A Better Big Apple

Through a new Master Class — a unique partnership between the School, city agencies, and the private sector — students are working to improve one of the most complex entities in the world: New York City.

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Waiting for a taxi at John F. Kennedy Airport can be tedious and exasperating. It’s at least as tedious for the driver who must follow an elaborate path and protocol before picking you up. He or she must wait — at peak times, over an hour — in a giant lot known as Central Taxi Hold. After receiving a printed ticket with a terminal assignment, the driver presents that ticket to a dispatcher in the terminal as proof of having waited in line. If the destination is somewhere closer than Manhattan, the dispatcher will also give the driver a “shorty” return ticket, so that on return to the airport he or she can cut the line at Central Taxi Hold.

It’s an inefficient process with real costs in time and money for drivers and passengers — and the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, which generates about $2 billion annually through taxis.

In September a student team — Koen Bremer ’12, Matt Gordon ’12, Truett Horne ’12, Timon Lorenzo ’12, Douglas Mayne ’12, Mike Pascucci ’12, and George Xu ’12 — went out to JFK to learn about these inefficiencies so that they could recommend improvements. Their task was one of six challenges identified by the New York City Mayor’s Office and presented to students in a Master Class offered at the School for the first time in the fall.

The course — NYC: Innovative and Entrepreneurial Solutions to the City’s Complex Challenges — was created by Cliff Schorer, the School’s entrepreneur in residence. “There’s so much talent here at the School and in the Columbia network. I believe that we should be directly involved in working on major city problems,” said Schorer, who worked with the Mayor’s Office and Robbin Smith, former director of the School’s Master Class Program, to select the projects.

“I always tell project sponsors — in this case, the Mayor’s Office — that we are looking for projects that they really want done,” said Smith. “We want to take on projects that organizations would do themselves if they had the resources.”

To help students tackle complex public projects, Schorer added a unique element to the New York City Master Class: corporate mentors. He paired teams with practitioners — executives from such companies as Bell Labs, Goldman Sachs, and Google — whose expertise would likely inform students’ emerging recommendations.

More than a dozen practitioners volunteered as mentors — a generosity of spirit that Schorer touted on more than one occasion in class. “One thing I’ve noticed about successful people is that they always want to give back,” Schorer reminded students. “It’s part of their DNA.”

Learning by Doing

Whereas most MBA classes involve weekly lectures and occasional exams, the New York City Master Class required students to craft their own course. In addition to assigning each team member a function within the group, students developed their own project timelines, identified and connected with stakeholders, and finalized a strategic plan with a financial analysis and rollout for implementation — deliverables not unlike those produced by major consulting firms.

“Participants were given free rein to create their own solutions, travel to multiple locations throughout the city, secure expertise and resources, and most importantly, meet with and expand their networks to include some interesting and capable business leaders,” Schorer said.

Class sessions functioned like workshops, with corporate mentors and city officials checking in regularly with students and offering advice. Student-organized fieldwork supplemented the classroom experience.

“It’s less structured than other classes. You really have to push yourself to create your own milestones,” said Daniel Merns ’12, whose team looked at how to use social media to amplify the city’s emergency response messages.

New York City is a social media hub: of nine million New Yorkers, eight million are on Facebook, and the city boasts more Twitter users than any other city in the world. (Some New Yorkers even reported reading about last summer’s earthquake on Twitter before feeling tremors themselves.)

“There’s a real opportunity for us to use the reach of these networks to help millions of people during emergencies,” said Merns.

An in-class demo by Aditya Ghuwalewala ’11 inspired the social media team to incorporate a real-time analysis of emergency management into their recommendations. As the founder of consultancy Media Maven, whose technology aggregates information from across the web to evaluate consumer feelings, Ghuwalewala showed how the team could use social media to provide the city with real-time feedback on how emergencies are being handled.

For a team tasked with defining the parameters of New York City’s first “transmedia” center, getting out of the classroom proved essential to understanding what “transmedia” encompasses — the design firms, gaming companies, advertising agencies, freelance artists, and others who tell stories via multiple interactive platforms.

“This class really forces you outside of the academic bubble,” said Emily Horbar ’12, whose team devised a rebranding strategy for city-owned TV station NYC Life. “It’s an ideal transition as we start to plan for life after business school.”

“Students aren’t used to someone saying, ‘just go out and do it,’” said Schorer. “Cultivating that action mindset was one of the main drivers of the class.”

When the taxi team searched for current data on the number of taxis entering and leaving JFK, they were out of luck; none existed. So they interviewed drivers, passengers, dispatchers, airline representatives, and city officials from the Port Authority and Taxi and Limousine Commission.

And they went out to JFK to count cabs.

Real-World Results

Theories may sound great in the classroom, but how will they work in practice? A focus on actionable results was a major theme of the class — and one that can seem especially daunting with public-sector clients.

“In government, we should treat our residents and businesses like customers — just like a business would,” Tokumbo Shobowale, chief of staff to the deputy mayor for economic development of New York City, told students in class on November 14. Creating a pro-business environment, said Shobowale, is a key pillar of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s economic development strategy.

“How do you help agencies communicate with each other so that they can work together to get things done?” Matt Gordon ’12 of the taxi team asked.

“Welcome to my world,” Shobowale said, grinning. “One of the most important things you can learn is how to influence people. There’s no short answer, but incentives for change are important.”

Identifying those incentives for change was part of a common challenge students wrestled with throughout the semester: stakeholder management. Which constituents can be persuaded to champion a proposed solution, and how?

For the social media team, an obvious champion emerged: Google. Talks with executives at the company convinced the team that it would welcome the opportunity to partner with the city’s Office of Emergency Management. As part of their strategic plan, the team showed how the city’s emergency messages could be slotted into existing ad units on the Google homepages of New York City area users.

“With about 80 percent of New Yorkers engaging with a Google product on a daily basis, that’s a huge impact,” said Jonathan Goldsmith ’12.

For the taxi team, implementable recommendations meant outlining “quick wins” for the Port Authority, which runs the airports: training taxi dispatchers to be more efficient, for example, and using social media to communicate anticipated wait times to arriving passengers. Sharing the results of smallerscale solutions like these might convince stakeholders to adopt the team’s more ambitious recommendations like using existing GPS technology to track cabs at the airport, and redesigning the queue so that there are multiple lines leading to multiple service stations.

“Learning how to manage clients’ expectations and identify champions — these skills around stakeholder management—are critical to the success of any consulting work,” said John Gamberoni, an adjunct professor for the course who heads the government consulting practice at Accenture.

Fresh Eyes

“Enable all to contribute; ideas come from everywhere,” Nuno Guerrerio ’12, a global vendor manager at Google who served as a mentor to the taxi team, advised students in an in-class presentation on Google’s “Nine Rules of Innovation.”

It could very well be a motto for the New York City Master Class.

“Those of us who have been looking at a problem the same way tend to see it from the same perspective,” Robert Steel, the city’s deputy mayor for economic development, told students before they presented their official recommendations to the city on December 12. “Having people like you come in with a fresh perspective is something that we’re really excited about. I can pledge to you we are going to be focused on what you’ve worked on.”

Ultimately, as Jonathan Goldsmith ’12 of the social media team remarked at the conclusion of his team’s presentation, the potential impact of the class is not just local. “This is a huge opportunity for the city to serve as a model to other cities,” Goldsmith said. “Using social media as an emergency response vehicle could be a much bigger life-saving initiative.”

For most teams, developing recommendations for improvement was only part of their work; they also looked beyond the scope of the assignment to propose related enhancements.

Say you’ve just arrived at JFK from Charles de Gaulle. After confirming that you won’t have to wait more than 10 minutes for a taxi by checking a monitor displaying current average wait times, you catch a taxi to the city. Noting that the driver doesn’t speak English fluently, you use the taxi’s touchscreen TV to access Google’s translation technology. As you’re driving to your hotel, you read other passengers’ reviews of restaurants and shows, and book reservations and tickets for that evening.

So much for tedious and exasperating — it sounds rather fun, doesn’t it?

New York City Master Class Projects: taxi dispatch at JFK International Airport; social media for emergency response messages; New York City transmedia center; real estate development in downtown Queens; minority- and woman-owned businesses; NYC life. To watch the teams' presentations to the Mayor's Office, visit bit.ly/master-classes.
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