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Urban Science: Successfully Applying Science to Solve Business Problems

In 1976, when assigned the task of mapping 37,000 locations of luxury car buyers in Chicago, “technology” demanded that one unfortunate person purchase 37,000 stick-on dots from an office supply store and painstakingly press them on a map over the course of approximately three weeks. At least that’s what Cadillac had been told, after approaching two substantial information technology (IT) companies about the possibility of computer mapping and receiving the same response: It simply couldn’t be
done.

Enter Jim Anderson, researcher and engineering and urban studies
instructor at Wayne State University. Jim had pioneered computer
mapping technology as part of an earlier research endeavor, in an
effort to illustrate the concentration of pollutants in the air and water. A former Wayne State student, who’d heard one of Jim’s talks on computer mapping, informed Cadillac that although other companies may not be aware of the technology, that it did, in fact, exist, and Jim Anderson could make it happen. Urban Science was born, and thus began a 29-year tradition of solving the seemingly unsolvable. “Just tell us what can’t be done,” challenges Anderson. “If it involves data and analytical skills, we’ll find a way to do it.”

Not Just Consulting, Not Just Software Development

Headquartered in Detroit’s Renaissance Center, Urban Science is a hybrid company — not just consulting, and not just software development — helping clients in the automotive and financial institutions industries apply science to real-world business problems, solving problems that haven’t been solved before. Then they convert the solutions into computer software. “You can’t buy that off the shelf because, before we came into the equation, it didn’t exist. This gives our clients a competitive edge.”

So what kinds of business solutions does Urban Science provide?
Network solutions, customer solutions, and site solutions.

Network solutions help clients determine the optimal number and
best locations for their outlets to meet their market objectives.
Remember the 37,000 stick-on dots? When Jim Anderson first applied computer mapping to the problem in 1976, the time to develop the map went from three weeks to six hours on a computer. Today it takes two seconds. “But that’s only step one of the problem,” says Anderson. “Initially, we thought Cadillac’s question was, ‘What does the data look like?’ but that wasn’t it. It was, ‘How many dealers do I need, and where should they be located?’ Once you have more than two outlets in a marketplace, the number of different combinations where you can locate three or more dealerships in a large area explodes. For example, if you have 8 sites in a market with 467 census tracts or possible sites, there are 52.8 million billion potential combinations. Million billion — that’s 15 zeroes! That problem of determining where a dealership should be located had never been solved.” Today Urban Science helps every major automotive manufacturer solve that problem in less than 10 seconds. Well, almost every manufacturer. “We don’t do a lot of work with Rolls Royce,” demurs Anderson.

Customer solutions apply statistics and prior customer purchasing
behavior to predict who’s likely to buy a particular product at a particular time and use that information to minimize the cost of making a sale. “For example, in a list of 1 million requests for brochures, we’re able to identify 96 percent of the buyers in 500,000 prospects,” says Anderson. “Or, to put it another way, customers can achieve nearly all of their sales at half of the cost of distributing the brochures.”

Finally, site analysis uncovers the causes of poor outlet performance and establishes an action plan to improve it. “We want to understand what’s causing market share to be high in one place and low in another,” says Anderson. “In some cases, the client network is too small and more outlets are appropriate. In others, some of the outlets are in the wrong places. In still others, there are enough in the right places, but they aren’t being operated properly.”

Propeller Heads With Personalities

It takes a special person to work at Urban Science. “We have best-in-class people using best-in-class processes embedded in best-in-class software to diagnose market share problems and find real-world, practical solutions,” says Anderson. “The best-in-class person is not simply someone with a technical degree; they have that technical background, but they often have an MBA. They have an interest and experience in the industries for which we consult. They’re much more than computer geeks; they’re analytical problem solvers. As such, I sometimes affectionately refer to my staff and myself as ‘propeller heads with personalities.’”

Finding people with both technical skills and entrepreneurial skills can be a challenge — so much so that, in 1997, Anderson decided to move away from a client-centric approach toward a more product-centric one. This enabled him to hire staff with technical skills or staff with entrepreneurial skills — much easier than finding staff with both. “We put the technical people behind the scenes and sent the salespeople out to the customers,” remembers Anderson. “It didn’t work. Growth and profitability failed to meet expectations, so in 2001, we returned to our client-centric roots, hiring only those people with sales and technical skills. We’ve since returned to our historical rates of growth and profitability.”

Visions Are Inherently Idealistic

Formalized in 1980, Urban Science’s vision is a world where science and technology combine with entrepreneurial spirit to create opportunity and make the world a better place to live. It’s a message to potential staff that Urban Science is a place where they can put their scientific tools to work and create things of great value to the marketplace. “I read news articles about how Americans are inept in math and science,” says Anderson. “Not so at Urban Science! That’s who we are! We’re applying the tools of our trade in the business and marketing world and having fun at the same time. When you can align your personal vision for your life with the vision of the company for which you work, you’re no longer going to work. You’re just living your life, making the world a better place, and happen to be making money at the same time.”

That’s pretty idealistic, isn’t it? “It is idealistic,” says Anderson, “but visions are inherently idealistic. They have to be.”

After talking to various staff at Urban Science, the vision may not be so idealistic after all. Jan Bragoli, IS manager in charge of the Detroit office, enjoys her job so much that, she insists, there are
days she feels guilty about being paid. “It’s a challenging, stimulating place to work, and I feel such passion when I get up in the morning, knowing I can come in, have lots of fun, be successful, make a difference, and get paid to do it. We’ve been in existence nearly 30 years and enjoyed constant, steady growth. For a technology company, that’s very telling — a real indication of success.”

Bragoli continues, “One of the things that really keeps me going is
Urban Science’s commitment to providing state-of-the-art solutions using best-in-class technologies and people. One of the first things I ever heard Jim [Anderson] say was to quote a boating manufacturer:
‘We build good ships. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but we build good ships.’ That commitment to quality is significant. I’ve worked at companies where we never had time to do it right but always had time to do it over. It’s not like that here. I know I have the tools I need to do my job, and if I don’t, all I have to do is ask. Under those circumstances, how can you not enjoy your job?”

We’ll Find a Way to Do It

Jim Anderson has made a career of solving the seemingly unsolvable. Moreover, he actually seeks out these challenges. “I can’t even count the number of times we’ve been asked to solve something that another company claimed couldn’t be done,” says
Anderson. “Our can-do attitude has created myriad opportunities for
us. We’ve encountered these opportunities with algebra and geometry. We’ve encountered them with computer software and hardware. We were the first company in the world to draw dot maps on the computer, and we were the first company in world to solve that 52 million billion combination optimization problem. We’re
always looking for the next opportunity.”

He continues, “Just tell us what can’t be done. We’ll find a way to do it.”

Urban Science & Plante & Moran: In the Loyalty Zone

“Urban Science is extremely unique,” says Plante & Moran’s Bruce Shapiro, an audit partner who’s worked with them for nearly 10 years. “Unique in what they do, and unique in how they do it. The fact that their sales have gone up every year since the company’s inception is very telling. They’re a remarkable organization.” So what does Urban Science think of Plante & Moran? “They’re in
the loyalty zone,” quips Anderson, “and that’s a hard place to get into. From audits to strategic investments to overseeing our client and customer satisfaction surveys, they’ve consistently exceeded
expectations.”

Urban Science at a Glance


  1. Jim Anderson formed Urban Science in 1976 with $2,500.
  2. Urban Science has approximately 400 staff in 11 offices (Detroit, Long Beach, London, Paris, Tokyo, Madrid, Frankfurt, Rome, Tokyo, Beijing, and Melbourne).
  3. They will soon have offices in Shanghai and Bangkok.
  4. At 12 to 15 percent annually, turnover is remarkably low.
  5. For the 29 years it’s been in business, Urban Science has had 29 record-revenue years.
  6. At one point, Urban Science had a presence on every continent (except Antarctica, of course).
  7. To monitor satisfaction, Urban Science surveys their clients annually. On a five-point scale, the loyalty zone begins at 4. World-class is 4.2; Urban Science is at 4.5.

 

Urban Science Gives $2.5 Million to Wayne State University

Urban Science recently pledged $2.5 million to Wayne State University’s Engineering Ventures program, geared toward identifying young engineering students that would like to pursue
an entrepreneurial career. This will provide students with the nontechnical classes necessary for a successful entrepreneurial
career; mentoring to help them establish their vision for their life; a seminar program to build their enthusiasm toward becoming an
entrepreneur; employment opportunities with entrepreneurial companies; and potential venture capital. Being Jim Anderson, he’s even plotted measures of success for the new program. “After five years, I’m going to count the number of students who have completed the program. After 10 years, I’m going to count the number of graduates who have established their own businesses. After 15 years, I’m going to count the number of graduates who have won significant entrepreneurial awards. After 20 years, I’m going to count the number of graduates who have endowed chairs in the program. And after 25 years, I want to see the Wayne State University Engineering Ventures Program widely viewed as the best in the world.”

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