Bent Flyvberg is a brilliant analyst of big-money infrastructure projects. He’s shown through his work how large public investment projects are systematically under-estimated; he’s uncovered corruption; and he’s written a nice tract on why social science, ever since it became involved with physics envy, has failed to produce anything all that worthwhile. I like his work.
Recently, he posted the following question on LinkedIn:
Some argue that if people knew in advance the real costs and challenges involved in delivering a project, nothing would ever get started. So it is better not to know, because ignorance helps get projects started, according to this argument. The following is a recent and particularly candid articulation of the nothing-would-ever-get-built argument, by former California State Assembly speaker and mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown, discussing a large cost overrun on the San Francisco Transbay Terminal megaproject in the San Francisco Chronicle:
“News that the Transbay Terminal is something like $300 million over budget should not come as a shock to anyone. We always knew the initial estimate was way under the real cost. Just like we never had a real cost for the [San Francisco] Central Subway or the [San Francisco-Oakland] Bay Bridge or any other massive construction project. So get off it. In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”
It seems to me that in the broader sense (in which the question is pitched) then ignorance certainly is necessary for development. The key concepts here are innovation and risk.