Engineering for Failure

While walking along Wacker Drive in a tourist-y part of downtown I passed this planter that had been recently rebuilt over the last few years.  Obviously the cold winters and the damage they cause were not contemplated by the “A” Team that built it.  While you can’t judge infrastructure capabilities based on a planter, it is easy to find many Chicago examples of large overruns and delays including Millenium Park (4 years late and budgeted at $150M, ended up costing $475M).

We aren’t the only ones screwing up.  Der Speigel (English) describes how high profile German engineering projects have been recently failing, as well.  Their airports, government buildings, and train tunnels have many prominent examples of being far behind schedule and way over budget.  The article also makes the provocative claim that authorities deliberately mislead constituents by downplaying costs at the time of the initial approval, figuring that it won’t be their problem years’ later when the effort is complete and the overrun’s are tallied.

In many instances, the false calculations are deliberate. Werner Rothengatter, a researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, has studied major public works projects around the world. He says there’s a similar pattern in democratic societies, where politicians have a tendency to deceive the public about the actual costs of these projects.
Rothengatter argues that cost overruns rarely come as a surprise — regardless of whether they are from the Berlin airport or Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie concert hall. During his research, he found that most politicians try to calculate the price to be as low as possible in order to obtain support for the projects — deliberately veiling the potential risks.
“Those who provide honest estimates for projects from the very beginning have little chance of getting them off the ground,” Rothengatter claims. Often those at the political helm take a calculated risk by assuming they won’t be held personally responsible if the costs start to explode.
In a 2009 study, “Survival of the Unfittest: Why the Worst Infrastructure Gets Built,” Danish researcher Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University argued that it often isn’t the best projects that are completed, but those that “are made to look best on paper.” Those, of course, are projects that “amass the highest cost overruns and benefit shortfalls.”

The idea that governments make poor project managers and select inefficient efforts for their largess (that they sponsor with your tax dollars) should be obvious, yet it is rarely commented on as a “core” reason for failure.  The idea that non-profit government institutions can make wise capital allocation decisions is actually quite popular and is likely a “given” among many of the young, given that the “free” market is demonized on most popular programming.  As the government makes up a larger and larger portion of our total economy, you can expect more bad decisions and lousy outcomes.

Government bodies inherently make impaired decisions, since they are insulated from failure and have many other parties to blame along the way.  In Chicago, in particular, if you are the selected candidate of the “blue” party and can slog through a primary, your election is guaranteed; many posts run unopposed (even in the primary).  It is hard to imagine anything short of epic failure resulting in being thrown from office.

Cross posted at LITGM

14 thoughts on “Engineering for Failure”

  1. I have previously pointed out similar stories from Illinois’ past. My father pointed out that the Illinois Toll Road wandered all over northern Illinois to include all the real estate owned by politicians. Denny Hastert’s family did well there, I have heard.

    When I moved to California in the 1950s, it had the best infrastructure in the nation. No more. The money goes to Public Employee union pensions.

  2. It’s hard enough to be realistic about schedules and budgets at a private, for profit company. For a taxpayer funded institution, it must be well nigh impossible.

    I’m getting to the point where I’m thankful when the government is able to build any useful infrastructure on any schedule at any price. Too often we end up billions in the hole with nothing to show for it. (I’m looking at you, California High-Speed Rail.)

  3. A case presently on point the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which story has been covered well.

    I need not comment further other than note that it has been proposed that the new span be named in honor of Willie Brown.

  4. I once studies to be an Industrial Engineer, but rust belt economics and the lure of software developer salaries made me pursue a different course.

    My godson who lives with me is studying to be a civil engineer in California. With all the general education and math he is a junior and his only relevant engineering course has been surveying. I looked at the curricula. Materials and structures along with destructive testing is a one semester senior course. If that is an example of an what the colleges are making engineers these days it is a poor choice. While I am sure the two semesters of differential equations helps keep the math department employed, I would gladly exchange them for more on material science and practical learning on how to engineer and build a concrete tilt-up, a balloon frame house, and design a French drain. Extra points for project management beyond looking at the Granger catalog and costing out Chinese made hex nuts.

    This has been my rant. Damn kids git off my iLawn or I’ll sick my iDog on you!


  5. “My godson who lives with me is studying to be a civil engineer in California.”

    My sympathy.

    At my daughter’s graduation last month, her two male cousins were there. One is a freshman in Engineering at U of Arizona. We got talking about his major and he is interested in chemical or petroleum engineering. I suggested he try to get a job as a roustabout on an oil rig in North Dakota or Alaska. I had to explain “fracking” to him and he was very interested. He had been thinking of applying for an internship but I think he would learn more working on a rig. More money, too. His dad, who is an airline captain, heard about it and got very interested.

    Most kids need some direction even when they are smart. I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer since I was 10 but wound up in medical school. My first choice was Cal Tech but there were no student loans then and my scholarship didn’t come through. I was too dumb to call the college and see if they could help.

  6. One of my favorite small-scale examples of engineering for failure is paving sidewalks with decorative bricks: They look nice for a year, but after a few years of settling the bricks are all at different levels and angles and become a tripping hazard. Not to mention making snow shoveling difficult. I’m sure that the city planners don’t care about these problems.

  7. Note that the planters in the photo, all right up at the curb, make parking difficult to impossible for a large part of the block. That doesn’t matter on weekdays when parking is not allowed, but is a problem on weekends when it is allowed. But why should Chicago politicians care about the well-being of ordinary people who don’t make the large donations that owners of parking garages do?

  8. Jonathan, you see brick paving in London that is done with purpose-made paving brick and they are set on sand. I doubt London freezes like Chicago does so heaving may be less of a problem and once they become irregular, the workers just come back and reset them. The bricks seem to last forever. You see similar ones in Pompei with cart wheel ruts in them.

  9. From looking at the damage and judging by my experience I would have to say that it appears to me that the planter
    has been hit by a vehicle rather than damaged by frost. I can see some large chips on the top edge in the spot one
    might expect to see them after being hit by a vehicle.

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