In a time of uncertainty and upheaval, bold projects are paving the way to a new future, as demonstrated by this year’s Most Influential Projects honorees.
Disruption had already become a hallmark of modern life coming into 2020, fed by burgeoning new digital tools and altered consumer and workplace habits. But all that, it turns out, was simple compared to what started unspooling in December 2019.
As the coronavirus upended the way humans live, work and play, organizations and governments of all sizes have been forced to reckon with previously unthinkable scenarios. And in the face of potentially overwhelming challenges, project teams and their leaders stepped up, responding with ingenuity, cooperation and a deep determination to make a positive difference.
In this 2020 edition of Most Influential Projects, we highlight 259 efforts, each a distinct masterclass in how to navigate change and deliver results. The projects demonstrate many pivots born of the global pandemic, but also shifts in response to pre-coronavirus forces, from sustainability to quantum computing.
These honorees—an overall Top 50 as well as Top 10s in 30 categories—represent the creative spirit shaping how the world collectively reimagines a new future. What’s more, they describe an emerging playbook for impact and success in a world that will never be the same. Here are four key elements of that playbook that everyone in The Project Economy should embrace.
Always Innovate, Even If Imperfectly
Never before has innovation been pushed to such a breakneck pace—demonstrating how progress must take precedence over perfection.
Take, for example, the project that tops this year’s Top 50 list: the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, designed to identify, accelerate and scale seven promising coronavirus vaccine candidates. Instead of waiting around for a single “winner” vaccine, Microsoft-chief-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates—a major financial backer of the effort—announced a plan to fund factories for multiple efforts. He acknowledged the move will waste “a few billion” U.S. dollars, but by stepping forward with this initiative, Gates underscored the near-term inefficiency required to enable breakthrough achievement. As of August, there were 169 vaccine projects, according to World Health Organization, yet the vast majority of them will not succeed. The COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator encouraged broad global efforts, recognizing that whatever “waste” might be involved, the ultimate cost will pale in comparison to the economic and human gains of surmounting the public health crisis.
Another, quite different inspiration to charge ahead boldly: Shanghai Fashion Week (ranked Number 10 on the Top 50 list). As the virus swept through China, its organizers pivoted to the first purely digital fashion week in history, with more than 150 virtually streamed runway shows. Not only did millions of fashionistas tune in—many of whom became instant buyers on the digital platform—but the event also serve to both buoy the fashion industry and to inspire others to embrace what was possible via remote tools.
Teams might not be able to hit every goal with every project, especially in an environment like this. But only by accepting that messiness (even as they strive to limit the repercussions) can teams maximize the potential.
Amplify Collaboration Across Disciplines
To truly gain ground on ambitious ideas, project leaders need to break everyone out of their silos.
Facing down one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in Europe, Iceland’s director of health teamed up with local biotech firm DeCode Genetics to launch a combo punch of widespread testing, contact tracing and viral sequencing. By fusing hightech and high-touch elements, the project (2) virtually eliminated coronavirus infection within Icelandic borders by June.
That never would have happened if experts in health didn’t lock arms with experts in tech. It’s a lesson echoed by Micra AV (44), a new, tiny pacemaker made possible by tight integration among gurus in software, hardware, medicine and research.
Giant organizations can join forces, too, with impressive results. Two of the world’s largest space agencies—NASA and the European Space Agency—partnered to launch the Solar Orbiter (17), a seven-year, US$1.5 billion effort to capture never-before-seen images of the sun. A historic 30-year agreement between Russia and China allowed the 3,000-kilometer (1,864-mile), US$55 billion Power of Siberia pipeline (15) to open in December 2019. The team behind the US$25 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (34) somehow managed to bring together 35 nations. If that project succeeds in remaking the energy future, it will be because of collaboration.
Lean Into Social Impact
In a world full of wicked problems, project expertise is more necessary than ever. Even before COVID-19 became the story of the year, Australia faced a separate catastrophic crisis in a wave of terrifying wildfires. Among the impressive, selfless responses was the evocative Kangaroo Island Recovery Project (11), which brought together Australia’s government with nongovernmental organizations to protect a critical ecosystem and save kangaroos, koalas and other endangered animals deprived of food, water and shelter. On another front, the World Economic Forum teamed up with Salesforce, Deloitte and LinkedIn to create UpLink (13), a platform connecting social entrepreneurs with actionable resources to attack the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals—from eradicating hunger to eliminating gender-based educational disparities.
The pandemic has brought out the best in project professionals—building hospitals (9), assisting out-of-classroom students (3 and 32), and helping us all keep our spirits up (38). Examples abound of meeting all sorts of needs: The Top 10 list for Social Good highlights projects tackling everything from racial inequality to accessibility. Other Top 10 lists include drone delivery of medical supplies and new renewable energy breakthroughs. Even toymakers are getting into the act, with Mattel introducing a gender-inclusive line of dolls (46) and Lego rolling out blocks with Braille dots.
Create the Future
In times of crisis, it can be tempting to focus solely on the issues of the moment. That’s a mistake. We all need to think beyond the status quo.
This year’s Most Influential Projects list is full of superlative-laden, first-time-ever, game-changing efforts. Tesla’s Shanghai Gigafactory (12) was operationalized in record time (and reopened quickly after lockdowns were lifted); Dangote Refinery (20) is on track to be the largest oil refinery in Africa; Toyota’s Woven City (24) brings together robotics, 3D printing and mobility in entirely new ways. From the launch of Disney+ (16) to the epic aspirations of the Dubai Energy and Water Authority’s new headquarters (47) to Google’s quantum computing gains with Sycamore (41), project work is remaking all parts of our world, redefining the future of human experience.
Looking across all 259 Most Influential Projects in this 2020 list, there’s a unifying theme: the ability to turn bold ideas into a new reality. As Melati Wijsen, the 19-year-old co-founder of UpLink member Bye Bye Plastic Bags put it: “We don’t look at [today’s challenges] as a burden. We look at them as an opportunity.”
How the Lists Were Chosen
To identify the Most Influential Projects of 2020, PMI gathered input and recommendations from hundreds of experts, members and stakeholders across the globe. The pool of project candidates, which numbered in the thousands, was then vetted by a special committee appointed by PMI’s leadership team. Finalists were individually researched, with each project required to achieve a significant milestone over the past 18 months. The ultimate selections were chosen to represent the broad portfolio of activities, regions and industries in The Project Economy. Submission information for consideration among the 2021 Most Influential Projects, as well as more detail on selection criteria, will be posted on PMI.org.