If you had asked me yesterday whether I would elect to be on the Masdar project or the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City Project, I would have answered Tianjin without a second thought. However, as I sat in class thinking about the cities that I have read about recently, I realized that many of the cities that came to mind were created in the past few decades: Chongqing of China, Naypyidaw of Myanmar, Incheon of South Korea, Brasilia of Brazil, Singapore. Yes, they were always there, as pretty much most of the land where we inhabit have existed way before we evolved into humans. However, the formation of these places into our concept of modern cities is fairly new. I then had an epiphany that Masdar may enjoy more success and impact in the long-term because our assumption that urban growth happening mainly in established cities could be wrong.
Is it realistic to expect the increase of “three billion people in the next four decades” (HBS Case N9-213-095, page 2) in cities to all happen in existing cities? Is there really enough capacity in existing cities to contain this many people? I certainly hope no country planner will try to cram all the country’s urbanizing population into only existing cities. I would not want to live in those cities if that were the case, unless that country (or city-state) has no choice and its average birth rate falls below sustainable levels.
A quick search on Google yielded some promising results. In 2010, Forbes featured 12 brand new cities, of which three—Masdar, Tianjin, and King Abdullah–are discussed in our course (full list here: http://www.forbes.com/2010/05/20/travel-vacation-songdo-technology-cities.html). The list contains a combination of attachments to existing cities like Tianjin and Songdo, and brand new ones like Madsdar and Dholera. While most of these cities are not yet completed, large numbers of residents have already moved into many of these cities, which is at least a sign of some success.
This is not to say that I am very bullish on Masdar, as it takes much more than just building a city and financial capital to make a city vibrant and a model worthy to be copied. It will certainly take decades for the city to become as competitive as existing top cities in the country if everything were done correctly. And unfortunate for finance gurus, financial models for these cities will need to project out over something more along the lines of a century—which means that the range of possible outcomes and returns will be extremely large and overall meaningless.
However, to build new cities in barren lands (or under oceans and on other planets once the technology becomes cheap and good enough and sovereignty issues are resolved) may just be exactly what we need in order to solve the pressing global urbanization demand problem. If a team—be it purely private, public, or a mix of both—can figure out a successful and transferable model for building these new cities, then that team would be highly sought after and employed as consultants for many new cities to come.