UNC Kenan-Flagler Insights

Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next

December 17, 2010 By Heather Harreld

UNC Kenan-Flagler professor John D. Kasarda is so influential in China that he’s better known there than the Tar Heels. Or at least that’s what Xianping Wang, co-founder of international aviation consultancy GCW, told attendees at last year’s Airport Cities World Conference & Exhibition in Beijing, Kasarda recalls with a chuckle. “But he’s a Duke grad,” Kasarda adds humbly.

Wang might have been making a jab at his rival school, but he could be right. Kasarda’s fingerprints are all over China, which has warmly embraced his concept of the “aerotropolis”— that calls for cities of the future to be built up around the airport, rather than the other way around. China’s Beijing Capital Airport City, for example, a $12 billion master plan that’s the template for dozens of other “airport cities” on tap for China, is Kasarda’s brainchild. He is advising Chongqing, the future home of 80 percent of basic manufacturing for iPhone builder Foxconn, on the city’s logistics strategy. And none other than Victor Fung, the group chairman of global trading powerhouse Li & Fung, has called Kasarda the inspiration for the $20 billion Hong Kong Airport City, which includes hotels, offices, entertainment, and trade and exhibition complexes.

But China isn’t the only place Kasarda is making his mark. The Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise director was tapped by Thailand’s prime minister earlier this decade to create an aerotropolis in Bangkok, which didn’t succeed but gave birth to the country’s thriving “medical tourism” industry. The new airport complex taking shape in Hyderabad, India was designed in part by Kasarda. And he was recently awarded the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais’s highest medal of honor for his work implementing the aerotropolis model in the state’s capital, Belo Horizonte.

Now, with the March 2011 release of his book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, co-authored with business writer Greg Lindsay and guided by the same editor as Thomas Friedman’s wildly successful The World is Flat, Kasarda’s ideas could make even more of an impact on U.S. infrastructure, too. Already, cities like Detroit and Memphis use the aerotropolis concept to make them more competitive; 16 U.S. congressmen are even sponsoring the Aerotropolis Act of 2010 to provide funding for such airport projects.

aerotropolis

With President Obama promising $50 billion in infrastructure investments and a growing awareness that the nation’s runways, roads and bridges need major surgery, Kasarda’s book is ripe for a big splash. “I hope to get a message to the President that while Asia and the Middle East are treating their airports as primary infrastructure to compete in the 21st century,” he says, “we’re viewing them more as nuisances and environmental threats. We do this at our own economic peril.”

Kasarda believes the cities possessing the most efficient airports with well-connected local transportation and business development will be the most competitive metropolises in the future.  They will serve as the 21st century physical Internet.  “The web won’t move a box”, Kasarda says, “and business remains a contact sport.”

We ship so many Amazon books, iPhones and pharmaceuticals today that nearly 40 percent of the value of world trade goes by air, Kasarda points out.  The aerotropolis – whether airport-linked “instant cities” popping up as supply chain and corporate hubs in Asia or older western cities adapting to the new reality – “represents the logic of globalization made flesh in the form of cities,” writes Kasarda’s co-author, Greg Lindsey, in their book.

Despite his belief that airports will be the future centers of our cities – and and our lives – Kasarda is no Ryan Bingham, the frequent flier mile-counting consultant George Clooney played in the film Up in the Air. Kasarda globe trots about seven or eight weeks a year, but otherwise can be found on the third floor of the Kenan Institute or teaching MBA electives.

While he’d be equally at home in an urban planning school, an economics department or a public policy classroom, Kasarda believes a business school is the best place for him. “Business schools are more receptive to the idea of competitive infrastructure, rather than just infrastructure that serves the public,” he says. That’s particularly the case with UNC Kenan-Flagler, he says, which encouraged him to test out his concept for a “global air cargo-industrial complex” for North Carolina back in 1990, his first blueprint for the aerotropolis. FedEx saw those original plans, hired him, and before long Kasarda was hobnobbing with Asian leadership. As Lindsey writes in the duo’s book, Kasarda is “the rare scholar whose ideas have consequences, for whose ideas governments have staked billions of dollars on his instant cities and strategy.”

Even Kasarda seems a bit amazed, at times, by how far-flung his ideas have become. He regularly sees his PowerPoint slides—or even whole presentations – co-opted at international conferences. When he tried to trademark the Aerotropolis term, he was told it was so widely used that it was considered a noun, and could not be patented. That’s a long way from when he started talking – quietly, he’s quick to add – about airport cities.

“If I told people 10 years ago that my goal is to help build aerotropoli around the world, many people would have said the guy is just dreaming.”

Not anymore.