Planning disasters big and small

When teaching cost benefit analysis, I ask my students if they think the Sydney Opera House should not have been built. It’s both an Australian icon and an extreme example of the kind of major project disasters that Bent Flyvbjerg has made his name analysing: massively over budget, massively delayed, destroyed the reputation of its architect, and isn’t well suited to its purpose. When I did the tour, the guide claimed that, due to the narrow footrpint, for ballet there were matresses placed in the wings for the dancers to cannon into as they leapt off stage, and people to catch them so they didn’t bounce back on stage.

In general, the problem with big (and small) infrastructure schemes is that they so often seem to be over-budget and delayed, and yet we need infrasttructure. And as Flyberg’s new book, How Big Things Get Done (written with Dan Gardner), points out, the same is true in everyday life of projects like home extensions and refurbishments. The book has a few examples of successful major projects – like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, or the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport. What distinguishes these from the far more numerous disasters?

The advice is easy to write down: be clear about what you want to achieve with the project; plan with as much care and detail as you can; forecast costs on the basis of what similar projects have actually cost on average; make sure you have an experienced project team that can deliver quickly when they get the green light. For big projects – although not your new kitchen – make the activity as modular as possible, for example by manufacturing components offsite. Technology and the use of digital twins and offsite manufacture should help a lot on infrastructure projects – this seems to have been key to Gehry’s consistent success.

This all sounds like common sense, but is obviously harder to achieve in practice. I thought the element missing from this book was the political economy of why it is so hard to do projects well. Peter Hall’s (1980) Great Planning Disasters is still a must read on this front. Having said that, I very much enjoyed How Big Things Get Done. Recommended, and particularly if you’re planning home improvements.