Involving Citizens in Megaproject Decision-Making

What is megaproject

Cities around the world have been dedicated to building megaprojects since the second half of the twentieth century. Megaprojects refer to project, in comparison with others, has a greater magnitude of aspiration levels, size, time of implementation, the role of third parties, as well as the complexity of their impacts. They usually represent large-scale transformational projects that involve and affect a broad range of stakeholders who have different interests and levels of influence on the outcomes of a project. Moreover, megaprojects are highly expensive and may cost over USD 1 billion. Examples of megaprojects include the Oresund Bridge in Sweden, the Sydney Opera House, the Shinkansen High-Speed Railways in Japan, and the Big Dig project in Boston.

It is important to note that globalization is among the core driving forces of the megaproject, which are usually used to be integrated into the urban strategies of entrepreneurship to attract investment to a city as well as address the challenges that come with overpopulation or transportation issues. However, even though some projects may involve around 8% of a country’s GDP spent on them, many of them do not meet the initial expectations. While initial appraisals may be optimistic, there is often an issue associated with the neglect of environmental implications (Siemiatycky, 2017). Therefore, there is a risk of megaprojects having an adverse influence on the quality of life and environment (Locatelli, Mariani, Sainati, and Greco, 2017).

As the benefits are usually expected to manifest at higher levels, the negative impacts often crystallize at local levels. For example, there may be environmental and social impacts, displacement, and polarisation, all of which affect the lives of communities that live near megaprojects. Therefore, it is imperative to critically evaluate megaprojects and how they influence the communities around them. A balance between the positive and the negative effects on local people is predominantly absent from the developmental practices embedded into megaprojects. There is a need to prevent negative causes to local people, such as communities and residents in the vicinity of megaprojects as there is an overall disadvantage in the whole development process (Hawken, Avazpour, Harris, and Marzban, 2019). This critical essay aims to look at megaprojects from an objective standpoint because it is complex and has broad influences on the environment.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Megaprojects for Communities

Large-scale engineering projects have been shown to include several attributes, including the high capital costs, the long duration despite program urgency, the high demands for technologies and logistics, the need for integrating high multidisciplinary inputs from a variety of organizations, as well as the development of a virtual enterprise intended to execute the project (Zidane, Johansen and Ekambaram, 2013).

According to Brockmann (2009), megaprojects are unique projects of high complexity and size that integrate high levels of technological advancement and are characterized by the increased risk of opposition, uncertainty, and limited collaboration between core partners. Despite the challenges, the researchers studying megaprojects rarely cover the aspects and risks linked to the management of this type of project. Instead of exploring the methods intended to address the challenges of megaprojects imposed on society, researchers have focused on low levels of managerial performance. Besides, there is increased attention to the challenge of improving the performance of stakeholders within projects to meet the cost and time constraints.

Megaprojects have been predominantly dealing with global competitiveness by showcasing the advantages for communities in multiple ways. The majority of the benefits are tangible and are associated with material economic influences. The projects are seen as important strategies for development because of the technological and industrial advancements that are intended to occur (Delphine, Witte, and Spit, 2019).

Economic impacts related to land value, business operations, tourism, international trade, taxation, and employment are often put at the forefront of projects, with the potentially adverse influences on communities being overlooked, as suggested by Oliomogbe and Smith (2013). Furthermore, some mega projects are expected to facilitate the opening of land markets to attract investors, especially in developing countries (Brahma, 2015). Overall, there are increased expectations that governments place on their megaprojects in terms of financial inflow, but the reality is that even the most prominent and spectacular projects have an adverse influence on communities.

Beyond the high expectations to reach positive economic outcomes and drive investment, megaprojects have been intended to incorporate cultural capital through creating new cultural urban spaces to share both local and national identities (Kusuma, 2014). As mentioned by Sklair (2013), the aesthetics, fame, and the symbolic meanings of prominent megaprojects have been imperative for giving identity to a specific urban area. For example, the government of Beijing has chosen to use high-tech futuristic design in architecture to give their megaprojects recognizable branding.

The Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark has also become an iconic symbol signifying the cultural, economic, and political unity between nations (Löfgren, 2015). In addition, the Malaysian Twin Petronas Towers were created to help the population to elevate the national pride of population (Bunnell, 2013). The initial expectations for megaprojects are high, but there is a limitation associated with the lacking consideration for the true influence on communities.

Gaps in Perceptions and Research

Most of the scholarly resources focusing on the influence of megaprojects have only looked at tangible economic benefits and costs. According to Flyvbjerg (2014), megaprojects take significant financial investments that are taken from the GDP of countries. Despite this, Dimitriou (2014) suggested that when the megaprojects are completed, there is often a misalignment between the expected benefits and objectives and reality. The level of local community losses can be high, and the existing literature so far has overlooked the perceived reality that people encounter as they are adversely influenced by megaprojects (Söderlund, Sankaran, and Biesenthal, 2018).

The failure to focus on local communities when it comes to exploring the impact of megaprojects points to the lack of awareness on the part of decision-makers (Maddaloni and Davis, 2017). This is surprising because the effect of megaprojects on society is among the leading dimensions of their success as well as the satisfaction of people with them (Shenhar and Holzmann, 2017). Therefore, studying the perceptions of local communities of the positive and negative impacts of megaprojects is essential because of the gap in research within the existing body of knowledge.

Negative perceptions associated with megaprojects usually focus on the adverse actions and decisions of stakeholders. For example, the disparities related to the neighboring communities of megaprojects are rarely captured, which leads to further inequalities (Van de Graaf and Sovacool, 2014).

Besides, local communities may not be informed about the potential implications of the project, which results in them expecting the benefits while the harmful spillover effects build up over time, leading to dissatisfaction. In addition, there is little involvement of legal players in the development of megaprojects, which exasperates the further influence of construction on communities (Robbins, 2015). However, when the actual advantages do not meet the expectations that people had at the stages of planning, the positive attitudes that were initially established may become negative and tarnish the reputation of megaprojects.

The negative perceptions of megaprojects have also been attributed to the fact that finances could have been spent on improving the lives of people spent elsewhere. According to Garemo, Matzinger, and Palter (2015), the world needs to spend approximately USD 57 trillion on infrastructure projects by 2030 to facilitate the expected levels of global GDP growth. Of that amount, about two-thirds will be required to be spent in developing countries with the rising levels of the middle class, the growth of the population, urbanization, and the increased growth of the economy. Such countries need enhanced infrastructure; however, too many years have passed with the promises about new roads, bridges, and modern public transportation remaining unfulfilled (Preston, 2020). This issue illuminates the problem of the lacking attention to the needs of people and their expectations from governments.

Involving Communities in Decision-Making

Stakeholders usually perceive the value behind megaprojects, which contributes to the misalignment between the values of developers and real people when the projects are finished. As secondary stakeholders who have too little power in megaproject making decisions, residents and local people will either perceive the projects negatively or positively depending on the outcomes. The issue of limited involvement of communities in megaprojects can be addressed with the help of including them in the process of decision-making (Hongyang, Ng and Skitmore, 2012).

For example, at the planning stage, they will be some uncertainties associated with predicting specific outcomes of projects because there may be conflicting interests among stakeholders (Delphine et al., 2019). Because of this, the planning and preparation stage should address the challenge of multi-level appraisal at local, regional, and national levels. Since there is often limited information available on how the lives of communities will change, and there will be some bias and judgment on the part of decision-makers, the involvement of communities is necessary to illuminate potential challenges that could emerge as a result of the project. Having reliable information is essential for making informed decisions within the political dimensions of megaproject development.

After plans were made and the construction begins, temporary negative and positive effects of the project are expected to take place. For example, on the negative side, people will be opposed to construction because of the noise and disturbances during construction, as well as pollution and displacement (Delphine et al., 2019). On the positive side, the development of megaprojects can present significant opportunities for employment, which may encourage favorable perceptions among locals (Saad, Xinping, and Ijaz, 2019). At this stage, local communities should be involved in the discussion about how the construction can be handled to facilitate mutual understanding between the public and the managers of the project.

At the usage stage, the direct effects of a megaproject, both positive and negative, will become visible after a certain time passes (Campbell and Brown, 2015). If the megaproject is associated with transportation, the benefits will be predominantly enjoyed by its users. The advantages included decreased travel time, increased comfort levels, reduced congestion, and other positive effects (Robbins, 2015).

However, it is important to account for the negative consequences such as increased noise from transportation and pollution, which will inevitably influence city residents who live nearby the new transportation project. Because of this, the involvement of minor stakeholders that include local communities is imperative to prevent the negative outcomes and ensure that citizens are satisfied with the project and that their daily lives and rest are not disrupted.

The increased participation of people in the planning and implementation stages is possible with the help of community surveys. This method of data collection is not time-consuming and easy to implement, while also facilitating public engagement in the projects. Increasingly, cities have been linking resident survey data to performance measurement and strategic planning to ensure that the budgets of departments align with the issues that matter to residents the most (Bloomberg Cities, 2019).

Therefore, to find out about the perspectives of citizens on the potential impact of megaprojects, population surveys can play an important role in showing how planning and implementation should be carried out. Since megaprojects present both opportunities and limitations to residents of cities that live in the vicinity of them, it is imperative to involve regular people in the process of decision-making. There is a growing need to consider the needs of real citizens who encounter megaprojects every day rather than just focusing on bringing foreign investment with the help of new projects.

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