Being Feasible

Post by Steven Dale

What is feasibility? Image from pixabay.

Years ago, a colleague once remarked to me that feasibility analysis is nothing more than complex marketing — a tool used to advocate for that which has already been decided upon. It’s a comment that stuck with me over the years and has recently taken on new relevance to me.

As we’ve repeatedly pointed out over the past year (here, here and here, to name just a few examples), the cable car industry is living in a golden age of people not only paying attention to the industry but also actively researching and studying potential projects.

That’s no small thing.

While I have no clear statistic to back up this claim, I’m quite certain that there has never been a time in human history where more government and private sector entities have been actively developing cable car projects.

That development process, more often than not, begins with some form of feasibility analysis. And as we’ve also pointed out (here, for example) those analyses are oftentimes lacking in the intellectual rigour necessary to advance the projects.

From what we’ve witnessed, however, the problem is not one of insufficient diligence, but rather the direction those inquiries take. It’s a problem of not asking the right questions — or perhaps not understanding what the questions are in the first place.

When journalists report on a government or corporation commissioning a study (whether that be for a cable car or any other program or piece of infrastructure) to “determine whether X, Y or Z is feasible,” it’s oftentimes written in a way so as to suggest that the study is impartial and binary — that the project Will-Be or Will-Not-Be deemed feasible as though judgement were to be cast down from the heavens.

But what does Being Feasible even mean?

Too often, feasibility studies never bother to define what the terms of Being Feasible even are.

Do we mean something is technically feasible? Politically feasible? How about—to return to my colleague’s position on this—a project’s feasibility from a marketing perspective? Can it be marketed to get the necessary support? Are we discussing economic feasibility?

And if we do mean economic feasibility, what does that mean? Does the project need to be economically self-sufficient? Does it need to be financeable to the private sector? Is it acceptable that a project has a degree of senior-level government subsidy (as most transit systems do) and, if so, to what degree of subsidy is acceptable?

This is where feasibility analysis actually gets really interesting and creative.

Skilled analysts understand that a project’s feasibility is determined not by some objective criteria that must be met or not. Project feasibility is instead defined by the myriad of strategic goals on restrictions on the project and that feasibility is basically assured if those strategic goals can be realized and the associated restrictions can be reasonably surmounted. A good feasibility study therefore presumes that a model of realization must be created by the analysts so as to allow it to be realized within the project confines.

Let me draw an analogy by way of a thought experiment —

You are planning to host a dinner party. Is it feasible? Yes or no?

Image from rawpixel.com

It’s an impossible question, isn’t it? The mind reels and you probably rest on “it depends” as your default answer.

What does it depend upon?

Everything, of course.

How many people are you inviting? Is it a stand-up or sit-down affair? Do you have enough space in your dining room to fit all of those people? What is your budget per person? Are you having it catered or are you cooking it yourself? If the former, do you have space for the caterer? If the latter, are you a terrible cook? Are you serving meat? Is Angela going to be invited? Because, you know, Angela recently switched to a macro-biotic vegan raw food diet. Also, do we need to invite Brian? Because it was his birthday last month and you totally forgot to send him anything, not even a message on Facebook. Did Brian and Angela get back together or are they still broken up?

In this context, the question is it feasible? is beyond foolish. It’s ignorant.

So what do you do instead? You start with goals and restrictions . . .

Your goal is to host an intimate sit-down dinner for Brian’s (belated) birthday. You have a budget of $250 and your dining room table only seats 10 people.

Brian loves meat and is, indeed, back together with Angela. You are a couple. You can therefore only host 6 other people. Within your budget you can only spend $25 per person — which is very reasonable depending upon what kind of meat you purchase to celebrate Brian’s belated birthday.

Sadly, you are a terrible cook. You don’t, however, have the budget for a caterer. Thankfully, your spouse is an excellent cook. They will therefore cook, you will therefore entertain.

Furthermore, Brian’s best friend, Phil will have to be invited (they’ve been friends for, like, ever) and Phil’s a bit of a wine snob. No way $25 per person works if you need to procure a case of fine wine for dinner but no one wants to listen to Phil complain about the wine all night (and he will). Perhaps, then, Phil would be willing to “donate” something from his collection for the evening — you should check on that.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

Within our personal lives we engage in feasibility analysis constantly. We just don’t think of it that way. We intuitively understand that Being Feasible isn’t even remotely objective — it is highly subjective, iterative and creative. Anything is feasible, so long as it’s designed right. Good design, after all, solves all problems.

Why that subjectivity, iterativity and creativity gets lost in formal infrastructure analysis is beyond me, but it’s something we need more of. Too many good projects get stalled because analysts weren’t able to create a model to fit the project. And too many bad projects move forward not because they’re good projects but because the analysis was nothing more than a commercial for that which had already been rubber-stamped.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.

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