Bent into Recognition…Building smarter means thinking slower and smaller
You probably have yet to hear of Bent Flyvbjerg (why should you have), but Bent is a force to be reckoned with, Over recent years Professor Flyvbjerg has published some startling research on why public construction initiatives so often go wrong in practice: either stumbling to a halt, or coming in, as he puts it concisely, "over schedule, over budget, and under benefit…time and time again". It's because of what he calls The Iron Law of Mega projects, and his Iron Law applies at an astonishingly high level, with ferrous rigidity, to almost all infrastructure programmes.
Just think about the new(ish) Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh: commissioned in the run-up to the 1997 devolution referendum, it was expected to cost between £10 Million and £40 Million, but in fact, wasn't opened until 2004 (seventeen years later) and cost an eye-watering £430 million (more than 1000% over budget). How could scores of seemingly highly skilled construction companies, quantity surveyors, and project managers have got it all so wrong?
And then, of course, there's the Channel Tunnel: finally delivered in 1994 (nine years after commissioning) with an 80% cost overrun - 66% of it referable to construction works - this benchmark project sparked off a bitter dispute between its main contractors (including Balfour Beatty) when capital funding and stage payments eventually dried up: resulting in a purpose-built (Belgian) arbitration process that went on to hoover up still more time and costs. In 1985 terms, the Channel Tunnel cost £4.65 Billion to build, making it twice as expensive as Crossrail and four times more than HS2 (in today's money)…and HS2 hasn't even been built yet, so lord knows what white elephant will be lumbering down the line next.
Let's not forget that major infrastructure initiatives don't just mean passable vanity projects like the Scottish Parliament, the Channel Tunnel, and HS2…they include, perhaps most importantly, public housing programmes in an age of increasing homelessness too. And when public housing is as badly managed and inexpertly delivered as its vanity counterparts, that has real daily consequences for us all. There are currently 1.6 Billion people worldwide who are either homeless or in dire housing need, and we can't afford to botch up the delivery of an effective solution to that continuing human tragedy.
Happily, though, Bent Flyvbjerg appears to have found a way of halting the inevitable progress of all those white elephants: mapping out a way to build better and create a better future for us all.
His Iron Law of Mega projects holds that governmental and major commercial bodies (including our old friends, the dinosaur contractors) have consistently overestimated benefits and underestimated costs during the process of infrastructure planning: and that's due to an intrinsic tension between political and operational interests (a sort of bureaucratic death spiral), which results in contractors over-promising on bottom line costs, and governments repeatedly under-delivering on targets (including affordable housing targets). So what looks good on paper doesn't always convert into best practice…. As a result of those tensions, it very rarely does. This means more people sleeping rough on cold pavements or, at best, surfing from sofa to sofa in search of a roof over their heads…and more white elephants coming down the track.
A Deconstructive Solution
Flyvbjerg proposes a deconstructive solution, taking the entire process back to its basic nuts and bolts and building back better from the ground up: "de-biasing" the planning process and focusing instead on the basic components of the individual structures that need to be built. That introduces a sense of practical reality into what would otherwise be an unwieldy, multi-layered project by adopting a process of thinking slower but smarter.
It's been tested in real life recently with the construction of a series of new school buildings in Nepal's virtually inaccessible high uplands (a topography which would present a major headache for any planner): and here's the point…that was achieved using modular construction technologies.
Because (and you've heard it here before), when it comes to de-biasing and getting down to the nuts and bolts of construction, nothing is more effective than modular construction: individual components are prefabricated off-site in environmentally controlled conditions and then assembled where they're needed at a third of the cost (and three times more quickly) than any plodding dinosaur could ever hope to match…even in their wildest dreams.
And that, of course, is something or an Iron Law too…
Building back better, creating a brighter future, is no longer a pipe dream: we can achieve it by building smarter with a clearer focus on the small things that make bigger things happen.