Wednesday, June 20, 2007

This year, one of the world's premier urban planning scholars visited the University of Iowa as an Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professor. He, Professor Bent Flyvbjerg of the Department of Development and Planning at Aalborg University in Denmark, is the author of three very impressive recent books -- Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice (1998), Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again (2001), and (with Nils Bruzelius and Werner Rothengatter) Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition -- as well as many articles in a variety of scholarly journals, including: Transport Reviews, Journal of the American Planning Association, Journal of Planning Education and Research, Transport Policy, International Planning Studies, Philosophy and Social Action, British Journal of Sociology, and Planning Theory. While each of these publications is impressive in its own right, what is truly distinctive about the set of three as a whole is the way it integrates political philosophy, civil engineering, urban planning, and social theory into a coherent argument for a practically-engaged form of social science, which Flyvbjerg calls "phronetic research."

Over 80 people packed Stanley Auditorium in the Seamans Center to hear Bent Flyvbjerg make the first of his three presentations. Students and faculty from urban planning, civil and environmental engineering, political science, communication studies, and other departments heard Flyvbjerg present an overview of his research concerning "Megaprojects and Mega-Risks: The Reality of Policy and Planning for Multibillion-Dollar Infrastructure Investments."

In his presentation Flyvbjerg first identified what he called the "megaprojects paradox," that is, the fact that more and bigger megaprojects are built despite their poor performance record in terms of costs and benefits. He then documented how the promoters of multi-billion-dollar megaprojects systematically misinform lawmakers, the public, and the media about the true costs and benefits of projects in order to get them approved and built. This results in projects that are extremely risky, but where the risks are concealed.

Professor Flyvbjerg's visit was supported by the University of Iowa's Office of the Provost, Graduate Program in Urban and Regional Planning, Department of Sociology, Department of Political Science, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Public Policy Center, and Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry.