John D. Macomber
Senior Lecturer, Gloria A. Dauten Real Estate Fellow
John Macomber is a Senior Lecturer in the Finance unit at Harvard Business School. His professional background includes leadership of real estate, construction, and information technology businesses. At HBS, Mr. Macomber is engaged in the Business and Environment Initiative and Social Enterprise Initiative. He teaches Finance, Real Estate, Urbanization, and Entrepreneurship courses in the elective curriculum and in Executive Education. He is the former Chairman and CEO of the George B H Macomber Company, a large regional general contractor; and remains a principal in several real estate partnerships. John serves or has served on the boards of Young Presidents Organization International (YPO), Boston Private Bank, and Mount Auburn Hospital.
Courses include: "Innovation in Business, Energy, and Environment," "Real Estate Development, Design, and Construction," and "Building Cities: Infrastructure, and Sustainability." He is chair or co-chair of Executive Education programs including "Real Estate Management," "Real Estate Executive Seminar," and "Develop India: Real Estate Strategies for Growth." Prior to coming to HBS, John was a lecturer at MIT in Civil Engineering and Real Estate.
Mr. Macomber is a graduate of Dartmouth College (Mathematics in the Social Sciences) and Harvard Business School.
The Future of Cities Depends on Innovative Financing
Today’s mega-cities have a footprint problem. They are developing horizontally, not vertically, with vast areas of low sprawl reaching out for miles from Sao Paolo, Lagos, New Delhi, Guangzhou, Jakarta, and many others. A central question our civilization must address is how we can avoid becoming a planet of informal slums.
Pay-for-success may not be a universal panacea to address the footprint problem and its underlying causes. But it’s a potentially powerful way to mobilize vast pools of global capital toward multisector thinking, working toward a common good that none of the parties currently seems able to finance.
Fixing Boston's "T"
The MBTA faces the same problems that confront every transit system in the world: Riders want to pay less in fares and taxpayers want to contribute less in subsidies. In exchange, everyone wants to receive more safety, more reliability, more frequency, longer routes, and later hours.
These opposing financial forces never add up. But new technologies and modern business models, many invented in Massachusetts, could vastly improve the balance of this age-old equation
Are Smart Cities Empty Hype?
Although there is no such thing as a truly "smart city", today's cities do exhibit different degrees of smartness in how they are designed, developed and run. These differences have real consequences for global society. With a global urban population estimated to top 6 billion by 2050, the world needs cities that are liveable, competitive and sustainable—environmentally, financially and socially.
The most effective smart-city initiatives are focused on the fundamentals: the flow of water, electricity, cars and people. Today, old and new cities alike are struggling in these areas, particularly as natural and financial resources become ever scarcer.
The ABCs of Addressing Climate Change
There is a lot of noise around potential climate change. How can businesses cut through the commotion and do something? Based on my experience as a real estate and construction CEO and my academic research on urbanization, new cities, and the finance of sustainable infrastructure, I propose these simple ABCs (actually A-F) for business leaders to address climate change. These are approaches, business models, and concrete steps to describe an element of what financiers, governments, and even households must do to combat climate change. Some are close to home, some are in emerging markets. All are in the built world of infrastructure, buildings, and property.
The Fantastic Horizon: How to Invest in a New City
Rapid urbanization and rampant resource scarcity pose problems – and opportunities – for businesses and governments all over the world. The world’s existing population centers cannot absorb all the migration, prompting the need for hundreds of new cities. This raises the question of who can best lead the building and developing of these municipalities. One course of action is development, promotion, and regulation by the private sector. Harvard Business School Senior Lecturer John Macomber discusses the keys to making this model work, based on his recent investigative visits to nascent privately-funded municipalities in Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.
Making a Big Impact in a Big Hurry
In our lifetimes, the number of people living in cities will more than double – growing to over six billion, according to UN projections. The world already faces shortages of water, electricity, clean air, land and food; too much garbage, too much dirty air, and too much time wasted in transit. Rapid urbanization will only make this situation worse. What is to be done?
Many people hope that “better government” will address these problems - where politicians wake up and suddenly applying long term thinking based on evidence and logic to make fully funded investments that benefit all of society. I’m a skeptic – I don’t think governments will be able to do this. All over the world, governments are stuck politically (like the US and India) or they are out of money for public investment (like China and Indonesia).
This means that private companies and investors have both an obligation – and an opportunity - to do something big. I’m interested in how firms and bankers use sophisticated financial tools – coupled with connected technologies – to build businesses that make money and which make a difference in sustainable cities.
Building Sustainable Cities
By 2050 the number of people living in cities will have nearly doubled, to 6 billion, and the problems created by this rampant urbanization are among the most important challenges of our time. Of all resource-management issues, the author argues, water, electricity, and transit deserve the greatest focus. Every other service a competitive city provides—functional housing, schools, hospitals, stores, police and fire departments, heating, cooling, waste management—depends on a reliable infrastructure for those three resources.
Many corporations and investors assume that fixing cities is the purview of government. But governments around the world are stuck—financially, politically, or both. Implementing solutions to the problems of urbanization requires large amounts of capital, exceptional managerial skill, and significant alignment of interests. All these abound in the private sector.
Thus major opportunities exist for businesses that can create and claim value by improving resource efficiency. The products and services that new (or legacy) cities will require, and that provide the return investors and entrepreneurs need, optimize both technological sophistication and financial sophistication—approaches designed to attract capital by offering different levels of risk and return, different cash-flow priorities, and opportunities for both short-term and long-term investment.
The author cites a number of companies that have moved toward or into what he calls “the efficiency frontier.” These include Sarvajal, in India, which saves money and eliminates waste by selling direct to customers through its “water ATMs”; the Boston-based EnerNOC, which manages electricity production and consumption to reduce spikes in demand; and EMBARQ, based in Washington, DC, which coordinates the interests of business and government to organize city transit services.
Stop Talking About the Weather and Do Something
The wrath of Hurricane Sandy has illuminated a fundamental question: How do we ensure that our cities are resilient in the face of inevitable future disasters? A destroyed city is not a sustainable city. I'm making the case that it's time to stop complaining about climate change. It's time to stop waiting for the government. It's time to stop spending a lot of money on cleanup after the fact. Rather, it's time for the private sector to take action around adaptation and prevention. My work in sustainable urbanization indicates that we can connect engineering, environment, infrastructure, and private finance to invest in cities that are sustainable, competitive, and resilient.
Investing in Sustainable, Competitive Cities
(Q&A with the editor of Metropolis magazine)
Best practices going forward will, in my view, be driven by a couple of important concepts. First, thinking about multiples of buildings (instead of one at a time) will have multiple levels of impact. For example, a minor innovation might be exterior sun- screens on a Houston office tower. But the tower stands alone without benefit of shade from other buildings, and everyone drives miles to and from the tower. The big opportunity for multiple layers of energy savings and impact thus lies in situating buildings where they shield each other from solar gain, they benefit from breezes, and where they are close enough together to allow for comfortable walking or mass transit. Some of the most successful cities in the world are very dense and efficient in this way; for example Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, London, and New York.
Second, much discussion of sustainability revolves around “more supply:” for example, more electricity from renewable sources. The other side of the equation should be around “less demand:” or more benefit from using fewer inputs.
VIDEO: Harvard Business School at the Kumbh Mela
Every 12 years Hindu pilgrims gather at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in northern India to bathe in the sacred waters. The gathering, known as the Kumbh Mela, is the world’s largest religious festival, drawing millions of people over 55 days. To accommodate everyone, the Indian government creates a temporary city — building roads and providing power on what is normally an empty flood plain. Harvard Business School Senior Lecturer John Macomber visited the Kumbh in January to discover what such an undertaking can teach us about real estate, urbanization, sustainability, and infrastructure.
Why a Harvard Finance Instructor Went to the Kumbh Mela
I'm in a winter coat and hat in the January pre-dawn cold and dark, standing on sandbags on a riverbank in the middle of Uttar Pradesh, India. Pilgrims and the faithful and the respectful come to the river this morning by the hundreds, clad in the minimum, praying and splashing and releasing marigold wreaths and rafts of small oil lamps into the river. This is not like any field research I've done before.
Thirty-five Harvard colleagues and I are at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, a mass pilgrimage in which tens of millions of Hindus gather to bathe at the confluence of the sacred Ganga (Ganges) River, the Yamuna River, and the mythical underground Saraswathi. Legend says that on his return to the Himalaya, Vishnu flew over this spot and dropped sacred nectar from a pitcher—a kumbh.
Six months ago this land was under 30 feet of water. Three weeks from now this will become the largest city on earth, the largest single-purpose gathering of humanity in history. Every 12 years, when the moon and stars are aligned, this becomes the most auspicious spot in Hinduism, and there is a six-week-long festival, or mela, for the millions of pilgrims. The Maha Kumbh Mela is happening right now. It's expected to draw close to 200 million people over almost eight weeks, and as many as 30 million in a single day. The Harvard team is here to learn about why and how.