Considering Charter Cities

I’ll keep my eyes peeled for news of charter cities, having read this interview in Freakonomics with Paul Romer, who ‘recently resigned his tenured teaching position at Stanford to devote his full energies to the challenge.’ Charter cities are basically ‘special zones within developing countries with better rules and institutions’. I’ve long believed in some sort of privatization of public services in developing countries (not easy I know – privatization still needs to somehow ensure universal access to primary education, for starters, which is tricky), and I think the concept of charter cities in many ways is an extension of what I’ve been thinking of. It’s a very tricky concept, however: one commenter has pointed out that in practice, this will not work in the global South because of its attendant problems of land deficiency in high-demand areas: the poor are forced to give up their land, rendering them homeless, and attempts at compensation rarely work. 

One comment, by someone called Chris, was particularly insightful I thought:

Seems to me this is basically what Federalism is, was and should be. According to the US Constitution states and cities have a large degree of autonomy. Thus various political systems become laboratories. This would be strengthened in this country if the Federal government’s power were curbed. Other nations should also adopt a similar system.

Great sentiment, but again, in practice, it just does not work. A case in point in a country like India which does have a federal (in addition to a unitary) form of government, is the state of Bihar, which is really a failed state.

There are other considerations too: the aesthetics of urban planning, and investment and returns (who funds it and what do they get in return) – Romer discusses very interesting but difficult situations for funding:

In poorer countries that don’t have the same kind of credibility with international investors, a more interesting but controversial possibility is that two or more countries might sign a treaty specifying the charter for a new city and allocate between them responsibilities for administering different parts of the treaty.

Oh, the can of worms that can be opened when multiple countries enter into an agreement like that!

It is a tremendous challenge indeed. As I said, I’ll be watching with interest.

Doing your bit for the environment and the community


I am keen to know how Viv get on. A consumer and sustainability-focussed company, their premise is that if consumers take a green sticker they create and stick it on the front of their debit or credit cards, participating retailers will agree to go green based on the take-up of the scheme. People can look at the progress of these retailers on the site. I think it is interesting because it motivates businesses to take action based on something they can see coming through the door, or the number of concerned patrons rather – something concrete. Ideally of course all businesses should switch to sustainable practices ASAP, but this is the real world and since that’s not going to happen tomorrow, I think this initiative is a great way for people to physically make a difference to places that they frequent – and cause the owners of those establishments to change too. 

Set up by a San Francisco-based team from Stanford, its reach is currently limited to the San Francisco area, but hopefully that will change. I’d target university and school students first, then businesses with a clear mission to be sustainable – or even a company like Google, whose employees, from what I hear, are the sort to champion a cause like this. 

[Via Josh Spear]

The start of a new business education model?

Over the last few months, I’ve spoken to quite a few friends who are or were considering doing an MBA, that magical degree that used to enable students to start earning over twice what they previously were. But that was in the days before banks started collapsing like a house of cards all around us. Most of these people are now being very practical when they say that spending over $50,000 a year just for fees (leave alone living expenses) cannot be justified when there is no longer a guarantee of even getting a job, forget one that pays sky-high salaries. 

A couple of days ago, Seth Godin wrote about the results of his SAMBA program (Seth Godin’s Alternative MBA, if you’re wondering), a 6-month course he ran where 9 students (selected out of 350 applicants) had rigorous, in-depth, on-the-ground training in business methods and leadership. It was unaccredited, free and residential. These students worked on a range of very interesting projects, which you can read more about on their blog
Anyway, there are a few things Seth Godin, a Stanford graduate himself, said in his post that stood out for me as making particular sense:

The educational lesson that I found the most striking is that the book knowledge was easy to transmit and not particularly essential. Once you get this far, it’s sort of a given that you’re good at school. We read more than a hundred books, and the book learning happened quickly . Our culture has done an amazingly good job at teaching talented people how to learn concepts from books.

I taught for five to twenty hours a week, and very little of it was about the books. So, if concepts from books are easy, what’s hard?

Doing it.

Picking up the phone, making the plan, signing the deal. Pushing ‘publish.’ Announcing. Shipping.

We spent a lot of time on this area. Every morning, each person came in prepared to push someone in the group to overcome the next hurdle. This is what growth looks like, and it was energizing to be part of.

We didn’t do this at all at when I was at Stanford. We spent a lot of time reading irrelevant case studies and even more time building complex financial models. The thing is, you can now hire someone to build a complex financial model for you for $60 an hour. And a week’s worth of that is just about all the typical entrepreneur is going to need. The rest of the time, it’s about shipping, motivating, leading, connecting, envisioning and engaging. So that’s what we worked on.

It amazes me that MBA students around the world aren’t up in arms. How can schools justify taking $100,000 in cash and teaching exactly the wrong stuff?

So the young people – my peers that I’ve been speaking to, are almost echoing what Seth says in some ways. Whether it is Harvard or Stanford, business schools today are teaching the wrong material. Students do not feel confident, nor do they feel particularly more knowledgeable when they come out of it. Attending business schools, especially the Ivy League ones, is all about becoming part of a world-class alumni network. But if that network produces people who are struggling to stand on their feet, how valuable is the network itself? This is not a blanket rejection of all business schools or all MBA students. When I was leaving university, doing an MBA was considered the path to a great career. I never did one, and used to listen in mild jealousy as I heard about those who did do one and got exactly the kind of career they wanted. 

Those days are over now. What IS needed are training grounds like the SAMBA or W+K Platform that give people on-the-job training and recognises their inherent talent and skills. 

Maybe this is the start of a new business education model.