My Week

Of Hammers and Nails

If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail!   But the reverse can also be true as I found this week.  If you have a nail you cast around for what can be pressed into service as a hammer (A meat tenderiser works well.)  

My philosophical nail is the problem of sound infrastructure decision making and it turns out that, even when I think I am taking time out to relax, the hammer search continues.

1.   “13 Minutes to the Moon”  

This is a new BBC podcast series that I am listening to that covers the planning and the almost decade-long lead up to the Apollo landing.  The ’13 Minutes’ refers to the last 13 minutes before the landing when a number of times problems arose and it very nearly didn’t happen.   Although you know the end of the story, the premise behind this podcast is that few of us really know the beginning.  It is a documentary style podcast with lots of audio clips from those involved at the time. Good to listen to.

It got me thinking.

JFK’s decision to put a man on the moon is regarded as the classical successful mega project, not only because he did what was considered an almost impossible task but achieving it generated magnificent technology spinoffs, moving America way ahead of the world in technology. However, there was a more serious reason for the project that went beyond mere scientific curiosity.  The US needed to regain the upper hand in the Space Race where the USSR had made some spectacular early gains, gains causing anxiety in the American people as well as defence concerns for the government.  Americans were used to thinking of themselves as the pre-eminent ‘can do’ people of the world and these early moves by the USSR were impacting morale. So, in that sense, JFK’s announcement could be considered a successful move whether or not Apollo actually landed on the moon.  (At election times, how many mega project announcements could be seen simply for their announcement value?)

I started to think of other successful mega projects, like the building of the Panama Canal. Again there were multiple layers of reasons for the project    defence, trade, global power, engineering daring do    and, of course, the use of new and untried technology to solve both anticipated and unanticipated problems. 

It led me to ask the question – what are the characteristics of succesful mega projects?

2.   Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Maybe it was thoughts of engineering success, or maybe the resurgence of interest in rail projects recently (the Very Fast Train, the Inland Freight Rail Track, the Melbourne Metro Loop), but my thoughts turned to the legendary Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who, amongst other things, masterminded the rise of rail in the UK.  I wasn’t many pages into Steven Brindle’s “Brunel: The Man Who Built the World (Phoenix Press, 2006) before I started to see parallels with the time in which Brunel lived and where we are now.

When Brunel was born, (1806) England had just won a great naval victory against France – using wooden ships powered by wind!  Most people at that time travelled by horse power and buildings were made of brick or stone. By the time he died in 1859

“ iron-hulled and steam-powered ships had arrived, pioneering new materials and methods of construction had been utilised in the fabrication of buildings that – in their scale and design – were like nothing man had ever constructed before and the road and the canal were being challenged by the new railway system with horse power gradually being replaced by steam power.”  Brindle, Steven. “Brunel: The Man Who Built the World (Phoenix Press).

The Age of Disruption

The changes that occurred during the 50 odd years that Brunel lived,  relatively speaking – power, transport, organisation and governance – were, at the very least, as disruptive as those that we face today.  The era of steam, iron and rail was just beginning and Brunel ran with it.  

What, I wonder, would Brunel be doing today? 

I doubt that he would be building rail (the equivalent of the status quo wind powered wooden ships in Brunel’s time).  Maybe he would be designing track for automated driverless cars and carriages, and building in solar energy access. Or maybe implementing the Hyper-Loop?  In any case, would he not be advancing the state of technology?

Which brings me to ask the following questions:  

  • Do mega projects need a technology advancement component to be successful, especially today, when technology is driving everything? 

  • What other mega trends, if any (climate change, demographics) trump this or can/should they also feature? 

  • Does a mega project require a ‘mega’ purpose – e.g. defence, global domination, economic  or environmental survival?

5 Thoughts on “My Week

  1. For government, mega-projects require mega-funding and mega time (compared to electoral cycles. Consequently political commitment is predicated on popular support. So yes to mega purpose.

    For enterprise and government the technological advancement is not the key, but the opportunity it provides. Technology creates demand for the new or better service offering and a race is spawned to fulfil the demand before other’s do – competition at it’s most fine, so yes to technology.

    Where humanitarian and intelligent response requires a maga-action, the role of media is vital in generating support, and demand for the action. It seems unlikely that acts for the longer-term good of people will trump responses to fear and self interest, but I’m confident that we will find a way to do both, if not well, at least adequately.

  2. David Ness on June 18, 2019 at 8:16 pm said:

    I wonder if lots of small-scale projects at community level can deliver more value than mega projects? For example, small scale distributed solar energy hubs versus a mega solar tower with acres of solar panels. The same applies to wind. In windy Taiwan, I saw lots of ‘micro-turbines mounted on (solar) light poles around the city and university and integrated into housing.
    Such smaller distributed infrastructure can also involve the community more in its planning, fabrication and ongoing management , ‘generating’ more local employment. Mega projects often involve outside contractors.
    ‘Small is beautiful’, as Schumacher wrote!

    • Penny on June 19, 2019 at 9:47 am said:

      But a mega project creates quite a splash and it will be many years before the social, environmental and financial costs are really known, so politically it is a winner! What could be our counter-play?

  3. Roger Harrop on June 19, 2019 at 9:37 am said:

    Very interesting reflection Penny.

    We have the opportunity to choose in the transport setting, as in many other services, the technology we apply – to stay with the way we’ve done it so far or be open to establishing new ways that “break the mould”. Isambard certainly did that.

    While Victoria’s massive investment in its metro rail system underway now will assist the current system to function far better, it would be smart to consider alternatives such as Hyperloop for the next set of Victorian initiatives such as the proposed outer circle line and the Tullamarine airport link.

    These projects can stand quite apart from the existing rail system , while seriously supplementing it, would benefit from the on-demand nature that Hyperloop supports and would be far more flexibly incorporated into either existing transport reservations or when traversing our existing suburban built environment.

    As these proposals are in their inception stage, we have the time tlo carefully research their feasibility and to consider taking new approaches to our basic urban services. We should!

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