Mega Transport Projects as 
‘Open Systems’

Planning, appraisal and delivery agents need to recognise that MTPs are phenomena that require ‘open systems’ treatment in light of their complex and fluid relationship with the areas/ sectors/communities they serve, traverse and impact upon.

Mega Transport Projects are seen as ‘open systems’ as a result of their continuous interaction
and interdependency with the changing ‘context(s)’ they serve, traverse and impact upon – including environmental, social, economic, physical, institutional and political contexts. In seeking to adapt and respond to such changes, MTPs are themselves frequently changed. They in turn also alter the contexts into which they are placed. Such changes are continuous and evolving, thereby contributing to the development of a dynamic situation.

Metropolitan Expressway in Tokyo, Japan

Metropolitan Expressway in Tokyo, Japan

Over half of the OMEGA case studies were found to be considered as ‘closed systems’ during both their planning and implementation stages. However, feedback from some case study interviewees suggests that when megaprojects are treated as ‘closed systems’ during the early stages of project development they cannot be adequately appraised as a constituent of the wider, and hence more complex, context into which they are placed. In so doing, legitimate stakeholder involvement in decision – making is frequently very limited or even omitted, with the result that such projects subsequently face the real possibility of having their potential impacts seriously underestimated. This, in turn, can lead to significant lost opportunities and downside risk of stakeholder opposition.

A number of OMEGA case studies were found to experience a transition from a closed to an open system approach. For example, the Metropolitan Expressway in Tokyo was initially treated as a closed system but was subsequently forced to be treated as more ‘open’ due to pressure from local residents demanding an environmentally sensitive design solution.

Millau Bridge. Millau, France

Millau Bridge. Millau, France

Similarly, the Millau Bridge in France came to be regarded in ‘open system’ terms as a result of the influence of two main developments: the increasing public sensitivity to sustainable development issues and the increasing forces of globalisation expressed through the implementation of EU regulations requiring the opening of MTPs to competition.‘Open systems’ treatment needs to be reflected in the types of approaches and processes that are established for the purposes of (particularly) MTP planning
and appraisal. This enables their potential interaction with the context into which
they are to be placed to be seen as more exploratory than traditional infrastructure planning permits – thereby allowing for unanticipated outcomes to be better discerned and accepted as part of an ‘emergent order’. This conclusion reinforces earlier observations made in the seminal work of Friend and Jessop (1969) and Hall (1980) and more recently by Snowden (Kurtz and Snowden, 2003) and Frontier Economics (2012).

Millau bridge, Millau, France

Millau bridge, Millau, France

Mega Transport Project Consideration

MTP development processes thus need to take account of the following:

  • an ‘open system’ approach will be required for all aspects of planning and appraisal of those projects considered to have highly complex interrelationships with the territories they serve/ impact upon (including those with ‘agent of change’ capabilities)
  • important external contextual influences that can fundamentally impact on project planning, appraisal and delivery need to be identified and incorporated within plans and strategies. This may seem an obvious point to make but the OMEGA Study findings suggest that far more attention is normally paid to addressing issues, problems and influences that occur within projects than those that arise in their external environment. It is these very external influences that often prove to be the most critical to project outcomes and the most problematical to identify and address
  • a ‘closed system’ approach will often be advocated for business case assembly. However, it is increasingly being recognised that the assembly of more sustainable business cases cannot be viewed in this manner if, by necessity, they are to both anticipate longer and more robust futures than the traditional business case approach can accommodate and also seek to incorporate changing contextual influences
  • a ‘closed system’ approach will be needed once the project is deemed ready for implementation. This will require very careful scrutiny as, once a project is ‘frozen’ (locked-in) for construction purposes, the subsequent management of risk can be extremely problematical if changes are made which result in expensive retrofitting.

Adopting this position means there is frequently a need to acknowledge that many outcomes of MTP planning, appraisal and delivery processes are difficult to identify precisely, much less quantify. This holds true throughout most of the project lifecycle because of the complexities associated with ‘open systems’ – indeed, such projects are themselves complex (often innovative) systems, which interact in multiple and complex ways over time and space. It is thus hardly surprising that potential MTP impacts are difficult to identify at the outset and may only emerge after a considerable period of time.


References (cited authors)

Friend, J.K. and W.N. Jessop (1969), Local Government and Strategic Choice: An operational research approach to the process of public planning, Tavistock Press, London.

Frontier Economics (2012), Systemic Risks and Opportunities in UK Infrastructure, Report Prepared for HM Treasury and Infrastructure UK.

Hall, P. (1980), Great Planning Disasters, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.

Kurtz, C.F. and D. J. Snowden, (2003), ‘The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world’, IBM Systems Journal, Volume 42, Number 3, pp462- 483.


Post comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2007 | Omega Centre. All rights reserved.