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A bridge too far?

The incremental benefits that smart cities programmes can bring over large-scale vanity infrastructure projects might be more subtle but are ultimately more substantial.

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Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson knows that he has a penchant for the dramatic. Whether it’s zipwire stunts, driving forklift trucks or brandishing kippers during speeches, his antics amuse supporters and infuriate opponents.

 

One other predilection he has is for travel projects, usually named after himself. He introduced a new bus fleet to the UK’s capital when he was Mayor of London and built a cable car across the River Thames. The fact the former were overpriced (and overheated) and the latter a white elephant has failed to deter him with the news this week he intends to build a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland.

 

Given I’m originally from Belfast, the bridge would make it easier for me to drive home to visit family, but that hardly justifies a project that would cost at least £20 billion and as yet has no feasibility study commissioned.

 

Flippancy aside, you could be asking what this has to do with smart cities? In almost all parts of the world, public spending is inevitably going to have to be curtailed in the wake of the economic fallout of Covid-19. Spending priorities will change - less money is likely to be spent on commercial buildings if more of us are working at home but that will require better connectivity.

 

However, you can understand why leaders would be keener on the large-scale projects. They’re dramatic and also the scale could give their country’s population a bit of a patriotic boost in the wake of a terrible time for us all. That may sound ridiculous but an ambitious project may serve as a welcome distraction.

 

But these projects almost always run late, over budget and there are usually question marks as to their value for money. To take the, ahem, "Boris bridge" as an example, the estimated cost could be better spent bring true FTTH connectivity to all parts of the country, bringing forward targets for carbon neutrality or retraining a workforce that will soon have many seeking new jobs.

 

Governments have always had to be cautious about where their spending goes. Vanity projects may be striking but some of the incremental benefits of what smart cities can bring can be subtler but ultimately more substantial.

 

What I’m reading

 

Uber offers COVID-19 contact tracing help amid chaotic US response (Reuters)

"Hurting people at scale": Facebook’s employees reckon with the social network they’ve built (Buzzfeed)

The Climate Expert Who Delivered News No One Wanted to Hear (The New Yorker)

 

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