On one side of the paradox, megaprojects as a delivery model for public and private ventures have never been more in demand, and the size and frequency of megaprojects have never been larger. On the other side, performance in megaproject management is strikingly poor and has not improved for the 70-year period for which comparable data are available, at least not when measured in terms of cost overruns, schedule delays, and benefit shortfalls. 1
For six days in March of 2021, the world watched with a mixture of frustration and glee as global shipping and logistics ground to halt when a very large boat got very stuck inside the Suez Canal. Some offered sardonic solutions, including:, “My ambitious plan to free the boat is to push a huge cotton swab up the canal” (@karlesharks). Others welcome the simplicity of the event, noting, “The boat? It's just stuck. Stuff won't go. Boat needs to be not stuck. That's it” (@hpheisler). The legibility of the problem (a very big and very stuck boat in a narrow canal), and the magnitude of its effect, was undergirded by a complex system of global shipping trade. The Suez is one canal amongst hundreds that carry an estimated 70% of all global freight. In 2015, this accounted for 75.6 trillion tonne-kilometers (a freight measure for moving 1000kg one kilometer).
The central problem with the ship (the Ever Given) blocking the canal was not that it was stuck, but that it became stuck in a critical choke point in the larger, planetary network of freight movement. Garrett Dash Nelson’s glitch app, which allowed users to transpose the ship anywhere on the globe, made clear the relatively small scale of the ship in relation to the global scale of disruption in logistics networks helped make an otherwise abstract event immediately legible for those who used it.
The Suez Canal, along with several other major canals and shipping lanes, is a global chokepoint, a critical node in the global shipping system that, when incapacitated, can upend commerce at a planetary scale. Chokepoints like this are emblematic of the kind of robust-yet-fragile systems that global capitalism produces. Nearly 12% of global shipping trade passes through the Suez canal annually, accounting for over a trillion dollars worth of goods. 4 The blockage of the canal instantly became a worldwide concern, with countries as far as New Zealand issuing governmental reports on the importance of the canal, detailing the impacts a prolonged blockage would have on global trade and crude measures of economic health like gross domestic product. 5 Beyond the estimated 9.6 billion dollars lost per day during the six days of zero traffic, it took nearly two weeks to clear the backlog of ships waiting on either side of the canal. 6 For the first time since the canal’s completion in 1869, an industrial scale maritime path between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean was not available. The economic power of global shipping trade came to be reflected in a single infrastructural project during the blockage. The completion of the Suez Canal, over 150 years, radically altered the pathways of global shipping, spurring a cascade of adjustments to neighboring industries, geographies, and economies, a cascade whose full effects were not recognized until the canal was no longer operational.
- 2“Global Freight Demand to Triple by 2050.”The Maritime Executive. The Maritime Executive, May 27, 2019. https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/global-freight-demand-to-tri….
- 3Nelson, Garrett Dash. Ever Given Everywhere. Glitch, n.d. https://evergiven-everywhere.glitch.me/.
- 4Russon, Mary-Ann. “The Cost of the Suez CANAL BLOCKAGE.” BBC News. BBC, March 29, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-56559073.
- 5New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “The Importance of the Suez Canal to Global Trade -18 April 2021.” New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2021. https://www.mfat.govt.nz/en/trade/mfat-market-reports/market-reports-mi….
- 6Neuman, Scott, and Jackie Northam. “How a Long Shutdown of the Suez Canal Might Have Roiled the Global Economy.” NPR. NPR, March 29, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/03/26/981600153/heres-how-a-long-shutdown-of-t….
Despite its enormous impact on global shipping, The Suez Canal is not considered a megaproject. A megaproject is commonly understood as any project that has nominally spent at least one billion USD on its research, development, and implementation.
This definition brings some clarity to the question of “what is a megaproject?” while raising others. It creates a clear, universal analysis for projects that are not solely infrastructural (military investments into weapons, new aircraft, and spacecraft) while pulling together the empire-building projects of contemporary nation-state actors and neoliberal capital investments alike. It allows one to place disparate projects in disparate places alongside each other, opening up comparative analyses that would otherwise be exceptionally difficult if not altogether impossible. Definitionally, the physical infrastructures and technologies that comprise megaprojects require massive investment programs to enact—many of which are channeled through instruments of foreign-direct investment and national or multinational development banks. These practices often trap developing nations in debt cycles.
Major military conflicts of the 20th century, and the government-backed funding into new military technologies, saw the scale of funding for projects jump from millions into billions, with the term “megaproject” first being used in 1976 to describe the immense spending of 20th century governments.
But focusing solely on the nominal cost of a project severely limits the historical scope of megaprojects, rendering them a product of the 20th and 21st century even as we approach the era of teraprojects (1 trillion dollar projects). Megaproject scholar, Brent Flyvbjerg, challenges this approach, noting how projects of this magnitude “are designed to ambitiously change the structure of society, as opposed to smaller and more conventional projects that are ‘trait taking’, that is, they fit into pre-existing structures and do not attempt to modify these.” 11 A simplified example is flying cars versus self-driving cars. Self-driving cars better utilize existing road infrastructure, bending to its existing rule set, while flying cars would radically alter how we move through cities and require an entire new legal and infrastructural schema to institute safely. One is a product of existing political economies. The other is intended to radically restructure them.
Megaprojects, under Flyvbjerg’s definition, operate at local, regional, and global scales, seeking to fundamentally alter markets, political formations, and everything else that implies. This framing allows for historical inquiries into projects that do not meet the nominal threshold of one billion dollars to be considered: the Suez canal, adjusted for inflation would have cost over two billion dollars today. It also opens the category up to colonial projects in Africa, whose explicit goals were to reshape the African continent, both physically and socially, for the benefit of the European elite. It helpfully reorients one’s analysis away from project costs and toward project impacts.
- 8Flyvbjerg, Bent. “What You Should Know about Megaprojects and Why: An Overview.” Project Management Journal 45, no. 2 (2014): 6–19. https://doi.org/10.1002/pmj.21409.
- 9Link to FDI essay
- 10Flyvbjerg, Bent. “What You Should Know about Megaprojects and Why: An Overview.” Project Management Journal 45, no. 2 (2014): 6–19. https://doi.org/10.1002/pmj.21409.
- 11Flyvbjerg, Bent. “What You Should Know about Megaprojects and Why: An Overview.” Project Management Journal 45, no. 2 (2014): 6–19. https://doi.org/10.1002/pmj.21409.
If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in. 12
- 12 Eskenazi , Joe. “The Canary Is Dead: With the Central Subway Project, the Only Way out Is Through.” SF Weekly, August 14, 2013. https://www.sfweekly.com/news/the-canary-is-dead-with-the-central-subwa….
Flyvbjerg’s more lenient framing of megaprojects rooted in societal impact rather than strict monetary value illuminates the role designers have played in reimagining and restructuring social and spatial relations through the built environment. Given the scale, complexity, and funding requirements, traditionally defined megaprojects are often the purview of civil and structural engineers. The Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building and the only megaproject delivered through a single building, is a notable exception to the list.
Historically, groups like Archigram in Britain, Superstudio in Italy, and the Metabolists in Japan, have reimagined urban formations on grand scales. Their designs sought to reconfigure social relations around newly developed and imagined technologies, taking on social life as a core aspect of design. To address the social sphere required scaling up architectural concerns from that of a single building to that of the city and life itself. Archigram, in particular, had a utopic bent that focused on the ways people lived and worked in harmony with the machinic potential of new cities.
Peter Cook, one of the group's core members, developed Plug-In City, not just as a drawn provocation, but as a system that could be deployed and developed within the existing fabric of 1960s London. Funding for the project never arrived, nor was it seriously sought after for the seemingly fantastical proposal, but that was not a factor of its constructability.
Architectural theorist Reyner Banham, in his 1976 book, Megastructure, alludes to the ongoing jump in scale from that of a designed city, to a designed continent, and finally to a designed planet. He describes North America as “the part of the world that had problems vast enough to require ‘visionary’ solutions and the biggest technological resources for dealing with them, and that sheer dimensional bigness was an essential part of the solution to these continent-sized problems.” 15 Fantastic proposals like those of the 1960s and 1970s have only increased in scale in the face of the climate crisis, leading to speculative designs for planetary geoengineering all across the globe. These projects range from pure technological deployments, like using giant carbon capture machines in Switzerland, to the deployment of aerosols throughout the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back. 16 Some designers have begun to consider the planet a design object, a system to be endlessly probed from the architect's drafting table. BIG’s masterplanet is one such proposal to carefully masterplan the entire planet.
Architectural critic Kate Wagner notes the similarity between the plague of issues today and the 1960s when these imaginaries were last palatable, concluding, “It’s no surprise that half-baked ideas from this former period have re-emerged in their current, even less inspiring forms.” 17 Wagner’s core complaint with the contemporary resurgence of speculative design strategies is not with their focus on utopian visions, but with the focus on overproduced images as a meaningful form of change. These images leverage visions of new futures seemingly devoid of the multilayered systems of oppression, (racial capitalism, settler colonialism, and imperialism) while deploying the same techno-solutionism that has fueled the Climate Crisis. Older utopian visionaries, like William Blake, investigated how projects were produced through labor as a key aspect of the utopian project. Built projects are imperative to meaningful and just change, and beyond their completion, how these projects are financed and constructed are core aspects of achieving climate justice. Gone are the days when Zaha Hadid can easily brush off the death of migrant workers building the World Cup Stadium she designed as “not my duty as an architect.” 18 This is to say, design imagery alone will not solve the Climate Crisis, no matter how sublime and charismatic the image or form might be. Designers must engage with the messy and imminently political processes of building support, gaining funding, and completing construction if they wish to play a meaningful role in addressing the Climate Crisis.
- 13Flyvbjerg, Bent. “What You Should Know about Megaprojects and Why: An Overview.” Project Management Journal 45, no. 2 (2014): 6–19. https://doi.org/10.1002/pmj.21409.
- 14“1960s Utopian Groups.” Spatial Agency, n.d. https://www.spatialagency.net/database/1960s.utopian.groups.
- 15Banham, Peter Reyner. Megastructure, 1976.
- 16Lubban, Alex. “3 Huge Geoengineering Projects Are under Way to Save the Planet.” VICE, July 26, 2017. https://www.vice.com/en/article/d3xkyz/3-huge-experiments-are-under-way….
- 17Wagner, Kate. “Why Does Utopian ARCHITECTURE SUCK?” The Nation, July 14, 2021. https://www.thenation.com/article/society/oceanix-city-architecture-meg….
- 18Quirk, Vanessa. “Zaha Hadid on Worker Deaths IN Qatar: ‘It's Not My Duty as an Architect.’” ArchDaily. ArchDaily, February 26, 2014. https://www.archdaily.com/480990/zaha-hadid-on-worker-deaths-in-qatar-i….
The scale, complexity, and breadth of stakeholders in megaprojects makes them notoriously difficult to manage from conceptual design, funding, construction, and demonstration of success. Flyvjberg identifies the “Iron Law of Megaprojects” as over budget, over time, over and over again. Backing this law is a dizzying statistic: 1 in 1000 megaprojects are finished on time, on budget, and with the promised benefits. Despite this difficulty, these projects are often high-profile and promise significant change for enormous numbers of people, making them the ideal bait for political self-congratulation even before the project is finished. Project costs are purposely underestimated to ensure buy-in from public constituents, especially in places like California where voters must approve all new taxation measures. Flyvjberg spears this practice by pointing to the importance placed on the sales pitch, how they look on paper, over the real-world achievable benefit, going on to say, “the projects that look best on paperare the projects with the largest cost underestimates and benefit overstatements.”
The “Iron Law of Megaprojects” remains true because of the practices politicians and contractors employ to ensure the projects are started in the first place. It is not uncommon for these projects to balloon from their original budgets to 50-100 billion dollars, figures which rank in the top 100 GDPs of countries.
Understanding the limitations of megaprojects to be implemented are crucial to effectively utilizing the massive amounts of money that are dumped into infrastructural projects across the globe. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates global infrastructure spending per year to be 3.4 trillion or 4% of total global GDP. That number is likely to rise in the face of the Climate Crisis and the ongoing fetishization of geoengineering, carbon capture and sequestration, and other technological fixes. 21 The percentage of GDP invested into megaprojects increases to 8% when adjacent industries are taken into account, meaning 1 in 12 dollars in the global economy are spent on one of these projects each year. This increase in GDP accompanies an increase in adjacent land use, incorporating the geographies of logistics beyond a project's immediate hard infrastructure. 22 Remaining undervalued in the monetarily-focused GDP statistic are the people, landscapes, and ways of life that surround and support these infrastructures. 23 The focus on hard infrastructure, the roads, bridges, locks, channels, etc. of mega infrastructures, has led Western media outlets and academics to point to China’s recent growth and urbanization as the reason for the astounding percentage of GDP aimed towards megaprojects. Often, these same journalists and scholars will point to China’s concrete usage, which between 2011 to 2013 purportedly was greater than the US’s concrete usage throughout the entire 20th century. 24 What these same critics leave out is that the US has been cutting back on domestic infrastructure spending for more than 40 years, and the percentage of billion-dollar projects headed by the Department of Defense, which range from new warfighting machines to an 11 billion dollar medical-administration-system overhaul. 25 Misaligning these two countries and their infrastructure spending as adversarial only contributes to the growing language of the Climate Cold War, 26 and will do little to meaningfully create cooperative climate infrastructure projects capable of mitigating the worst effects of the Climate Crisis.
Infrastructure spending is inherently a catalyst. It tends to spur additional investment, a phenomenon Mariana Mazuccato refers to as “crowding in” investment—the idea that public investment in any sector will inherently crowd in private sector investments. 27 Brian Davis, Rob Holmes, and Brett Milligan, utilize the Panama Canal Expansion to illuminate how changes in the scale of operations for megaprojects (both the original canal and its expansion qualify as megaprojects) cascade across different global and local geographies. 28 Following the expansion, the Army Corps of Engineers began deepening and widening the channels of ports along the East and Gulf Coasts to accommodate the larger vessels now able to pass through the isthmus of Panama. As the trio note, the focus on logistics, especially in the case of shipping infrastructure, “relies too heavily on mathematical abstractions that exclude, externalize, or otherwise bracket out material, social, and ecological concerns.” 29
- 19Flyvbjerg, Bent. “What You Should Know about Megaprojects and Why: An Overview.” Project Management Journal 45, no. 2 (2014): 6–19. https://doi.org/10.1002/pmj.21409
- 20Flyvbjerg, Bent. “What You Should Know about Megaprojects and Why: An Overview.” Project Management Journal 45, no. 2 (2014): 6–19. https://doi.org/10.1002/pmj.21409
- 21Flyvbjerg, Bent. “What You Should Know about Megaprojects and Why: An Overview.” Project Management Journal 45, no. 2 (2014): 6–19. https://doi.org/10.1002/pmj.21409
- 22Davis, Brian, Rob Holmes, and Brett Milligan. “Isthmus: On the Panama Canal Expansion.” Places Journal, December 1, 2015. https://placesjournal.org/article/isthmus-panama-canal-expansion/.
- 23Davis, Brian, Rob Holmes, and Brett Milligan. “Isthmus: On the Panama Canal Expansion.” Places Journal, December 1, 2015. https://placesjournal.org/article/isthmus-panama-canal-expansion/.
- 24Leslie, Jacques. “Tunnel to Nowhere.” The New Yorker, April 11, 2015. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/bertha-seattle-infrastructure-….
- 25 Leslie, Jacques. “Tunnel to Nowhere.” The New Yorker, April 11, 2015. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/bertha-seattle-infrastructure-….
- 26Link to Planetary Militarization
- 27Mazzucato, Mariana. Entrepreneurial State. Anthem Press, 2015.
- 28Davis, Brian, Rob Holmes, and Brett Milligan. “Isthmus: On the Panama Canal Expansion.” Places Journal, December 1, 2015. https://placesjournal.org/article/isthmus-panama-canal-expansion/.
- 29Davis, Brian, Rob Holmes, and Brett Milligan. “Isthmus: On the Panama Canal Expansion.” Places Journal, December 1, 2015. https://placesjournal.org/article/isthmus-panama-canal-expansion/.
Unfortunately, focusing on the logistics of a project often cuts out what happens beyond the site of construction, resource supply chains, and the routes between sites of extraction, manufacturing, and construction. People and places are reduced to their capacities with little concern for the impacts these projects will have on the material well-being. Introducing these concerns back into infrastructural projects will necessitate refusing to abstract landscape systems and peoples into the calculable language of logistics and instead focus on the material impacts of megaprojects in local economies, ecosystems, and lives as a determining factor in their success. For Davis, Holmes, and Milligan, landscape based approaches, which is to say focusing on the material realities of landscapes, “foregrounds the fact that certain values or uses are chosen over others, one way of life over many other possibilities.” 30 Methods that focus on the material context and alterations are a means to demystify the abstract language of finance and logistics. The question remains whether megaprojects are a useful infrastructural category for the Climate Crisis. The focus on massive, singularly located infrastructural projects occludes the deployment of more diffuse networks of infrastructure. The globally induced effects of the Climate Crisis will demand a distributed set of solutions that seeks to help those most harmed. Megaprojects may alter social patterns, but they are still endeavors where benefits are accumulated by a select few. An internationalist Green New Deal posits that it is better to have 10,000 globally distributed, democratically controlled one million dollar infrastructure projects, than 10 one billion projects delivered by governing elites and private consulting firms.
- 30Davis, Brian, Rob Holmes, and Brett Milligan. “Isthmus: On the Panama Canal Expansion.” Places Journal, December 1, 2015. https://placesjournal.org/article/isthmus-panama-canal-expansion/.