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Don't be afraid of vanity projects

There are a lot of negative associations around vanity projects.

Not just the downright ugly – the grotesque monuments or golden palaces as a shrine to an evil dictator – but anything that tends to be big, risky/controversial and breaking new ground. HS2, the Olympics, Concorde etc, have all been labelled as ‘vanity’ projects by opponents quick to dismiss the economic case as nothing more than pie-in-the-sky thinking, driven by a person with big ambitions and an ego to match. But let’s look at the evidence.

It’s done for purely selfish reasons. Politicians of every background strive to create a legacy. Their time in office may be short-lived or blighted by ineptitude, incompetence or scandal but one key decision or show of support can be priceless in the long term. To be remembered as the vision lead on a project that transformed the political or social landscape is a potent motivational force. Just look at the London 2012 Olympics. Ex-London Mayor Ken Livingstone says he hates sports but is still prepared to take the credit.

Vanity projects draw attention and resources away from more worthwhile ventures. In the case of HS2, for example, critics argue that a counter proposal to increase capacity by lengthening trains and running additional peak long-distance services is a far more deserving and sensible use of public finances. They may have a point but why wait until after the plans have been announced to offer up a solution? In many ways we have HS2 to thank for driving discussion on the issue of Britain’s future transport network and for putting it firmly on the agenda.

They’re a waste of money. Vanity projects are akin to commercial suicide, say critics. They ignore the financials and press ahead regardless. Just look at Concorde and the Millennium Dome. The cost to build the 16 production Concorde aircraft was £654m, of which only £278m was recovered through tickets and sales. But cold hard facts and figures miss the real point – they were exciting. Have there been many sights better than Concorde in her pomp or the dome as a backdrop to Brosnan’s Bond in the opening sequence of The World is Not Enough?

Vanity projects are by their very nature controversial. They exist to make a point and distinguish themselves from the norm. From cutting-edge technology to unique or unusual design, they stand for something that goes to very heart of everything we crave and aspire – they look for better. Projects should exist not to fill the void or paper over the cracks – one airport runway replaced by another – they should inspire, offer up a vision of a brighter future and act as a symbol of hope and new found confidence.

When asked about the legacy of the Shard – the tallest building in Western Europe – project director Robert Deatker said it would stand as a landmark in time and send out a powerful message. “Cities don’t build buildings like this if they aren’t feeling confident,” he said.

Vanity projects may appear risky or dangerous but in tough times and good we all need a little escapism.

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  1. James Simons
    James Simons 17 January 2012, 11:37 AM

    All fair points Carol. I think the main thrust (apart from being deliberately contentious) was to say, yes they may appear wasteful, excessive, egotistical but without the big idea/vision (and big ego backing it) where would we be... how would we ever move forward? Everybody's quick to criticise but if we simply wrote off every idea that comes along as a vanity project we'd all still be pulling handcarts, and believing the world to be flat. PS Carol, it's been a while since you last featured, I'll be in touch... 

  2. Carol Long
    Carol Long 16 January 2012, 10:21 PM

    Oh James, you miss the point! Vanity projects are just that: in vain.  Vanity was called a sin because it is wasteful and disrespectful of the real value of things.A vanity project is also wasteful of an opportunity to do something else with the resources. Instead, the vanity project puts ego above value.Yes, lets be confindent and undertake large scale, ambitious projects that break new ground and produce something iconic and maybe controversial.  Projects of that nature have everything to do with developing benefits and adding value for the investment. BUT NO MORE VANITY PROJECTS, PLEASE!As for pressing ahead with projects that cannot make a return, that is in business terms, a loss. It is also mismanagement. If it was done in any other area of business, a senior manager would be quietly retired but because it is a project that seems OK. POPPYCOCK!James, are you really encouraging APM members (project management professionals) to support rash and wasteful mismanagement? That is no way to build a profession - unless it is the first step of escapism (from the fraud squad).   [for the record, the editor and I are on good terms!]