Christopher de Gruben

Student spotlight details

Christopher enrolled on the MSc in Sustainable Urban Development in order to better lead his own business and to make a more substantial contribution to the development of Mongolia. 

'I have been living and working in Mongolia for the past 14 years, initially working for a luxury mixed-used developer and then co-founding and managing an urban consultancy firm called M.A.D. Urban. A couple of friends and I started the firm in 2008 because we noticed there was a considerable lack of reliable and unbiased real estate market data available to support investors keen to invest in this frontier market. 

'Mongolia was booming. It's a commodity-driven economy and for a short while it was the fastest growing economy in the world (18% GDP growth in 2012). We were doing well providing large scale real estate investors with consultancy services and deal origination but then politics turned nasty. Foreign investors were no longer welcomed and the bottom of the economy fell out. The Government took out massive debts to replace losses in FDI but this led to an unsustainable situation of mountaining debts and worsening economy. Maintaining the balance between national interests and the need of foreign investors is something the country continues to struggle with. Throughout that time M.A.D. Urban had to reinvent itself multiple times. We moved from providing market research, to investment advisory to fund management, to urban planning to public sector consultancy, and eventually to valuation. More recently we have started offering GIS services to various IFI’s in Mongolia. 

'As we transitioned from different services and constantly reinvented ourselves to better face a rapidly changing market, we learned a great deal about all possible aspects of Urban Development. It became increasingly clear that Mongolia’s urban development strategies were far from sustainable. It is one of the most polluted cities in the world during winter, there is no visible urban planning in the city and nearly half of its citizens still live in informal housing on the fringes of the formal urban areas. We were also getting increasingly involved in urban consulting for the World Bank and Asian Development Bank so it was important to develop our own capacity to understand the issues at the heart of Mongolia’s situation. I needed to further my knowledge of sustainable urban development so that I could both better lead my own business but also make a more substantial contribution to the country’s development. I was not willing to pause my career so wanted an executive type course, I needed something that was academically rigorous and international in outlook. The MSc in Sustainable Urban Development perfectly suited my needs.

'Escaping the micromanaging and the local issues that I faced everyday in my work to come to Oxford for a week at a time was a blessing. It gave me room to think and to consider our position on key sustainability issues and our corporate strategy. Interacting and brainstorming with professors and student alike gave me extraordinary perspective in how the issues that Mongolia was facing had global implications and often global solutions.

'The MSUD allowed me to better consider the key issues of the day, gain understanding in areas that were relatively new to me and to acquire a far more holistic and profound understanding of what sustainable urban development entails. I left the course with more questions than answers but this in itself was where most of the value was. It created in me a thirst for knowledge and an understanding that no solutions are perfect and that cultural adaptation is vital for success.

'I would strongly recommend any potential applicants to careful consider the purposes of undertaking the course, personally it was more about intellectual stimulation rather than career advancement of applicable tools. The pursuit of understanding of the theory before attempting to apply the practice is vital. 

'Finally, I would point out that you will get out of the course exactly what you put in it. It is worth investing fully, doing the assignments properly, writing a dissertation that will lead to something else and enjoying the time on the course because, if you invest in it, you will start a journey of lifelong learning.'

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Both during the course, and since graduating, Christopher has taken our Master's in Sustainable Uban Development to new heights, quite literally. While a student on the course, he climbed Kilimanjaro (photo below); today he reports: 'Since Kili I have climbed Aconcagua (highest summit in South America) and Mt Elbrus (highest summit in Europe), both with the Oxford MSUD flag. I am planning on Mt Vinson in Antartica this winter - or next, not sure yet'. 

Christopher de Gruben on Kilimanjaro