Third Heathrow runway social and technical project challenges

The Government has at last made a decision with regards to the location of a third runway. But the decision on whether to expand Heathrow airport, Gatwick airport or indeed whether to do neither or something completely different puts a spotlight on the challenges that complex projects face.

Project complexity can be considered in two ways – how difficult the project is technically and how difficult the project is socially. 

  • Technical difficulty increases with scale (number of different parts) and uncertainty (whether the sum of the parts will work).
  • Social difficulty also increases with scale (number and influence of affected stakeholder groups) and ambiguity (whether the solution is optimum for the different stakeholder groups as a whole).

There is no doubt that expanding Heathrow or Gatwick is technically difficult (eg one of the options involves moving the M25) and will exercise the country’s best brains in terms of financing, planning, design, engineering, construction and logistics on a scale greater than that to build the Olympic Park or Crossrail. Given the UK’s track record of delivering technically complex projects mostly on time and within budget we can be fairly confident that those best brains will rise to the challenge.

However, it is the social difficulty that is proving most challenging which is why it’s not surprising it has taken so long to make a decision, and also why we’ve witnessed to-ing and fro-ing of preferred options. The number and influence of stakeholder groups has upped the significance of the decision, and has fuelled the to-ing and fro-ing as different groups vie for prominence. But, it is the ambiguity on what is the optimal solution that is the root cause of the decision paralysis we’ve seen so far.

There are numerous academic papers on the causes of complexity and how best to treat different complexity factors (similar to how we can treat different risk factors) and the best one in my opinion is from Dr David Hancock in his paper regarding ‘Wicked-Messes’. In his paper he concludes that whilst we can apply systematic approaches to simplify and treat messy problems (technical complexity) often the only way to treat wicked problems (social complexity) is an act of leadership. To summarise this means accepting the ambiguity and just making a decision.

We will never know whether it was the right or wrong decision as we cannot go back in time and take the other option. All we know is that it took an act of leadership by the current government to finally make the decision. At least we can now be certain on what our airport strategy is and in a time of few certainties we should be grateful for this one. No doubt not all of the stakeholder groups will agree.

Let’s hope we see the same leadership regarding the infrastructure investment decisions required to deliver the Northern Powerhouse.

If you'd like to know more about this or RSM's infrastructure sector please contact Andy Murray, Head of Infrastructure Sector North or Alistair Hynd, Head of Infrastructure Sector South.