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What Kind of Leaders Do We Need for a More Urbanized Future?

Murali Chandrashekaran of the Sauder School of Business spoke with Global Network Perspectives about the challenges facing the cities of the future, and the skills needed to navigate those challenges.

Cityscape photo

How much is urbanization changing the world? Can business schools play a role in preparing leaders for a more urbanized future?

In 1913, 10% of the world lived in cities. Today it's 50%. By 2050, it's going to be 75%. Now, the history of humanity tells us that urbanization is always accompanied by economic prosperity and growth but it also comes with challenges: greenhouse gases, aging infrastructure, income disparity, lack of access to healthcare, the need for education. These are profound problems that are going to shape the world in the next few decades. The way in which we create cities is going to have an impact on how sustainable this growth and expansion will be.

It will have a significant impact on communities and corporate citizens and this is of interest to a wide range of stakeholders, including the governments of municipalities, states, and countries. Businesses have a fundamental role to play in this because they live, work, and play in these urban centers. There is a responsibility for all of these stakeholders to come together and address these profound problems that face the human condition. Management education is at the nexus of that. Business schools have a unique opportunity to create leaders who learn more about the world and are empowered to address these profound problems.

In that sense, I see urbanization as a platform that brings open-ended, messy problems that require multiple stakeholders to come together, work together, and solve them in a novel way. No one stakeholder has the ability to solve all of these, but the profound leadership challenges are something that management education can really help with.

How does urbanization manifest itself differently in the developing world and the developed world?

The distinction between developed and developing countries in the pace of urbanization is really interesting. The vast majority of people who move into urban centers globally are going to be in developing countries. The developed countries are not going to see any growth in the population in urban centers. But what developed countries are seeing are problems like aging infrastructure.

Take the city of Chicago and income disparity, or other forms of acute shocks that might show up: things like terrorists attacks or shocks that come from tsunamis or flooding. Take New Orleans. The problems that developed countries face are slightly different from the developing countries, where there's inadequate infrastructure.

Go to a city like Bangalore or Surat in India and these places are bulging at the seams: the cities were not designed to house this many people. There are water and sanitation issues, chronic stressors that are common in developing cities but aren’t the same problems that people in developed countries are facing. Given the fact that all of these cities globally will account for close to 80% of the world's GDP, the resiliency framework is critical. How the cities adapt and transform themselves to thrive in the face of acute shocks and chronic stressors is really the focus of the framework.

Is there a particular skill set that business school students need to address these issues?

A fundamental skill is the ability to understand what leadership without authority is. Leaders need the ability to work in the context where no one is giving them the power to say “you go solve this problem.” Will you take it upon yourself to bring people together from different stakeholder groups and navigate these different political and cultural agendas, different ways of thinking, and to create teams that are cohesive and work in a boundary-less format?

That skill is going to be quite important to address these messy problems facing humanity. By working on projects for cities, I think students will be exposed to the challenges of getting things with a variety of stakeholders. They will work with the mayor’s office, municipal governments and NGOs—all of whom have different agendas, but they need to somehow navigate and get things done. That sense of bringing people together in an intelligent way is a valuable skill.

It also takes courage. We need to empower people to develop the courage to say, “I think I can make a difference here” and put themselves out there.

What are the opportunities for new kinds of collaborations and partnerships?

In today's world of business, whether you're the small player who sits in Vancouver, New Haven, or Bangalore, you still have the forces of globalization making an impact. You're still working with suppliers, customers, and employees that come from different parts of the world bringing different opportunities and challenges. Businesses are searching for solutions everywhere, and halfway across the world is not too far away. With the flow of capital, talent, and knowledge, every student needs to be aware of how to work in remote teams, boundary-less teams; how to work with people who look, think, and feel differently than you.

Globalization is a very real and relevant issue for us to tackle head-on. Governance systems work differently in every country, and as a business leader, you're partnering with people who have different regulatory mechanisms. You need to appreciating and understand that, and being able to thrive despite those differences is going to be really important. And when you think about the future of business success, most CEOs spend most of their time worrying about “non-market strategy,” meaning special interest groups, NGOs, etc. Those things need to be brought into management education in a more central way.

What is helpful about a university for this type of learning?

In this context of urbanization, it allows universities to realize their purpose and their mission. We're about bringing together people from all over the world, teaching them about the world, and empowering them to solve problems facing humanity. And those problems are not only in the business world: solutions to those problems come from the business school, working with architecture, with engineering, with public policy.

These areas give us a chance to interact, not just with universities around the world, but also within disciplines across the university. And so for those of us that work at a comprehensive research university, this is a great opportunity for us to come together in addressing these problems.

Global Network for Advanced Management