Through a Monstrous Looking Glass

Every now and then one experiences something which seems weird but then yields an insight into something going wrong with modern society. Recently travel took me again through Heathrow Airport’s new Terminal 5 in London. That $1+ billion mammoth building took more than a year longer to construct than the five years planned; it was way over budget and when it finally opened was effectively not functional for almost a year. One might have assumed, even to the point of stipulation, that British architects and engineers have had enough relevant experience with airports in recent decades to have built a really great, workable building.

Instead travelers have been treated to a monstrously large space – so large that it is full of signs telling passengers that they are 15 minutes to an hour from where they have to be, even to board their planes. If that were not bad enough, it turns out that the signage is so complicated that the airline employees whose job is to direct passengers to their flights do not even know where many places are or how to explain how to get there. For example, it is almost impossible to get anywhere without going up in order to go down, or down to go up. Perhaps there is hidden in that massive maze of confusion some rational idea/theory of what they were trying to accomplish. It might be amusing and helpful to know more what that idea was. It is well concealed, if it exists. The only thing that comes to mind is the explanation during WWII that the British navy was designed by geniuses to be operated  (sorry) by idiots, without which a rapidly enlarged navy would have been sunk in one way or another all too quickly. But, Terminal 5 really appears (sorry again) to have been designed by idiots to be used only by geniuses – and everyone else is either frustrated, angry or misses their flight or connection.

So what does the Terminal 5 metaphor tell us about the modern world?

  1. Deference to experts, simply because they obviously know more than you do, is a risky business. They need common sense oversight by civilians, just as do the military.
  2. BIG is risky because IF it does not work it is very hard to fix and it stands out like a sore thumb. Smaller often lends itself to being fixable.
  3. Massive budgets and expenditures often go to the head of people with the power to spend such large sums and they often tend to get out of control and lose sight of their mission and true goals, not to mention the public interest.
  4. When a complicated process like moving people around, between and among gates, security, planes and ground transportation is made more complicated by such an immense critical mass encapsulated in such an opaque scheme, it is almost sure to break down. Again, smaller is usually not only simpler but more workable and elegant.
  5. Interaction between people focused on getting somewhere with minimum stress, maximum comfort and simple efficiency and a vast maze, (which most people visit only occasionally, and therefore never master) leads to serious frustration, anger and worse. Hello!
  6. Massing of large numbers of people in very large spaces requires extra long lead times for planning and development, during which time the very conditions to be dealt with often continue in a dynamic process of change. The result is that the whole can become somewhat obsolescent before it is finished. Nimbleness is lost forever.
  7. Planning tends to be focused on “the last war” the best/worst example being the Maginot Line. While there are stunning examples of success in planning for the future – like atomic power generation – too many public works like Terminal 5 fail badly.
  8. Resistance to genuine innovation and change is inevitable. Terminal 5 does things basically in much the same way as they had been done for decades, except they have been made bigger, flashier and amazingly more complicated.
  9. There are ways to organize self-reinforcing accountability and thinking in large, long term/lead time projects BUT too often the political process out of which such public/private projects emerge resists those methods because they might involve changes which the political managers fear, hence ultimately they risk criticism for almost any outcome.
  10. Lastly – modesty and reasonableness frequently give way to hubris and ambition to make a statement like “this is the biggest, newest, most expensive” undertaking ever. That is dangerous thinking that needs to be avoided.

So what do the 10 foregoing “commandments” teach us? With every massive undertaking, society needs a countervailing balancing mechanism that is smart enough to understand, independent enough to withstand pressure, restrained enough not to impede for its own sake and shrewd enough to steer the actual managers to smart decisions without standing in the way of progress.

One model for such balance is the role of Ombudsmen in journalism. Perhaps the time is ripe for Public Stewards to be created on a case by case basis to provide oversight over big public undertakings?


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