stern MBAs work with Marron and the Urbanization Project to tackle real urban challenges.

[Laura Fox] is part of a team of three MBA students who are working with academics in the Marron Institute at NYU to help policy makers in Mexico City develop a more liveable city. “This project is really different,” she says, “because we are building a business-focused proposal for a policy group.”

In particular, the team has worked on a model to determine the impact of different regulations – building height, density use – on housing development, says Alejandra Rangel Smith, research scholar at the Marron Institute at Stern. “They [Mexico City] have accumulated a lot of regulation over the years and there is some overlap,” she says. “We believe housing affordability is one of the most important factors.”

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