Monday, January 1, 2007

Bhatia Describes His New Urban Design Plans for India

STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS—As cofounder of Hotmail Corporation, Sabeer Bhatia helped revolutionize communication. Now he's tackling communities.

The web-based email veteran is building a new city in India from scratch around a model he hopes will attract young, highly skilled workers seeking a stimulating community to live in, and high-tech companies seeking to employ them. The new community will be known as Nano City after the technology Bhatia believes will help drive India's growing economy, he told students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business during a January 23 talk sponsored by the school's Global Management Program.

Nano City will combine Silicon Valley-style creativity with a vibrant culture and small environmental footprint, Bhatia said. The community will depend on a privately run infrastructure and, if it is to succeed economically, it must be the kind of place a young engineer wants to live. Workers today have their choice of jobs, and most would rather not toil in a business park at the edge of suburbia, he said. If Nano City can attract young people by offering a world-class education and sense of community, companies will follow.

"It's not just creating a zone or an office park," Bhatia said. "I'm looking at this whole problem in a more holistic way."

Much like Hotmail became the model for web-based email, Bhatia hopes Nano City will become a model for urban growth in India, where development is often "haphazard and unplanned." In Bangalore, what should be a seven-minute drive takes three hours during rush hour, he said. Transportation, water, and other infrastructure systems are already inadequate in India's urban centers, which are predicted to grow by 100 million people in 10 years. India would need to build 300 new cities to absorb them all comfortably, Bhatia said.

Faced with a portion of this staggering growth, government officials from the state of Haryana asked Bhatia to help them build a new economic center on what is now farmland. The community "will get developed come what may," Bhatia said. His job is to make it great from the get-go.

Bhatia's social vision for Nano City is utopian: Education will be "the finest in the world"; buildings will trap and re-use energy; after work, residents will meet friends in restaurants, shops, and bars within walking distance of their affordable apartments; on weekends they'll ramble the city's greenbelt.

Nano City's soul is so essential to Bhatia's business model that he'll likely sell his first wave of homes at cost in order to attract residents, he said. But that's where the freebies end. Most everything but the police department and legal system will be privately built and operated.

This model is an answer to the days of socialist India, said Bhatia who left India in 1988 to attend California Institute of Technology. In California, he found himself with a working phone in 24 hours. In India, the same publicly administered service would have taken 10 years, he said. The Indian economy has made dramatic strides since then, mostly thanks to private enterprise, Bhatia said, and while it might be uncommon to put urban planning in the hands of an entrepreneur, Bhatia sees his skills as perfect for the job.

"An entrepreneur just thinks on his feet, or her feet, constantly," he said. "To me, [Nano City] is a problem, or a series of problems, I have to find solutions for."

Bhatia's company is currently buying up Nano City land, which is now worth five times its agricultural value. When built out, the site will be about half the size of San Francisco and house some 500,000 people. The first residents will likely move to Nano City in 2010 or 2011.

In addition to his work on Nano City, Bhatia is president of Arzoo.com, an online travel service in India, and chairman of InstaColl Technology Corporation, a service that tracks document revisions online. He holds degrees from California Institute of Technology and Stanford University.