10 Lessons of the Most Influential Projects
A 10-Point Primer on What it Takes to Succeed in the Modern Economy
By Sunil Prashara
There are many lessons to be found in the Most Influential Projects. We've pulled out 10 of them from the Top 50 list. We encourage you to consider (and even circulate) your own lessons. What's influential to each individual person and organization may be somewhat different. But we can all learn from each other.
Inspiration Begins With Action
The internet already existed when Tim Berners-Lee undertook to create the World Wide Web (1). Cyberspace was an arcane sphere, open only to in-the-know academics and computer-world nerds. Berners-Lee believed that broader access—simpler, more user-friendly—would be transformational. So he and a team built tools that made it possible. The concept of open digital connectivity wasn't enough; action was required.
Dreaming about putting a man on the moon (2) is not the same as rolling up your sleeves and finding a way to get it done. Or decoding the human genome (5). Or rebuilding a disaster zone like New York City's Ground Zero (30). In all those projects, and many more, the act of doing the impossible becomes its own inspiration.
The Future Is Built
The Burj Khalifa (15) is among the world's most recognizable skyscrapers, a marvel of both architecture and construction. But it is also emblematic of the emergence of Dubai as a modern city: a built-from-the-sand global destination that has both anchored and elevated the Middle East as a business hub with expanding impact.
Whatever the controversies around Dubai, it is a singular example of how visions of tomorrow can become firmament today.
Building the future happens in digital realms too. Singles Day (6) was a ho-hum Chinese holiday until Alibaba seized on it as a symbol—and driver—of global e-commerce. From modest beginnings, Singles Day has grown into a digital commerce phenomenon, now generating more than US$30 billion in revenue in just 24 hours.
Magic Takes Work
A visit to Walt Disney World (16) can indeed seem a magical experience: fireworks and rides; crisply organized transportation, food, hotels; clean, bright, with all evidence of effort hidden away. Yet bringing the “Magic Kingdom” to life was anything but straightforward. From acquiring the land to installing—and updating—the attractions, Disney has pursued the appearance of ease with relentless effort.
The Sydney Opera House (50) was a different kind of entertainment project: a performing arts center and cultural site now included on the UNESCO World Heritage List alongside the Pyramids and Great Wall of China. In classic project terms, it could be labeled a disaster: 10 years late in completion and wildly over budget. Yet no one can dispute its status as a trailblazer in the world of architecture. Whatever may have gone off track along the way, effective course corrections were made. In the long lens of history, it is the global acclaim and impact that persists.
And when it comes to magic, who can deny the amazing resurgence in interest—by kids! for reading!—that came with the release of the Harry Potter books (21). J.K. Rowling's captivating creative world was nurtured by a carefully choreographed global book release program that cultivated anticipation and demand, built a legendary fan base, and spawned an entertainment franchise that continues to delight moviegoers, Broadway audiences and, yes, readers.
Minimum Viable Projects Are Powerful
When a Danish power utility company launched the first offshore wind farm, it was a they-said-it-couldn't-be-done project. Yet Vindeby Offshore Wind Farm (32) proved that turbines could be durable amid raging surf and salty air, and offshore wind has since become a mainstay of renewal energy. This, despite the fact that Vindeby itself has been decommissioned.
The concept of a minimum viable product, or MVP, has been embraced throughout the business world, as companies seek to innovate at a faster pace and test ideas with real-world data. When successful, MVPs can be refined and scaled, with impressive results. Similarly, successful “minimum viable projects” can be harbingers of powerful new trends.
M-Pesa (9) was conceived to help Kenyans more easily tap into the banking system. It now has millions of users and adjunct services in countries across Africa and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the melding of mobile and banking has become a foundational element in emerging fintech.
The artificial intelligence and machine-learning wonder had its minimum viable project in IBM's Watson (47). By winning Jeopardy!, Watson demonstrated how computing could match or exceed human capabilities. Whatever Watson's ultimate manifestation, its victory raised the profile of what a deft melding of hardware and software could enable.
The Door to Democratization Is Open
The fashion world is sometimes considered elitist, the purview of the ultrawealthy, the snooty, the glitterati. But a curious thing happened on the way to the velvet rope: The door was thrown wide open. Starting with the first Paris Fashion Week (14), initially geared for magazine editors, the fashion industry has gradually embraced its public-facing side. This has reinforced the field's ongoing relevance and allowed it to take advantage of new tech trends like Instagram. The all-eyes-are-watching projects each year known as fashion week have helped the overall industry grow into a US$2.5 trillion business.
Democratization has been a core driver of progress in other fields. Google Search (17) put the world's information at everyone's fingertips; Wikipedia (36) proved that the wisdom of crowds could aggregate facts as reliably as any encyclopedia; Khan Academy (46) made video-based learning a snap, teaching users in multiple languages about everything from art history to microeconomics. And all of it free of charge. Modern projects have made broadened access not only good for business, but for the world.
Collaboration Is Unexpected
Let's say you want to wipe a deadly disease from the face of the planet. Nice idea, right? But daunting to execute. That's what makes the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (28) not only compelling but refreshing. The word “collaboration” is thrown around a lot, but when it comes to the thorniest, most complex global issues, it often goes out the window. Yet somehow the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International, UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization managed to coordinate their efforts—tapping into a network of volunteers and experts worldwide, and reducing polio cases by 99.9 percent.
Things that sound easy rarely are. The European Union has experienced this, as nationalism and other complex realities have challenged the economic and political potential of a region with more people than the U.S. and more economic activity than China. Yet somehow—despite the differences among the various countries—12 of them were able to switch over to a single currency, the euro (4). It is now the second-most-used currency in the world.
Deadlines Matter. So Does Iteration
When Elon Musk bet legislators in Australia that he could complete the Hornsdale Power Reserve (24)—billed as the world's largest lithium-ion battery—in 100 days or it would be free, it sounded like a stunt. Until the project delivered.
Deadlines are powerful motivators and essential planning tools. So much so that milestone-by-milestone thinking has often dominated organizational behavior. More iterative approaches are increasingly popular, yet they, too, have limitations. So what happens when the two approaches are integrated?
Some of the world's most impactful innovations have been spawned from this marriage of urgency and iteration. The Toyota Prius (7) was a breakthrough in alternative-fuel vehicles, and company leadership used the deadline of the 1997 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as a spur to reach completion. Yet today's Prius is an evolved vehicle, including scores of improvements.
Projects that do not stand still are projects that continue to have impact. The Panama Canal (27) required an update because shipping had evolved; Star Wars (37) did not stop after its initial film, nor its second one; the DynaTAC 8000X (12) may have been the first commercial mobile phone, but the format has hardly stood still. Indeed, the mobile phone market may be the exemplar of how deadlines and iteration can help each other. From the dawn of the iPod (23), Apple committed itself to releasing updated devices on an annual cadence. The first iPhone was a breakthrough, and yet its iterative—and deadline-driven—advancements since then have made even those cutting-edge originals into modern antiques.
Bravery Brings Hope
Steve Jobs famously said that at Apple, they'd rather be the pirates than the navy. It's a compelling analogy, except for one thing: While the stakes at Apple were considerable in business terms, they were decidedly less so in human terms.
Bravery of a different sort was required in Rwanda in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide against Tutsis. In an effort to move past the country's history of violence and exclusion, the Rwanda National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (25) was created, a project that has included 97 percent of the population and ensured that younger generations grow up in a system of greater equality.
Equality of another sort drives the Swat Valley Project (35), activist Malala Yousafzai's initial effort to champion girls’ education in Pakistan. In the country where Malala herself was attacked, Malala Fund is aiding schools and home-based education, so that future generations can be hopeful beyond even her own impressive example.
These Are Early Days …
It is difficult to overstate the scale of the Belt and Road Initiative (18), an infrastructure blitz of historic proportions. Since announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, it has grown to encompass more than 1,800 individual projects across 68 countries. Yet this is only the initial phase. The mind-boggling nature of what has been put in motion so far gives a hint of what is still to come.
As much change as we've experienced in the last 50 years, the next 50 promise to bring an order of magnitude more. Whether it's AI or Bitcoin (19), the International Space Station (26) or the Large Hadron Collider (44), our understanding of the world continues to expand—and with it our responsibility.
… And We Need to Keep Our Eyes Open
Human progress has been powered by projects, as exemplified by the Most Influential Projects list. There is much to be proud of in that history and that legacy. But there are also cautionary signals: unintended consequences. Human potential has been enhanced by breakthroughs like the MRI machine (20), but many other advances will require vigilance to ensure the positives outweigh the negatives. The advent of Amazon's Alexa voice assistant (13) and its kin unlock a whole new realm of human-machine interface. But will the help that Alexa offers outweigh the risks of an always-listening intelligence? Will voice interface remove biases of gender and race, or reinforce them? The advent of in vitro fertilization (40) was a godsend to those who couldn't otherwise have children, but not everyone is sanguine about what a test-tube-baby future might look like. India's adoption of the Aadhaar (31) biometric identification system has unlocked opportunities, yet it also raises the specter of Big Brother-esque privacy concerns.
Those engaged in projects will be front-and-center in these challenges. How they meld achievement with ethics, opportunity with responsibility? That will define our future.