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Reflections on five decades of incredible projects

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As part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, APM, together with its membership and other experts, has compiled a list of its 50 most inspiring projects from the past five decades. They were selected for their positive legacies and for the game-changing benefits they have brought to the communities they serve.

A long time coming

Projects and project management have come a long way in 50 years. Professionalisation and the development of a project career path really began to emerge towards the end of the 20th century, and later culminated in the granting of chartered status to project professionals in 2017.

But most of the projects on APM’s list were delivered long before the project profession gained the hallmark of recognition that is the Royal Charter. Some of these are projects that delivered infrastructure set to last decades – until the 2070s, in the case of the Thames Barrier.

The story that emerges, then, is of project professionals working largely under the radar for many years, all the while shaping the world in which we live by delivering transformative infrastructure, technologies and medicines.

Public recognition may have been a long time coming for project and programme managers, but things are starting to change. The COVID-19 pandemic brought certain project skills to the fore – with individuals who could deliver complex projects against tight time frames, amid the pressure of a public crisis, quite rightly being celebrated for their achievements. These include the rapid production of ventilators and, of course, the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.

A trip down memory lane

Given the enhanced profile of the profession, and the milestone of APM’s 50th year, now is a good time to look back and celebrate some of the incredible achievements of yesteryear.

Consider the seamless, integrated smart technology we enjoy today. We may take it for granted, but it is the product of decades of project ingenuity. Imagine life without GPS, first developed in the 1970s and 1980s by the US military, but later rolled out for civilian use. How vital it will continue to be as self-driving cars and the next generation of smart devices that emerge.

Mobile banking, too, is something we can hardly envisage doing without today. Sending money and paying for goods requires just a few taps on your phone’s screen – but the project to develop one of the core technologies underpinning this goes largely unnoticed. SWIFT is a messaging system that enables thousands of banks in over 200 countries to communicate financial transaction information in a standardised way, launched in 1977. It has made headlines this year due to its role in sanctions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine – and it surely deserves to be heralded as one of the great 20th century projects.

Public health transformed

While COVID-19 has been the dominant public health concern of the 2020s, in the 1980s, it was the devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic that caught the world’s attention. Antiretroviral treatments for HIV first emerged in the US in the mid 1990s, and from 1996 a combination therapy known as HAART became the new standard of care for HIV. An estimated 16.5 million AIDS-related deaths have been averted since 2001.

And what about polio? Once a global scourge, it is now close to total elimination. The drive to finally wipe out the disease began in 1988 with the formation of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which fosters collaboration between national governments, polio vaccinators, health workers and community organisers. Together they reach more than 400 million children every year.

The next project frontier

Tackling climate change is now humanity’s primary focus, and projects are springing up across the world to combat everything from desertification to decarbonisation.

The past couple of decades have already delivered some major environmental project successes. There’s the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, an international project financed and run by the Norwegian government and NGO The Crop Trust where governments, indigenous communities and other gene banks are entitled to deposit and withdraw seeds, providing a valuable agricultural resource and also safeguarding the world’s food supply for the future.

And over in the US, the Unisphere is showing the world what the future of net-zero buildings could look like. The huge, ellipse-shaped edifice houses biotech corporation United Therapeutics’ clinical operations and virtual drug development lab. It has no operational carbon footprint because the amount of electrical and thermal energy used is renewably generated on-site. It is heated and cooled with water pulled from 52 geo-exchange wells drilled 500ft into the earth below

Game-changers like these demonstrate the power of projects. They all began with project professionals scratching their heads to develop a plan and a schedule to coordinate resources both human and material in order to realise benefits on a grand scale. 

The unheralded project professionals of decades past deserve our gratitude and can serve as powerful inspiration as we look to meet the challenges of the next 50 years.

See the full APM list of 50 projects for a better future here.


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