Casting a philosophical eye on infrastructure projects.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once wrote about the competing philosophies of the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog knows one big thing, and relates our world’s complexity to this one big thing. In contrast the fox knows many things and naturally pieces them together to form a patchwork quilt albeit within an overarching strategy.
To continue my assessment of our big infrastructure projects – over the past days and weeks, the number of foxes visible around us has been increasing:
- Sir Howard Davies at the Airports Commission – the runways decision is a most important strategic choice – it’s all about economic, environmental and social development, not just aviation
- Sir David Higgins in his HS2 Plus report – HS2 is about more than just one system – it’s about integrated connectivity, building on the power of networks to maximise the outcomes
- Lord Deighton in his Growth Taskforce report on HS2– it’s crucial to harness the economic impact of HS2 – it’s more than just a transport system.
This thinking completely coincides with the conclusions evident from a recent and excellent Independent Transport Commission symposium in northern Europe entitled Capturing the value of high speed rail. Yes, investment in new transport infrastructure can be transformational, but first you need regional political collaboration to build an overarching political vision and concord. After that you need the economic vision – in the Randstad, consistent regional thinking delivered one strong port – Rotterdam – and one strong airport – Schiphol – both bringing substantial and integrated economic growth.
Only then can you start thinking about the underlying transport systems you need, and how you can reinforce the existing networks with any new investments. They avoid building terminal stations for high speed rail, much preferring to cross-platform network with the existing systems, they compromise and don’t expect to get everything perfect (and it isn’t).
Our own work with Cheshire East Council to deliver a political and economic vision for a High Growth Region driven by integrated transport connectivity – a high speed superhub at Crewe – is entirely consistent with this experience, and is also evident in the thinking of Sir David Higgins and Lord Deighton.
I have no doubt that our politicians asked HS2 Ltd the wrong question, and our designers and engineers answered that question in the best way they could. But we need foxes as clients, to say maybe we don’t need the most perfect high speed solution, but what we do need is an open, networked addition to our existing systems, and one informed by a clear political and economic vision for our regional development.
- Neil Bennett is lead partner at Farrells