Anyone who lives in Boston, or has recently visited, knows what a macroengineering project is. That's because no matter what part of town you happen to be in, it's hard to escape the effects of the Big Dig - the ongoing, over-budget, noisy, traffic-jam inducing, multibillion dollar attempt to fix Boston's traffic problems. But it's just the kind of thing that Uwe Kitzinger finds fascinating.
Dr. Kitzinger is the president of the International Association of Macro Engineering Societies (IAMES), a group that seeks to discover why so many massive projects fail to accomplish the goals for which they were designed.
Kitzinger, former president of Oxford University's Templeton College and currently a visiting fellow at Harvard University, believes there is a real need for the kind of group he heads.
"If you look at the world, it's hurtling into the unknown and nobody is really paid much to think 30 or 40 years ahead," he says.
"Politicians, who you think might be doing that job, are more interested in yesterday's scandals and tomorrow's election, than they are in world water supplies, global warming, rolling back the desert, population problems, and all these longterm things.
"Industry, of course, is looking for the next quarterly earnings and finds it difficult to invest too much in the very long-term.
"What we [the association] are hoping to do, as much as we can within our very limited powers, is to stimulate other people to do more." The original ideas behind IAMES came almost two decades ago from an American, Prof. Frank Davidson, who used to lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge on failure, believing that from failure we learn more than from success.
Meanwhile, Kitzinger was being approached in Europe by big re-insurance companies. They were losing a lot of money on large projects, which didn't come in on time or on budget and frequently did not fill the purpose for which they were originally conceived.
"These insurance companies wanted to see whether we could do some research at an academic institution to elaborate tests and criteria, ones that might be useful, and weed out the ones that weren't," Kitzinger says. "We summoned a group of very important companies to look at lessons from past projects and at potential new projects, on a very confidential, interdisciplinary, intersectoral role and, of course, international level. And this has been going on now for 17 to 18 years."
So what are the major reasons behind the failure of many large projects?
"Lack of clarity of objective is very often a problem. Just why are you really doing the project? Another problem is lack of very clear contractual arrangements, which spread the risks and rewards right through the whole system of contractors, subcontractors, sub-subcontractors," Kitzinger says.
"Another is never modify your means after you have set it all out. Modifications are an enormous waste of time and of money."
Surprisingly, some might say, IAMES pays as much, if not more, attention to environmental and societal factors than to the actual construction phase of a project. "If you do not build the mental and societal effects into your original planning you will run into failure of political nerve. And once the political support for project of this kind is gone, the project is itself a goner.
"Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, macro engineering is much to important to be left to the engineers. I'm a political scientist. Other people here [IAMES] are economists, lawyers, environmentalists. Because these areas are where the real risks of these major projects usually lies - lack of political support, lack of local and social and societal support, lack of respect the environment."
Kitzinger says the solutions to these large, often international projects, also have to be international in scope. "You can't ... combat global warming without getting a lot of different countries, and a lot of different technologies, and a lot of different companies involved in the project."
IAMES, continues to hold regular seminars on these subjects, as well as publish an ongoing series of papers and books.
The association's most recent publishing effort, "Macro-Engineering and the Earth," contains articles on subjects such as solar-powered satellites, ocean farming, turbines that use the power of the Gulf Stream to generate electricity, and a civilian-military conservation corps to help restore countries devastated by natural disasters or man-made conflicts.
* More information on IAMES is available on its Web site, www.iames.org