Innovation

Coronavirus: what building airports can teach us about how to respond

Failed airports could inform the public response.

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An unprecedented megaproject may be emerging before our eyes. While normally such projects focus on giant airports or awe-inspiring bridges, this project is targeted at saving lives through a global response to the coronavirus. Failure is not an option.

Fortunately, three University College London researchers last month wrote the definitive paper on why megaprojects fail. They published their research February 13 in Project Management Journal. The timing couldn’t have been better.

The coronavirus pandemic has swept the world over the past few months, with global cases breaking past 200,000 and national governments responding quickly to mitigate the worst effects. The American government has submitted funding requests that could total up to $1 trillion. The country’s Interstate Highway, arguably the most expensive construction project in human history, cost a comparatively measly $500 billion.

The stakes are also far higher. Coronavirus deaths topped 10,000 globally on March 20. Its mortality rate has been estimated by the World Health Organization as 3.4 percent. England’s chief medical officer has claimed that, in the worst-cast scenario, 80 percent of the United Kingdom’s population could become infected. Research from Imperial College London suggested that 2.2 million people in the United States could die in the worst-case scenario.

“We are probably dealing with the largest project of modern history, triggering an unprecedented cross-country collaboration,” Juliano Denicol, a lecturer in project management at University College London and one of the three authors, tells Inverse.

The coronavirus has spread around the world.NurPhoto/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Managing a project of this scale offers a multitude of potential pitfalls, but the new paper could provide answers. The research looked at over 6,000 academic summaries to try and understand why some of the world’s most ambitious multi-billion buildings fail to meet their expectations. The response has been overwhelming: in the month since publication, it’s received over 7,000 downloads and ranks as by far the journal’s most-read article of the past six months.

“It was very rewarding to us to see that the paper was so well received,” Denicol says. He notes that it’s already shaped responses to megaproject controversy, like Building Magazine’s report on the U.K.’s High Speed 2 rail project.

In the month since that publication, the new coronavirus project has emerged – and it faces many of the same pitfalls identified in the paper. This includes handling key stakeholders, leadership, and market orchestration.

Take market orchestration for example. Denicol gives the example of an underground train line that needs tunnel boring machines. With a limited number of suppliers and a long lead time, there’s a chance that multiple megaprojects buy the digging machines at the same time. The market gets overheated, and projects end up paying a higher price. That means mapping demand and the broader picture is essential.

Face masks are in short supply.NurPhoto/NurPhoto/Getty Images

A similar issue is emerging with products like medical supplies. Surgical masks and hand sanitizer prices spiked by over 50 percent for over half the listings in the weeks after the virus arrived in the United States, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month. Health care workers are calling on others to donate face masks due to shortages.

Managing the global supply chain is vital, just as with many traditional megaprojects. But even this one example highlights how the Covid–19 response project is far more intricate and ambitious than practically any other project in living memory.

“The scale is uncharted and probably thousands of times bigger than megaprojects, in the order of Tera-projects or Peta-projects,” Denicol says.

Denicol explains that, just like construction projects, countries are aiming to decompose into different work packages. Britain’s High Speed 2 train line, estimated to cost over $130 billion, is under development by a company established by the government called HS2 Ltd. Public-private partnerships can help the two sectors cooperate more effectively. Denicol notes that president Donald Trump last week announced a public-private partnership for testing.

Trump has announced a new partnership.Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Another key area of focus is leadership. A megaproject essentially has to state its case and create a new market, which means clear communication is vital to remove ambiguity. Similarly, Trump’s public-private partnership announcement can help signal to other countries about ways to engage with industry partners, establishing a more coordinated response.

“We are observing different global leaders, informing their audience in different styles,” Denicol says. “Some of them are being criticised by lack of transparency, clarity, proactivity. That’s one of the challenges in megaprojects as well. You need that message to be crystal clear. With that clarity, you create an alignment throughout the project delivery chain, and all stakeholders are absolutely on board to deliver that vision and outcome.”

This feature was a key aspect of the team’s original report, and one that could help future projects meet their goals.

"Beyond transparency and lack of ambiguity, projects of this magnitude require leaders that understand the whole picture and empower other equally capable experts to manage specific parts of the project,” Andrew Davies, professor of innovation management at the University of Sussex and one of the paper’s authors, tells Inverse.

Covid–19 is not the same as building an airport or railway, something many teams have successfully achieved in the past. It’s a new disease, and research is constantly changing. Davies and Denicol both mentioned the Imperial College London report that seemed to rapidly shape the British and American response.

The coronavirus is spreading.Shutterstock

It’s an issue that plays into traditional projects to some extent. A new train line could take decades to build, and in that time unexpected factors could come into play. What if the systems are difficult to integrate, or the technology proves challenging? Humanity has built airports before, but it’s hard to predict how New Airport X will develop.

"What is different about the Covid–19 is that we are in uncharted territory in many fronts, requiring a more agile approach across the institutional players and megaproject delivery players,” Davies says.

It’s also unlike those projects in terms of narrative. Airports are criticized for expanding costs, greatly exceeding their initial budget. This can mask the successes of a project, like its impressive management. But this issue hasn’t plagued Covid–19, where it’s largely understood that money is no object when it comes to providing the right answers. Davies says this signals why it’s so important to change the way we talk about megaprojects by “shifting towards unpacking the solutions.”

Even after humanity finds a solution to the Covid–19 crisis, the lessons learned could prove beneficial for future large-scale projects of similar scope. Covid–19 may seem unprecedented now, but Denicol notes that another global megaproject could be just around the corner, one that Morgan Stanley has given a $50 trillion price tag – climate change.

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