Cities are now home to more than half of the world’s population, and the development they bring has a significant impact on how we tackle social injustice, climate change, congestion, and affordability. As future business leaders, it is imperative that we build more equitable cities for future generations. However, bringing about change in cities is challenging and requires collaboration between public, private, academic, and non-profit organizations.
Kellogg MBA students have recognized this challenge and organized the second edition of the Future of Cities Conference with the goal of bringing representatives from all sectors together for enriching conversations about the communities in which we live.
COLLABORATING ACROSS DIFFERENT INTERESTS
As a co-chair of the Kellogg Future of Cities Conference, my motivation to help organize the event was my own experience growing up in India. Back then, I lived in a neighborhood in India that was very closely knit, celebrated festivals together, and supported each other. As I moved to bigger cities for education and work, I realized this sense of community was more an exception than the rule in most cities. After my undergraduate studies, I became a management consultant working with the Government of India on the human impact of city design, sustainability, and citizen well-being.
During this time with the government, I realized that developing economies had a lot to learn from the successes and failures of developed economies. Against pressing concerns around sustainability and climate change, it was necessary to educate future business leaders to tell “good urbanism” from bad. This is more pertinent for leaders in the developing economies since the United States is 80% urbanized compared to about 35% of the South Asian population. If the world continues to urbanize at our current pace, we will need more than three planet Earths to sustain our population.
I co-chaired the Future of Cities Conference along with Cindy Gao, an MMM student at Kellogg. Cindy and I worked together running the inaugural edition of the conference last year and decided to keep the conversation on better city design going. For Cindy, her experience growing up in Shanghai made her feel strongly about how a city’s design and systems can be strong determinants of one’s well-being. We decided to run the conference by building a team of twelve first- and second-year students.
Running the conference called for a dedicated team and the organizing team leveraged the opportunity to further build their networks and learn new skills. The team positioned themselves as a “community of urban thinkers” rather than a conference organizing team, creating a sense of camaraderie. Helping to organize an event such as this one allowed me to explore and refine my leadership abilities while making diverse connections – one of the many ways I was able to pursue extracurricular leadership roles at Kellogg.
HUMAN-CENTRIC DESIGN FOR OUR CITIES
The conference itself included a pre-conference talk, two keynote speakers, and four panel discussions aimed at discussing the different systems in a city. Professor Philipp Rode, an economist from London School of Economics Cities, set the stage for the conference by explaining how city design, alongside policy and mobility decisions, impact citizen well-being in a city. For example, cities in Europe that prioritized pedestrians over cars by having wide sidewalks, pervasive public transport, and biking lanes enjoy better health, higher safety, increased social interactions, and higher longevity of life. The car-centered design of many cities in the US, on the other hand, benefits the real-estate, automotive and oil industries, at the cost of the well-being of its citizens.
Another session was held by Samir Mayekar (also a Kellogg alumnus), the Deputy Mayor of the City of Chicago. He elaborated on how well-designed policy can improve affordability and inclusivity and how the city identified underserved populations and created investment corridors to uplift them. This includes mixed-use development, which combines residential, commercial, and recreational spaces within the space improves foot traffic, reduces commute times and creates a sense of community – all of which create win-win situations for real-estate and citizens alike. Highlighting a major initiative that the city undertook recently, he spoke about the city’s recent efforts to convert unutilized office space into affordable residential property, thereby working to turn Central Chicago into a vibrant, safe, and inclusive place to live and work.
At the Future of Cities Conference, the panel discussions ranged across topics from Property Technology and Real Estate to Transportation to Data in Cities. The speaker list had representatives from Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Riverside Investment and Development Company, Boston Consulting Group, and others. Molly Poppe, the Chief Innovation Officer of the CTA, dispelled the widely-touted notion that electric autonomous vehicles could solve congestion, and that broader policy and design thinking was required to build an inclusive transportation system for the city. If not planned properly, autonomous vehicles could increase congestion on our streets by moving trips that would’ve been taken by bike, walking or on public transport. This traces the same narrative ride sharing did to our cities, by moving people away from public transport to cabs. The discussions highlighted the need for collaboration between transit authorities, real estate, and city government to ensure that leaders put innovative technologies to drive sustainable urban development. Public-private partnerships, as Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar pointed out earlier, go a long way in improving efforts on inclusivity, accessibility, and sustainability.
HIGHLIGHTING A NEED FOR SUSTAINABILITY-MINDED LEADERSHIP
The closing keynote by Janel Forde explored the nuances of working in the public sector compared to the private sector. As a Stanford GSB graduate who led local and state organizations, including the Illinois Central Management Services, she encouraged students to work in the public sector to drive direct and meaningful impact. Leadership in the public sector demands skills that place emphasis on ethics and accountability, and complex decision-making involving numerous stakeholders while working with very limited resources. Business schools prepare students for some of these challenges, but Janel highlighted how leadership in the public sector is especially challenging and builds character. Janel’s candid discussion about the operational challenges and authentic passion left students enthused about the challenges of a prospective career in public service.
For future leaders in real-estate, energy, transportation, sustainability, or the public sector, driving social impact can be slow and hard. The Future of Cities conference emphasized the need for collaboration, collective action, and public participation to pave the way for a better future. As businesses increasingly become conscious of their ecological footprint, it is imperative that they realize the opportunities to support projects in their local communities. Educating MBA students and other leaders on the successes and challenges of collective action is critical for our efforts towards building a sustainable and healthier future.
While business schools have traditionally had coursework on urban development and infrastructure, conferences and clubs specifically focused on Future of Cities are becoming increasingly prevalent, even at other schools such as Wharton and Stanford. I’d encourage MBA students interested in urban development to get involved with Future of Cities programming at your school, or to create programming if it doesn’t yet exist. Most of us will live and work in cities and ultimately be impacted by these issues. I can attest that my overall involvement with the event has inspired me to stay connected with interesting projects and technologies that drive “good urbanism.”
Bio: Sidharth Ganesh is pursuing his MBA at Kellogg, and graduates in 2023. Prior to his MBA, he worked in India as a management consultant and in a few early-stage startups. Sidharth is passionate about the use of technology to improve equity and hopes to start a company of his own someday. In his free time Sidharth enjoys running, hiking, and experimenting in the kitchen.
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