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Measuring the success of mega infrastructure

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Since 2005, the OMEGA Centre at The Bartlett School of Planning has been pioneering ways to appraise and evaluate critical mega infrastructure in the face of 21st century challenges.

Measuring the success of mega infrastructure

Trains on the tracks, Manhattan, New York, USA.

Credit: Alistair MacRobert for Unsplash

Professor Harry Dimitriou has been questioning the orthodox mantra of mega infrastructure projects – that the criteria for success is ‘delivery on time, on budget and to specification’ – since the 1990s, when he was advising the Hong Kong Government on its Metroplan Strategy prior to the territory’s handover to mainland China in 1997.

Such a narrow criteria obscures the reality, he says, “that projects of this scale (US$1bn and up) are ultimately political – subject to the changing political, economic, social and environmental contexts in which they are planned and delivered”. Left to the ‘iron-triangle’ of traditional project management, he says, “such approaches are in danger of delivering the wrong kinds of projects, in the wrong place, to the wrong people, at the wrong time”.

Professor Dimitriou is Director of the OMEGA Centre, which was set up within The Bartlett School of Planning in 2005 with funding from the Volvo Research and Education Foundations (VREF) to investigate this complexity. “From the outset, my premise was that too many architects, engineers and planners involved in mega infrastructure projects erroneously believed they could design and manage-out risks by treating them as ‘closed systems’ as opposed to ‘open systems’, which better reflect the uncertainties that surround decision-making.”

Such approaches are in danger of delivering the wrong kinds of projects, in the wrong place, to the wrong people, at the wrong time.

Professor Harry Dimitriou

Measuring the success of mega infrastructure

Traffic-light trails on the motorway.

Credit: Thaddaeus Lim for Unsplash

He was joined in 2006 by an “excellent team of researchers” at The Bartlett School of Planning – notably Richard Oades, Phil Wright and Dr. John Ward – and together they examined the thesis that other professions and disciplines that had long recognised risk, uncertainty and complexity to be at the milieu of decision-making in their own ‘megaprojects’, might offer better insights into how to plan and appraise resilient infrastructure. Examples included military and security projects, contagious diseases and public health studies, ecological and environmental investigations, and earthquake engineering and insurance studies.

Drawing on these insights, the OMEGA Centre team set the terms of their investigation: they aimed to reframe the planning and appraisal of investments (especially mega transport projects) by placing uncertainty, complexity and risk analysis at the heart of decision-making rather than at the periphery.

With a VREF grant of SEK 30 million (about £3m) to investigate 30 mega transport infrastructure projects in 10 countries in the developed world – including the Channel Tunnel, Jubilee Line extension and M6 toll motorway in the UK – the centre partnered with nine eminent overseas universities, staffing up an international team of 40 researchers. Over five years, they interviewed 300 senior stakeholders (managers, investors, politicians), asking them to tell the story of their decision-making experiences and to respond to a seemingly obvious but elusive question: ‘what constitutes a “successful” mega transport project?’.

To help analyse the data collected, the centre recruited a group of ex-IBM software specialists to identify knowledge patterns gathered from the narratives. The idea was to contrast and compare these with the messages found in academic, professional and government publications in the public domain.

Agents of change

When the project concluded its research, what emerged was a “complex message” says Professor Dimitriou. “Among other things, we were asking the stakeholders we interviewed to give us their views in retrospect – to look at the socio-environmental, economic landscapes that shaped their decision-making; and to judge these projects as ‘agents of change’, as well as physical infrastructures.”

It is a message that resonates much more with today’s concerns about sustainable development than at the time the research was conducted.

Professor Harry Dimitriou

Measuring the success of mega infrastructure

Inside view of a train tunnel.

[PPPs] are favoured vehicles for the mega-infrastructure projects by international investors awash with surplus capital and looking to bridge the ‘global infrastructure gap’ as a depositary for their investment.

Professor Harry Dimitriou

The responses did not match neatly with the ‘on time, on budget, to spec’ narrative. Instead, they pointed to conclusions that suggested that megaprojects should be judged against a much broader set of criteria – one that also relates to measures of developmental impacts rather than delivery alone, highlighting issues of concern that have increasing resonance today.

Concerns included agglomeration effects, social equity matters, and the environmental impacts of climate change, carbon footprints and energy consumption. “In other words, a much more complex and difficult message to disseminate than that which many governments and project promoters, plus the media, would have us understand, or what the public in many instances, wants to hear,” says Professor Dimitriou. “Nonetheless, it is a message that has much more relevance with today’s concerns about sustainable development than at the time the research was conducted.”

That resonance has been borne out over time. So much so, that The Bartlett faculty, with the support of VREF, agreed to fund the design and development of a Master’s programme based on the OMEGA Centre’s findings (today’s Infrastructure Planning, Appraisal and Development MSc offered by The Bartlett School of Planning). 102 students have attended the MSc since 2011, while its various modules attract some 80 students per year both from across the faculty and other UCL departments.

A PhD programme in Mega Infrastructure Studies – also part-funded by VREF – has graduated more than 15 students worldwide since it was initiated. The centre also runs the OMEGA Seminar Programme, which is open to the public and which, to date, has hosted around 50 contributions from national and international infrastructure practitioners and researchers.

Measuring the success of mega infrastructure

A cable-stayed bridge.

Credit: Pierre Châtel-Innocenti for Unsplash

The centre’s consultancy arm (OMEGA Consultants – UCLC) has been approached by a number of national and international parties to advise them on mega infrastructure developments. Among those in the UK are: HM Treasury/Infrastructure-UK and the Institution of Civil Engineers and Actuary Profession. Overseas, the Californian Department of Transportation has sought the centre’s views on its fast-train project proposals; and in Sweden, the OMEGA Executive Summary Report on decision-making has been used as guidance in the Swedish Transport Administration’s reviews for the possible investment of fast-train rail links, connecting Stockholm with Oslo and Gothenburg. The mega infrastructure division of the Inter-American Development Bank is also using the centre’s research to make its mega-infrastructure investment programme in Latin America more inclusive.

For the Urban and Regional Development Division of the European Investment Bank (EIB), OMEGA has developed a policy-led, multi-criteria appraisal framework and handbook that are applied to EIB divisional investment projects requiring broader appraisal than that afforded by traditional techniques, such as cost-benefit analysis. Commissions from the EU Jaspers Advisory Programme have also seen the centre appraise major investment proposals in urban regeneration (for the Maltese Government) and for a major project in e-education for schools (for the Croatian Government). In both cases, these were examined from an agent-of-change perspective, as well as from an economic viability stance.

Inequitable infrastructure

The resonance of OMEGA’s message has gained recognition, albeit it slowly, since the 2007/8 global financial crisis, when the perils of not sufficiently internalising the risks and uncertainties of past financial modelling were there for all the world to see. This message – of the perils of ignoring the risks (and opportunities) spawned by rapidly changing decision-making contexts – is arguably gaining ground in the current context of Brexit and the Trump Presidency in the USA. Here Professor Dimitriou speculates that much investment in major infrastructure has been increasingly seen to favour the few rather than the many, creating distinct winners and losers.

“The winners are frequently associated with global commercial and industrial interests engaged in increasing geo-politically driven competition, and the latter with local communities who feel marginalised by the large infrastructure investments that traverse their territories and communities, rather than contributing to them positively,” he says.

He has communicated warnings on these issues to the World Economic Forum in his capacity as a member of its COE Council on Transformational Megaprojects, particularly in the context of Public Private Partnerships. “These are favoured vehicles for mega-infrastructure projects by international investors awash with surplus capital and looking to bridge the ‘global infrastructure gap’ as a depositary for their investment.”

Inspired by the findings of more than a decade’s worth of OMEGA Centre research, members of the team at The Bartlett, together with some of its overseas partners, are to launch a new Routledge international journal, Mega Infrastructure & Sustainable Development, in June 2019. Its aim, he says, is to encourage knowledge-building and sharing, and to promote debate into how “broader and more sustainable views and practices of mega infrastructure planning, appraisal and delivery can be developed and applied, paying particular attention to the changing powers of context”.

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