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Tunnel vision

Why the deftest communication skills will be required to sell the benefits of technology and major smart infrastructure projects to citizens in the future.

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I was equal parts amused and horrified to learn of the tale of Rome’s Vigna Clara train station this week. Open just in time for the Italia 90 football World Cup, it was closed eight days later when the nearby train tunnel was found to be too narrow. Today, the car park hosts a fruit and vegetable market and you can grab an espresso at the cafe at the station entrance. Your chances of catching a train on the other hand? Still nil.

 

This could change as Italy looks at improving its transport and broadband networks to help with the economic recovery from the effects of Covid-19. A €200 billion plan was unveiled this week aimed at turbocharging almost 150 infrastructure projects. Impressive figures but Italians do have a right to be sceptical - the country ranks 59th in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business scale (New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong are first, second and third respectively).

 

Italy scores particularly badly for how difficult it is to get building permits but Italians are hardly helpful on this front either. Once the offending tunnel near the Vigna Clara station was fixed, residents then said trains would damage their houses’ foundations. It took a court case to disprove this and the station should finally open in September.

 

The British are familiar with the concept of Nimbyism; an acronym for Not In My Back Yard, meaning they may want something to change so long as it doesn’t happen where they live. The Vigna Clara furore is an Italian spin on Nimbyism and illustrates a global problem, although more pronounced in some countries than others. People may say they want better services but they don’t necessarily want the associated disruption.

 

I’ve written in previous weeks of how cities need to place citizens at the heart of their smart city strategy and how services need to be built based on their needs. This will always be the case but sometimes the general public are wrong about the most worthwhile projects. And it will be infuriating and something that even the most open regulatory landscape can’t solve.

 

So what is the answer? Any governing authority brave enough to tell their citizens they are wrong, even when they are, is likely to see their time in power short-lived. But what they do need is the deftest communication skills to sell the benefits of technology. A handheld device that tracks your every move and knows which websites you are looking at is a horrifyingly invasive concept, but it is also the modern smartphone. In some cases, it’s simple salesmanship that can overcome nimbyism and get the trains running again.

 

What I’m Reading

The Recessionals (Financial Times)
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