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Breaking New Ground in the Teaching of Socially Responsible Real Estate Development

Just off the shore of Johor Bahru, Malaysia, Country Gardens Holdings Ltd., one of China’s largest real estate developers, is in the process of building a massive mixed-use project called Forest City. Possible environmental, social, and economic impacts of the project have generated substantial controversy both within Malaysia and internationally. The project, and the controversy surrounding it, is the focus of a new multi-media teaching case, leveraging a new multimedia platform that allow students to meet the key players in the story, study the relevant financial analyses, review media coverage of the local controversy and see detailed footage of the project under construction. This new format for presenting development controversies empowers both students and faculty. Layers of digital data provide students with a ring-side seat that written cases (even with photographs) can’t provide, while faculty can ask their students to navigate through the story (almost like a TV news magazine) in whatever way makes the most sense given the objectives of their courses.

The Forest City case study was recently selected as one of the top three faculty-led teaching cases published in 2016/2-17 by the Global Planning Educators Interest Group (GPEIG) of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP). The study was produced by the School of Architecture and Planning’s MIT Case Study Initiative.

A team of graduate students, working with Professor Lawrence Susskind, Ford Professor of Environmental and Urban Planning, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, conducted video interviews with a wide variety of stakeholders including local fishermen, public officials, community activists, and the key urban designers and real estate developers in Malaysia, Singapore, China, and the U.S. To situate students in the setting, the research team filmed extensively both on the ground and from the air by drone. Partnering with a local non-profit and visiting the site repeatedly over the course of two years, the team was able to document the social and environmental impacts of this controversial project.

Funded by the Sam Tak Lee Real Estate Entrepreneurship Lab, the Initiative launched in 2016, spearheaded by Professor Albert Saiz, and is working with a number of faculty teams around the Institute to create a library of multimedia cases and a new software platform (built on OpenEdx) to showcase them. The new MIT Case Study platform allows students to progress through a case study chronologically, similar to PDF case studies, but adds additional multimedia such as hearing directly from stakeholders from both sides of the conflict, visualizations of local environments, all of which enables students to critically re-think policymakers’ strategies based on the evidence they collect from the multimedia libraries of the case. For instructors, case study content is completely modular, allowing instructors to shift the highlighted material of a case to suit their particular class. Utilizing technology, the MIT Case Studies break away from the model of static PDFs, embracing a dynamic, visually orientated platform, enveloping students in cases as never before.

In addition to the case about Forest City, the research conducted with the support of the Sam Tak Lee Entrepreneurship Lab is also incorporated into a successful MOOC, STL162.X Socially-Responsible Real Estate Development.