The megaprojects building our future

Jessica Siva is shining a light on the power dynamics and behavioural challenges that can derail innovative megaprojects and delay civic progress.

Image of Jessica Siva

The term ‘megaprojects’ is new to academia, despite large building projects being around for many hundreds of years. The term refers to large-scale building ventures—think skyscrapers, seaports and city tunnels—that shape and facilitate the future of our cities and economies. Yet, as Jessica Siva knows only too well, megaprojects also come with a myriad of unique challenges.

“We are seeing more and more of these megaprojects built. Between 2013 and 2030, the estimate for infrastructure spending is about US$3.4 trillion a year,” says Jessica.

“Yet the literature is littered with causes of megaproject failure. While prestigious, these projects can be difficult and expensive to maintain. That’s why megaprojects must be approached differently to typical building projects. They are not simply magnified versions of smaller projects; they have their own distinct problems.”

Some of the most significant challenges roadblocking megaproject development include the decision-making process and the power structures that inevitably exist between the project management team, government and clients. Through her work, Jessica is specifically interested in the clients’ role within the project.

“Megaprojects are transformational and can impact millions of people. But how much do we know about the actual decision-making practices that happen on these projects?

“My work focuses on the all-important role of the client. It looks at how client decisions can have significant impacts on megaprojects and the people who use the infrastructure for years to come.”

Leveraging failure to achieve success

Often considered a subset within project management research, the ‘megaproject’ has only recently emerged as its own distinct area of study.

Already, there is plenty of research explaining why megaprojects fail—an all too frequent occurrence. Following failures, one logical response is to implement further frameworks, policies and procedures to prescribe behaviour and prevent failure from happening again.

“The problem is, these frameworks assume that we can plan and control actions and behaviour, when we cannot. The sheer size, duration and complexity of megaprojects also make them fertile ground for problematic power dynamics.”

While Jessica acknowledges that increased governance can help control project outcomes, she stresses that power dynamics and behavioural influences must also be considered. Right now, Jessica is one of very few researchers taking up this challenge. She is especially interested in how clients influence project decisions, practices and outcomes.

“Within research, there has been so little focus on the client’s role. In their role as project initiators and financiers, clients are the driving political force on megaprojects. Clients can exert direct influence on the potential for innovative design and construction and on achieving collaborative working approaches.”

Making the invisible, visible

To assess the clients’ influence on megaprojects more fully, Jessica’s work teases out what really happens when stakeholders are required to implement formalised policies and procedures. How do they go about their everyday practices, and exercise power, as they seek to comply with project contracts? Do clients use informal mechanisms and tactics of resistance?

“There is often a discrepancy between the reality of power structures and those formally prescribed by governing contracts. Clients are in a powerful position to influence project delivery and success, and this is often beyond the control of project teams.”

For her work, Jessica borrows the concept of ‘governmentality’ from the French social theorist Michel Foucault, who investigated political power in the 1970s. She explains that Foucault’s ideas and language are useful when exploring both the macro spaces of megaproject governance frameworks, as well as the confined locales of client workplaces and the everyday practices where various forms of power come to be created, exercised and distributed.

“I am currently exploring a couple of megaproject case studies to test the theory against the practice. It’s about making the invisible, visible. So far, what I’ve found is that prescribed contracts, policies and procedures is only one way of controlling project outcomes.”

Investing in innovation

Jessica is helping to expose a whole new area of project management research, and her work is gaining due attention. The avid researcher has won three Emerald Publishing Group Best Paper awards along with a ProSPER.Net United Nations University Young Researchers’ School Scholarship.

Jessica also enjoys passing on her research knowledge to students at the University of Newcastle. Over recent years, Jessica has supervised honours research students, coordinated multiple undergraduate programs and taught into undergraduate and postgraduate programs at the University of Newcastle and Deakin University.

Inside and outside the classroom, Jessica’s work is driven by an innate desire to uncover innovative infrastructure solutions for our future.

“Megaproject development and management is arguably one of the most exciting developments in the recent decade. It offers a range of opportunities for innovations to be created, adapted and implemented—and has the potential to impact millions of lives.”

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