Project management in urban discipline: Managing processes in highly complex and highly unpredictable work environments


MU students in Darmstadt closed the winter semester with the class on Project Management (PM) with our guest lecturer MU alumna Prof. Lauren Ugur. Let’s take a look at the dynamics and outcomes of this top-priority course.

The complexity of urban systems makes managing the overall processes of urban development practice exceptionally challenging. As urban professionals, our motivation is to contribute to improving the living conditions of societies who are most in need and to take up the journey to implement our ideas with good intentions to the best of our ability. Like any journey, only through solid preparation can we actually effectively manage processes. Without a thorough understanding of the contexts, complexities, and functioning of urban systems, we are plugged in but not switched on.

BlogPhoto1Students working on their project on solid waste management in Bangladesh.

The simple reality is that, with traditional PM we cannot control the systems with which we work. Due to their complexity, uncertainty is a reality and we need to learn to not only accept it but proactively work with uncertainty and dynamic change. We therefore need non-traditional approaches to PM if we are to improve project success rates.

That’s why activating approaches towards a very thorough understanding of PM is crucial: Only through an in-depth understanding of management processes can students appropriately adapt traditional management tools to the international development project environment.

During this recent 2-week course, MU students elaborated on their own projects which addressed some urban problems such as water scarcity in Cape Town, facilitating organic growth to rejuvenate urban areas in decline as in the example of Amsterdam, solid waste management in Bangladesh, developing societal approaches against domestic violence and alcoholism in Ontario. 

Projects on demographic challenges in Amsterdam (left) and water scarcity in Cape Town (right).

The students had the opportunity to use numerous traditional PM tools from SWOT to 5C, CPA, and PERT, from Gannt charts to stakeholder analyses and to apply them to their specific contexts. But this activity represents just the basics—the real focus of the course goes beyond the basics of traditional PM and gets the students to understand and be able to work with more agile forms of management which are essential for dealing with the highly complex and therefore also highly unpredictable environments in which we work.

The one-to-one application of traditional PM tools has limited effect on ensuring project success and therefore it needs to be better understood and critically reflected on what PM tools offer, how they can/should be adapted to different projects and used more flexibly. Thus, the focus of the course is on understanding the effects that decision-making and the information rendered through use of PM tools has on the management process in an iterative manner consisting of project solution cycles that incorporate feedback throughout the process of problem identification, project planning, and potential implementation.

What students have to say

Marina: “I worked on the project which dealt with the water scarcity in Cape Town. Being a huge undertaking, our group work sessions were intense in the amount of information we had to research, handle, disassemble in order to understand the management, the direction, the leadership drive behind that project. However, this exercise with all the tools it involved proved extremely useful, as later on I had to go back on my experience with project management and use it for my work during my internship. I guess the lesson learned is that project management takes an equal amount of personal development and professional skills/experience to be able to handle immense amount of workload and information of high complexity.”

Susan: “The most interesting point of Project Management course, for me, was developing a customized integrative framework within which all the steps of conceptualizing the issue, formulating the question, analyzing the situation, conducting the process, and developing the product were reciprocally linked. It was also an eye-opening experience for me as an urban planner/designer, playing a project management game, to realize how concerns and considerations simply change depending on one’s position in either side of the table!”

Prof. Dr. Lauren Ugur is an urban development and management professional. She holds a PhD in Urban Sociology and a MSc in International Cooperation and Urban Development both from the Darmstadt University of Technology, Germany, as well as a first-class Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the University of South Australia. Professionally, Lauren holds a Professorship in International Tourism Management at Heilbronn University of Applied Sciences. She draws on her diverse background, focusing her research interests on the environmental, social and institutional complexity that determines how organizations, public and private, are able to deliver integrated planning interventions to address contemporary urban issues. Prior to this appointment, Lauren held a Professorship in Tourism and Event Management at Frankfurt International School of Management (2014-2017) and worked as the Consortium Manager for the Mundus Urbano program “International Cooperation and Urban Development” (2009-2014).

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