Global megaprojects are a defining feature of modern society. This article will delve into the subject of global megaprojects, providing an overview of current projects and discussing the benefits, downsides, and impact of these major infrastructure projects.
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With the explosion in urban populations comes the need to provide infrastructure on a massive scale for inhabitants. Roads, tunnels, dams, rail networks, airports, power plants, and even entire cities are all required, and the budget for these far exceeds the infrastructure of the past. A loose definition of a megaproject is that it costs over $1 billion, but in the case of developing nations, a megaproject can cost less (say, in the region of $100 million.)
A more general definition of a megaproject is that it is a project that is characterized by a large investment commitment, is vastly complex in terms of organization, and has a long-lasting impact on society, the economy, and the environment. A megaproject can be both the construction of infrastructure and the decommissioning of the previous infrastructure on a large scale which can run into costs of millions of dollars, are highly complex, and are affected by techno-socio-economic factors.
The Value of Megaprojects
Parag Khanna, a global strategist, has stated that we are becoming a globally networked civilization. Khanna points out that we are currently living off an infrastructure stock intended for 3 billion people, but the global population is growing to near 9 billion. According to Khanna, we should be spending around $1 trillion dollars per 1 billion people on basic infrastructure to support the global population.
To put the value of global infrastructure into context, the combined global military spending and defense budgets total around $2 trillion. Global infrastructure spending is predicted to rise to around $9 trillion, a figure nearly 5 times the combined global budget for defense and military spending. According to Bent Flyvbjerg of the University of Oxford, spending on megaprojects currently constitutes around 8% of global GDP.
Asian economies have taken the lead with infrastructure spending, and indeed many megaprojects in that part of the world are currently in the stages of planning or development. In 2015, China announced the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank. This is part of a network of organizations that aim to expand the economy of Asian countries with international links around the world.
The rapid development of megaprojects means that governments and the private sector are likely to spend more on infrastructure over the next 40 years than has been spent in the entirety of the last 4,000 years.
Megaprojects: Benefits and Drawbacks
Advantages of megaprojects include fostering technical innovation and inspiration, pushing the boundaries of technology and engineering, creating employment and job opportunities, economic benefits, political accomplishment, civic pride, and lastly, megaprojects can have aesthetic value.
However, as these projects are grand in scale they possess drawbacks, which can be fairly major. Firstly, projects often experience cost overruns, which in the most extreme examples can lead to the cancellation of large parts of the project or even the entire project itself. Project leaders can underestimate the cost and overstate income, as well as exaggerate future economic and social benefits. This is in part due to a lack of accountability and risk-sharing mechanisms.
Secondly, megaprojects have a huge environmental impact. Construction materials (especially concrete, steel, and glass) require the exploitation of largely virgin resources and their manufacture emits greenhouse gases. Land use can lead to vulnerable ecosystems being destroyed, such as valleys being flooded during dam construction and expanding global megacities destroying forest biomes. Land reclamation in coastal megaprojects, for example in Dubai, can cause damage to marine ecosystems.
Additionally, there is a social cost. Populations need to be relocated, usually to urban areas, and the infrastructure must exist to support individuals who are affected by compulsory purchase orders and the loss of land and communities they have depended on their entire life. Good project management will account for all of these issues, but the scale and complexity of megaprojects mean that not all the issues can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
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A Look at Current Megaprojects
There are some notable megaprojects that have either been recently completed or are still in the process of completion. Examples include bridges, business districts, power plants, high-speed rail systems, dams and locks, and sustainable, high-tech, innovative eco-cities.
Forest City in Malaysia, which is due for completion in 2040, is an ambitious eco-city concept, spanning 3.8 square miles. The city makes extensive use of biophilic design, with buildings almost entirely covered in greenery. Once completed, Forest City is envisioned to house around 700,000 people at a cost upwards of $100 billion, making use of smart, green technologies.
In California, a High-Speed Rail project is under construction. With current cost estimates of $77 billion and an estimated completion date of 2030, the project aims to link Los Angeles and San Francisco in under 3 hours. The trains will be 100% electric and travel the 800-mile long track at speeds of up to 200 mph. In the UK, the HS2 project aims to connect London with the North of England at a cost of £72-98 billion and with an expected completion date of 2035-2040.
The world’s longest sea bridge has been completed in Hong Kong at a cost of $10 billion. Composed of a network of tunnels, bridges, and artificial islands, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge is 26 miles long and cuts travel times between the three provinces by 80%. In the Netherlands, Delta Works, a 10,250 mile-long system of dams and locks, is slated for completion in 2100 at a cost of $150 billion, which will prevent this low-lying nation from the effects of climate change and flooding.
Crossing an Ocean: The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge
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Megaprojects are not just vast in scale: the James Webb Space Telescope, which was recently launched with a mission to reveal the very earliest moments of the Universe and search for evidence of life in the cosmos, cost $9 billion and can therefore be classed as a megaproject due to its expense, complexity, and benefits.
With many megaprojects in the works, governments and the private sector are rising to the challenges of the modern world. As the world population grows exponentially, the need for megaprojects to provide key infrastructure will likely grow. Additionally, the impact of human activity on the environment (and, consequently, the impact of megaproject themselves) will facilitate the need for megaprojects that have sustainability at the core of their vision.
Further Reading and More Information
Wang, G et al. (2017) Exploring the impact of megaproject environmental responsibility on organizational citizenship behaviors for the environment: A social identity perspective [online] International Journal of Project Management 35(7) pp. 1042-1414 | sciencedirect.com. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0263786317305033?via%3Dihub
Bigrentz, Inc. (2018) The World’s Most Innovative Mega Construction Projects [online] bigrentz.com. Available at: https://www.bigrentz.com/blog/most-innovative-megaprojects