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What Are Megaprojects?

Megaprojects are not just magnified versions of smaller projects. Megaprojects are a completely different species

Megaprojects are large-scale, complex ventures that typically cost a billion dollars or more, take many years to develop and build, involve multiple public and private stakeholders, are transformational, and impact millions of people.

Economist Albert Hirschman called such projects “privileged particles of the development process” and pointed out that often they are “trait making.” That is, they are designed to ambitiously change the structure of society, as opposed to smaller and more conventional projects that are “trait taking,” i.e., they fit into pre-existing structures and do not attempt to modify these.*

Megaprojects, therefore, are not just magnified versions of smaller projects. Megaprojects are a completely different species in terms of their level of aspiration, lead times, complexity, and stakeholder involvement.

Just like you would not want someone with only a driver’s license to fly a jumbo jet, you don’t want conventional project managers to manage megaprojects

Consequently, they are also a very different type of project to manage. A colleague likes to say that if managers of conventional projects need the equivalent of a driver’s license to do what they do then managers of megaprojects need a pilot’s jumbo jet license. And just like you would not want someone with only a driver’s license to fly a jumbo, you don’t want conventional project managers to manage megaprojects.

Megaprojects are increasingly used as the preferred delivery model for goods and services across a range of businesses and sectors, like infrastructure, water and energy, information technology, industrial processing plants, mining, supply chains, enterprise systems, strategic corporate initiatives and change programs, mergers and acquisitions, government administrative systems, banking, defense, intelligence, air and space exploration, big science, urban regeneration, and major events.

Examples of megaprojects are high-speed rail lines, airports, seaports, motorways, hospitals, national health or pension ICT systems, big change programs, national broadband, the Olympics, large-scale signature architecture, new towns, dams, wind farms, offshore oil and gas extraction, aluminum smelters, the development of new aircrafts, the largest container and cruise ships, high-energy particle accelerators, and the logistics systems used to run large supply-chain-based companies like Amazon and Maersk.

The cost of just a couple of the largest megaprojects in the world will dwarf almost any other economic figure, and certainly any investment figure

To illustrate just how big megaprojects are, consider one of the largest dollar figures from public economic debate, the size of US debt to China. This debt is around one trillion US dollars and is considered so large it may destabilize the world economy if the debt is not managed prudently. With this supersize yardstick, now consider the fact that the combined cost of just two of the world’s largest megaprojects — the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft program and China’s high-speed rail project — is also approximately a trillion dollars. The cost of just a couple of the largest megaprojects in the world will dwarf almost any other economic figure, and certainly any investment figure.

“Mega” comes from the Greek word “megas” and means great, large, vast, big, high, tall, mighty, and important

However, not only are megaprojects large, they are constantly growing ever larger in a long historical trend with no end in sight. When New York’s Chrysler Building opened in 1930 at 319 meters it was the tallest building in the world. The record has since been surpassed seven times and from 1998 the tallest building has significantly been located in emerging economies with Dubai’s Burj Khalifa presently holding the record at 828 meters. That is a 160 percent increase in building height over 80 years. Similarly, the longest bridge span has grown even faster, by 260 percent over approximately the same period. Measured by value, the size of infrastructure projects has grown by 1.5 to 2.5 percent annually in real terms over the past century, which is equivalent to a doubling in project size two to three times per century.

The size of ICT projects, the new kid on the block, has grown much faster, as illustrated by a 16-fold increase from 1993 to 2009 in lines of code in Microsoft Windows, from five to 80 million lines. Other types of megaprojects, from the Olympics to industrial projects, have seen similar developments. Coping with increased scale is therefore a constant and pressing issue in megaproject management.

“Mega” comes from the Greek word “megas” and means great, large, vast, big, high, tall, mighty, and important. As a scientific and technical unit of measurement “mega” specifically means a million. If we were to use this unit of measurement in economic terms, then strictly speaking megaprojects would be million-dollar (or euro, pound, etc.) projects, and for more than a hundred years the largest projects in the world were indeed measured mostly in the millions. This changed markedly with the Second World War, Cold War, and Space Race. Project costs now escalated to the billions, led by the Manhattan Project (1939–46), a research and development program that produced the first atomic bomb, and later the Apollo program (1961–72), which landed the first humans on the moon. According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of the term “megaproject” was in 1976, but before that, from 1968, “mega” was used in “megacity” and later, from 1982, as a standalone adjective to indicate “very large.”

The term “megaproject” caught on just as the largest projects technically were megaprojects no more, but, to be accurate, “gigaprojects” — “giga” being the unit of measurement meaning a billion. However, the term “gigaproject” never really caught on. A Google search reveals that the word “megaproject” is used 27 times more frequently on the web than the term “gigaproject”. For the largest of this type of project, costs of 50–100 billion dollars are now common, as for the California and UK high-speed rail projects, and costs above 100 billion dollars not uncommon, as for the International Space Station and the Joint Strike Fighter. If they were nations, projects of this size would rank among the world’s top 100 countries measured by gross domestic product, larger than the economies of, for example, Kenya or Guatemala. When projects of this size go wrong, whole companies and national economies suffer.

There’s no indication the relentless drive to scale is abating in megaproject development. Quite the opposite; scale seems to be accelerating

“Tera” is the next unit up, as the measurement for a trillion (a thousand billion). Recent developments in the size of the very largest projects and programs indicate we may presently be entering the “tera era” of large-scale project management. If we consider as projects the stimulus packages that were launched by the United States, Europe, and China to mitigate the effects of the 2008 financial and economic crises, then we may speak of trillion-dollar projects and thus of “teraprojects.” Similarly, if the major acquisition program portfolio of the United States Department of Defense — which is valued over a trillion dollars — is considered a large-scale project, then this, again, would be a teraproject. Projects of this size compare with the GDP of the world’s top 20 nations, similar in size to the national economies of for example Australia or Canada. There is no indication that the relentless drive to scale is abating in megaproject development. Quite the opposite; scale seems to be accelerating.

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*) For full references and to read more, see here: https://bit.ly/2TO7AUs

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Bent Flyvbjerg

Bent Flyvbjerg

Professor at University of Oxford and IT University of Copenhagen. Writes about project management. https://www.linkedin.com/in/flyvbjerg/

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