Shooting Craps with the Grandkids’ Cash
Some thoughts on a failed Olympic bid and what it tells us about the shocking randomness of how we build our cities.
Although it has been many years since I last wrote computer code ‘to save my life’ I still vividly remember the five basic phases of the Cost of Change Curve associated with software development projects. While the fine details are now dim and distant the basic idea is this: the cost of making a given change rises exponentially as we work our way from the first phase, Requirements, through the intermediate Analysis, Coding and Testing phases and then finally to the Production phase. Plot the costs on a graph and the main characteristic is the skyward-to-infinity spike as we get to the latter phases of the project.
To more fully illustrate, let’s assume we want to change something while we’re still working on Requirements. Let’s also assume the cost of changing that something is an entirely mythical one dollar. Move on to the second phase, Analysis, and make the equivalent change and it will cost $10. Yes, ten times as much but nominally still not too bad. Make that change in the Coding phase and it’s an incrementally more painful $100. Didn’t catch it until Testing? Now it’s $1,000. Yikes. Heaven forbid we want to make that change once we’re in Production. If we do, we’re now in the soup for an eye-popping $10,000.
We can argue the theory, the phases and the numbers all day but that’s not the point. It may also be that this cost behaviour is unique to building software, but I don’t think so. This much I know to be true: the earlier the nuances of what we’re trying to build are accurately captured, the better and cheaper the whole thing will eventually be. When starting out, it costs virtually nothing to flip from “let’s build a better Twitter”, for example, to “Uber, but for hoverboards” and back again. No one is going to care very much. It’s almost the conversation we have over coffee. The cost is the coffee, but that’s it.
However, if we have just rented the Saddledome to roll out our Twitter killer and suddenly realize the crowd is chanting “we wanna hover! we wanna hover! we wanna…” we may want to slip out back before things get even uglier. But, by then, it’s too late. All the bales of cash we haven’t yet set on fire and thrown off the roof still can’t build us from one reality to another.
So Twitter killer it is…the suddenly bewildered crowd out front be damned.
My home town of Calgary, Alberta, Canada recently spent at least $10 million to not host the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Well, it didn’t start out to do that. But that’s the way it ended up and in any meaningful way it makes absolutely no difference. $10 million is out the door and there is nothing any of us can do about it now. Those who advocated for the Games have accepted they are not going to happen and have moved on to other priorities – a new hockey arena, perhaps. Those who were against a bid might feel a bit better about things but also have moved on. It’s amazing how quickly the whole contentious fiasco was forgotten by everybody. That’s probably a good thing.
But wait a minute. Hold the phone. $10 million is still missing in action. That deserves at least some sort of introspection on behalf of those who were at the scene of the crime. Barring that, how about a headstone with something chiselled on it about what went so horribly wrong. “Here lies $10 million. Now let’s move on” the inscription might read. That just doesn’t seem right, does it?
It’s worth a moment to think about what $10 million would have bought over the last couple of years. A lot of lunches for kids whose families can’t afford them. A lot of library resources. A lot of swimming lessons. Hell, it might have even paid for something better than the bone-jarring, tooth-loosening ride on many of our streets because the City can’t seem to figure out how to pave them and not dig them up immediately. It would also provide some meaningful tax breaks for business startups who are currently abandoning the progressively more lifeless downtown because they can’t afford to be there any more.
It would be interesting, but of course impossible, to go back to the seminal moment when a couple of people sat down over that coffee and said “…hey, what if Calgary were to host another Winter Olympic Games?!” What’s more, imagine if we could magically go back to that moment and change the response to that question from “great idea!” to “hmmm, I’m just not sure it’s the right time for that, is it?” If we were able to do that, we really could have saved the entire $10 million. But even when Superman tries to turn back time it causes nothing but trouble so no point in worrying about what would have been, could have been and should have been.
That said, the first Calgary City Council vote on a potential bid for the Winter Olympics was in 2016 and passed by a margin of 12–2. Candidly, I don’t remember that and I’m sure all but the most engaged, hard-core students of City politics would either. It is therefore disingenuous to suggest that something else should have happened if none of us, except the keeners, were actively involved back then. Also around that same time, the first $5 million was approved to fund an ‘exploratory committee’. Apparently none of us were there to lay down in front of that freight train, either.
The committee finally produced a 365 page report (that’s just $13,000 per page!) which basically encouraged the City to press on with a bid. On the other hand, with $5 million already out the door, was there really any other acceptable answer? If City Council had said ‘no’ it would mean they had just blown $5 million of our money, right? Nobody would want to put their name on that, would they?
Fast forward to the final push in the fall of 2018. By that time, yet another $5 million had been allocated to the effort for a total of $10 million before the preparation of the formal bid even began. But something else also happened in that intervening period. Public sentiment had demonstrably turned against the bid. A variety of public opinion polls were screaming ‘no!’ Yet only one of the 15 member City Council appeared even vaguely interested in what the rest of us were seeing, and saying. Despite the Christmas tree of red lights on the dashboard, it looked as though the City was bound and determined to spend the rest of the $30 million budgeted for a full Games bid with no guarantee even that would be successful.
In the end, it took 171,750 Calgarians — 56.4% of those who voted Against in the city-wide plebiscite — to scream ‘no!’ for City Council to finally get the message this was not something the majority of Calgary’s citizens wanted.
Big, ambitious, visionary projects are what build great cities. I am in awe of those who, in the 1830s, saw London 180 years in the future and decided to start building a railway network below the city streets — what eventually would become The Tube. Rational thinkers at the time could easily have asked a sound, reasonable question: “what on earth are you guys thinking?” The sheer genius of the improbable decision to proceed is one I puzzle over all the time but there’s no disputing The Tube is a big part of what makes London the remarkable, world class city it is today.
On the flip side, and while very different in many ways, I am equally puzzled when I drive past the earthly remains of a perfectly good downtown airport in Edmonton, Alberta and then drive another 30 minutes to get to the Edmonton International Airport. Who ever thought Edmonton was going to be so big, some day, that it would justify locating the airport so far out of town? As a taxi driver told me, years ago, when I flew in for the first time and questioned the cost of the fare to downtown: “oh, the flight from Calgary only gets you about half way there.” Decades on, it is still a pretty funny line. All joking aside, though, I still ask the question: “what on earth were you guys thinking?”
It’s easy to say that big projects need circuit breakers to prevent them from getting past the point, to mix a metaphor, where the runaway nuclear reaction can no longer be controlled. Applying that logic, however, it’s entirely possible those circuit breakers would have blown — spectacularly — in those deliberations around The Tube back in Victorian England. Conversely, the circuit breakers may have remained unblown in the modern, rational, fact-based, well-intended discussions about the siting of the Edmonton International. The numbers never lie, right?
So how is it we know one project outcome from the other 100 years out? The answer is, of course, we don’t. It’s a total crap shoot. There are just too many factors over a sufficiently long period of time that nobody has any idea how these things will eventually turn out.
Besides, in the current political climate it is quite possible we could set the metaphorical circuit breakers such that they pretty much blow for everything and where nothing in the public good ever gets done. The Tube doesn’t get built but at least we can still fly into Edmonton and walk to our downtown hotel. A mistake which is equally easy to make, and equally injurious to the greater society, is where those circuit breakers blow for absolutely nothing. We try and do everything and end up doing none of it well. That, and leave a legacy of debt our great grandchildren can’t hope to repay.
I am not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to suggest that there has to be a better way.
I’m finally back to where I started, which is the Cost of Change Curve from my software development days.
Before going any further, let me say I bear no ill will to those who wanted to bring the Winter Olympic Games to Calgary. Let me also say I having similar feelings about those who did not want the Games. Members of both groups are my friends, family and neighbours. In fact, I am absolutely not sure what was right for Calgary’s future — I could easily see both sides of the Olympic argument. However, I am 100% sure of just one thing:
Those who were actively pushing for the Olympics almost certainly had the Requirements wrong.
Furthermore — bending that metaphor almost to the breaking point — they were trying to fix those fundamental problems somewhere between Testing and Production and therefore spending several orders of magnitude more public money than they should have to achieve the result they wanted. As a direct consequence it was inevitable that, in the end, the failure was fundamentally about how much it was all going to cost. In a battle between cold, hard cash and the naturally more amorphous, intangible ‘greater good’ it really is no contest. Cost kicks greater good’s butt and takes its name.
Now imagine, for a moment, that the 132,832 Calgarians — the 43.6% who voted For hosting the Games — instead of voting in an imposed-from-the-top, capriciously non-binding and ultimately doomed plebiscite, those same 132,832 citizens had signed up for a bottom up, grassroots initiative to bring the Winter Olympic Games to Calgary once again.
Furthermore, imagine each of those 132,832 citizens had spent, say, $10 of their hard-earned paycheque to crowdfund a completely independent bid committee. In total that’s not a lot of money, but at this early bootstrap stage it’s a good thing to have no money. They would spend every last dime like it was their own, because it is their money in every sense of the word. As a result, about the only thing they’ll be able to afford is lots of nearly pro bono work on the Requirements and, maybe, the Analysis phases. This is also good, because the lousy money they would be paid means only those who really care will do any work on the project. Given the luxury of time, they would at least have a fighting chance of getting the Requirements right. The good work done in that regard can perhaps further build the base of support — and get even more citizens to sign up and fork over their $10.
The crowdfunded seed money, while still meagre, may still be enough to attract enough high-powered, civic-minded, dollar-a-year folks to professionalize, focus and lead the bidding process to the next stage. Keep right on imagining that based on the strength of that groundswell movement, coupled with those dollar-a-year negotiating skills, some big name sponsor money could also be secured.
Finally, imagine that a well thought out, complete, shovel-ready plan could be presented to City Council before the first public dollar was ever spent or even requested for that matter. So far as who is going to lead from that point having already gotten that far all on their own?
“We think we have that covered, Mr. Mayor, thank you.”
That’s a lot of imagining. Most of it, very very hard.
©2019 Terence C. Gannon
A version of this essay originally appeared in the Medium publication VoxVolo. Its content is reused here with permission. Thank you so much for reading and if you feel so inclined, please write a response, we would love to hear from you. You can also listen to this essay as an episode of the Not There Yet podcast, narrated by the author.