These are the most ambitious megaprojects in development around the world. No other country, with the exception of China and perhaps India, is undergoing a bigger building boom than Turkey. The Turkish government is overseeing a $400 billion spending spree on infrastructure that it hopes will lay the groundwork for a rapid economic rise. The impressive list of projects includes: The $49 billion Istanbul New Airport that’s about half complete. It’ll replace the 93 year old Ataturk Airport and, with a passenger capacity of 150 million a year, it will be one of the planet’s busiest. Istanbul’s advantageous geographical location also helps. “Istanbul, as a hub, is definitely much better location than Doha and Dubai, or Abu Dhabi, so we have these certain advantages compared to other countries.” The $5 Billion Istanbul Finance Center will centralize Turkish investment banking, much like New York City’s Wall Street does for the United States. A 48 km canal is being built alongside the Bosphorous strait that divides not only the city of Istanbul, but the continents of Europe and Asia.
At a cost of $10 billion, even Turkey’s President calls it a “crazy project.” Then there’s the $45 billion high speed rail system that at 10,000 km will be the longest in Europe and the second-longest in the world behind China. The $billion Istanbul-Izmir Motorway Project is a six-lane highway that will connect the eastern edge of Istanbul to the Izmir province on the Aegean coast. Turkey will become a regional energy hub thanks to a $10 billion natural gas pipeline that will connect Azerbaijan’s production facilities with consumers in Europe. Adding to its energy portfolio will be a $billion refinery on its west coast that, when finished, will be the largest in the country.
Turkey is also beefing up its armed forces, spending $7 billion to cluster its defense and aerospace
industries so it can increase production and exports to the international market. It has also committed more than $1 billion to develop an independent Turkish space program with the goal of launching 20 satellites into orbit by 2020. All of these projects come on the heels of the completion in 2016 of both the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge and the Eurasia Tunnel, two Megaprojects passing over and under the Bosphorus strait.
But the country’s main project is much more practical. At a cost of more than $200 billion, Turkey will demolish and reconstruct seven million buildings throughout the country. Why? Because the majority of structures do not meet basic safety standards in a region prone to devastating earthquakes. Government edicts state that the need to implement the urban renewal plan overrules all existing laws that would’ve prevented people’s houses and apartment buildings from being torn down. The reasons for the MegaProject boom are complicated. Yes, Turkey needs to modernize, and the quickest way to do it is for the government to have a strong hand in guiding the nation toward prosperity. But it’s also a blatant attempt by the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – in power since 2003 – to maintain control over the country by promising economic success.
Not only is Erdoğan raising legitimate questions about corruption, his strongman approach is trampling the rights of individuals and local municipalities. On top of that his projections are unrealistically optimistic. Erdoğan says the country can become a top 10 world economy by 2023–which happens to be the 100th anniversary of the modern Turkish republic, and would mark 20-years of his rule. A simple look at where Turkey currently sits on the list of
countries ranked by their GDP reveals that it’s economy would have to more than double in less than 6 years, while the economies of Canada and South Korea completely stagnate. That’s simply not going to happen. This high-stakes game was laid bare a couple months ago when Erdoğan narrowly escaped succumbing to a coup that would have seen the country descend into violent internal conflict and even civil war. Sharing its southern border with Syria and Iraq is only adding to the country’s instability. All of these factors make Turkey one of the most fascinating countries to keep a close eye on in the next decade, and is why we led off this series, our latest profiling the world’s future Megaprojects, focused on the building boom originating in Istanbul.
NASA’s three-phase plan to put humans on Mars by the year 2040 proves that not all mega-projects are earthbound. Step one is for Lockheed Martin to complete the $20 billion Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. It will be the first modern spacecraft capable of carrying humans beyond where the International Space Station currently exists in low earth orbit, to reach asteroids and—eventually—the Red Planet. For these trips, astronauts will need a vehicle that can support them for extended periods of time, while protecting them and their equipment from radiation, extreme temperatures, and micrometeoroid strikes. But the NASA/Lockheed collaboration has competition.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has grabbed headlines with his announcement that its Dragon 2 spacecraft will fly two private citizens on a five day trip around the moon and back. The target launch for the mission is 2018. Although that timeline may be overly optimistic given that SpaceX has not yet flown a single manned mission, NASA—in a statement—praised its industry partner for “reaching higher,” and vowed to work closely with SpaceX to ensure it safely “returns the launch of astronauts to U.S. soil.” For his part, in deference to his company’s close partnership with the American space agency, Musk said he’s willing to bump the two space tourists—who’ve already paid a significant deposit—to a later flight.
“NASA always has first priority…So if NASA decides to have the first mission of this nature be a NASA mission, then of course NASA would take priority.” But regardless of who gets around the moon first, the big prize is Mars. 75,000,000 km from Earth, it’s 195x farther than the moon. To study the effects on the human body of spending months in space, astronauts Scott Kelly and Mikhail Korniyenko spent over 11 months living on the ISS. Kelly actually grew two inches during his prolonged time in microgravity.
He shrunk back to his normal height two days after returning to earth. NASA is also using Mars Mission simulations—in which research subjects spend months together in Hawaii isolated from the outside world—to figure out the best way to handle the unique psychological burdens of the long journey. And that’s where the mission to Mars starts to run into serious challenges. One look at the Orion and Dragon crafts reveals that even
if the scientists and engineers get everything else right about the journey, there simply is not enough room for multiple human beings to live together for a nine month each-way trip to Mars—unless the mission is to drive the astronauts completely insane.
NASA’s going to tackle this problem in the next decade by capturing an asteroid and placing it in orbit around the moon, and then docking with it and collecting samples. This mission will be a test run for longer trips away from Earth, deep space walking techniques, and Solar Electric Propulsion, all of which will need to be perfected before any human mission to Mars can move forward. NASA calls the third and final phase of putting astronauts on Mars Earth Independent. Thanks to successful missions like the Curiosity rover, we’ve already begun to learn a ton about potential exploration zones. The next NASA rover is scheduled to touch down in 2020, and will have company. Europe, China, India, the United Arab Emirates, and SpaceX all plan on taking advantage of the summer 2020 launch window—when the planets will be at their shortest distances from one another—to deliver rovers and orbiters to the Red Planet. The 2020 rover will help NASA figure out the entry, descent, and landing techniques needed to get down to the Martian surface from orbit, and to learn what’s needed to live off the land.
NASA is also planning a round-trip robotic mission that will return to Earth with samples sometime in the late 2020’s. But to make that defining moment in human history happen, when a human foot steps down on Martian soil, NASA will have to overcome two massive challenges that could make this one of the most expensive megaprojects in human history: designing a spacecraft that can support a survivable trip to Mars and back, and designing a propulsion system that can deliver that craft, and then bring it home. Given the daunting challenges, the trip to Mars seems like the perfect opportunity for national governments to put aside our differences and our instincts to compete with each other, and instead form a global space agency. That way we can make sure our precious resources here on Earth are being used most efficiently. If “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” was true for Neil Armstrong’s touchdown on the moon, imagine the worldwide impact of the first step on Mars.
This is Lagos, Nigeria the largest city in Africa. Home to more than 22 million people, it’s facing a perfect storm of challenges. So let’s look at how this megacity is trying to modernize. The biggest challenge Nigeria faces is a population pyramid that’s overwhelmingly bottom heavy. 61% are younger than 25—that’s a lot of jobs to create and houses to build in the coming years. This problem is made worse by the extremely poor condition of the city’s infrastructure. Badly designed and maintained motorways cause people to endure agonizing commute times, and interrupted access to electricity causes regular blackouts. Add in the threat of a rising ocean that’s steadily eroding the coastline, and the future of this place looks bleak. But perspective is relative, so let’s gain some.
165 years ago Lagos was an island fortress and one of the principal roots of the slave
trade, until the British navy bombarded it into submission and abolished the practice. But slavery wasn’t outlawed in Northern Nigeria until 1936. That means any Nigerian older than 85 can probably still remember slavery, or was a slave themselves. In 1960, Nigeria gained independence from the British. But, the country quickly became engulfed in a civil war that killed as many as 3 million people.
In the dark aftermath of this bloody conflict the country had one thing going for it: oil, which provided a consistent source of income. But the temptation of controlling all that black gold attracted deeply corrupt men, and Nigeria endured decades of violent struggles between power-mad dictators and military officers. With just two legitimate presidential elections under its belt, in 2011 and 2015, Nigeria has only had six years of truly peaceful, independent — not completely corrupt — democratic rule in its entire history. All this upheaval was amplified by strong ethnic and religious divisions throughout the country. So for the federal government to appear legitimate, the capital had to move away from Lagos to a more centralized, neutral part of the country. Following in the footsteps of Brazil’s master-planned capital, Brasilia, the Nigerians built an entire city from scratch during the 1980’s.
The relocation of thousands of government workers drove migration to this new capital, Abuja, the fastest growing city in the world from 2000 to 2010. Unfortunately, while Abuja thrived, Lagos languished. With the city far away now it became even easier for deeply corrupt federal officials to neglect the megacity’s needs. But the its downward spiral is quickly changing direction thanks — largely — to one man, the current governor of the state of Lagos, Akinwunmi Ambode. Ambode earned his Master’s in accounting from the University of Lagos and studied abroad in England, Switzerland, Singapore, and at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Boston.
: “Everything about this man is outstanding, everything about him… He is someone who does not leave a place without changing it for the better.” Now 53 — with a long career serving the people of Lagos under his
belt — Ambode hit the ground running upon his election in 2015. He immediately began holding regular town hall meetings. This helped him tailor his plans to best affect positive change for citizens that they could see and feel.
He installed a team of competent deputies who’ve helped him implement his mega-master plan of targeted micro projects to drastically improve conditions throughout the city. Lagosians are already feeling the benefits of his less than two years in office. : “Today we are happy because the government have done a perfect job here. Now we can have a good access roads to get to our homes. And you can see business around this area, they are doing very well.” By making road fixes his first major task, Ambode wisely accomplished several important things that any new leader should immediately set out to do: 1) He gave his team a series of small, achievable goals to accomplish, allowing him time to weed out bad people and fix flawed management processes that bog down efficiency. 2) He gave himself some time to become comfortable in his new executive role and familiarize himself with the levers of power. And 3) He gained the trust of the people by doing something simple, but important: completing a project that everyone wanted, on-time and on-budget.
Now that his government is working well, Ambode is well positioned to tackle much more complex problems like improving the efficiency of the bus system; building a massive urban rail system; providing all citizens with uninterrupted access to electricity; cleaning up Lagos’ badly polluted environment; partnering with private industry to try and give all Lagosians access to affordable food, housing, and health care; and improving the pay of police, first responders, and security personnel. In addition to the construction of several bridges and other traffic improvements, Lagos is also installing 6,000 new street lights and 13,000 Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras and security sensors for surveillance and crime prevention. These efforts are working: Lagos was named the most security and safety-conscious state in all of Africa last year, and Ambode was named Nigerian governor of the year. By leading the mega-overhaul in the way civil society conducts itself, Ambode represents one half of the equation in creating a modern Nigeria. He also seems perfectly positioned to go on to serve as President and lead his people on their quest to claim their rightful place as Africa’s powerhouse country. The other half of this modernization equation rests largely on the success of two key mega-projects under construction in Lagos and Abuja: Eko Atlantic, a financial hub that’s being built on reclaimed land along the coast; and Centenary City, a gated luxury mini-city outside of Abuja where elites will live and stay while conducting business in the capital.
“The goal is to establish Lagos as the financial hub and commercial hub of the continent of Africa.” Geographically, Nigeria is centrally-positioned to lead Africa’s emergence in the second half of the century, but it must approach development carefully. With many parts of Lagos, and the rest of the country, living in squalor without good jobs or adequate housing,
spending tens of billions of dollars to build playgrounds for the rich runs the risk of making the majority of the Nigerian people feel neglected, and angry.
In fact, the Centenary City project in Abuja is already tainted by allegations of corruption. Another challenge facing Lagos is the unstoppable rising sea level, which will eventually submerge most of the existing city. It faces the same dilemma as many other coastal metropolises around the world: stop building on land that will likely be completely underwater by the end of the century and start building inland, or live for the immediate future by building where people want to live now, along the waterfront.
I’m confident that you’ll be hearing a lot more about Nigeria and it’s rising star, Governor Ambode, as the confronts these challenges head-on in the years ahead. The total population of Africa is projected to roughly quadruple to about 4 billion by 2100, driving the total global population past 11 billion. Producing the energy that all these people will use could obliterate any efforts we’re now making to battle climate change. But Africa’s population explosion is also a tremendous opportunity: because all the power plants where all these people will get all their electricity from haven’t been built yet.
This means humanity is now being presented with a once-in-the-lifetime-of-our-species shot to make our planet’s fastest growing region leapfrog the dirty fuels of the past, to embrace a future of clean, renewable energy. This is a quick look at how that optimistic vision of the future can become reality. The residents of Zambia don’t need any reminders that climate change threatens their way of life. The region is suffering its worst drought in 35 years, that’s big trouble for a country that gets nearly all of its power from the force of water passing through three hydroelectric dams. No water means no electricity, and no
electricity means blackouts that have frequently brought commerce and productivity to a standstill, gutting the Zambian economy and causing many to lose their jobs. All across Africa, countries are confronting the same problem: a constant lack-of-power. Sub Saharan Africa — all 910 million people — consumes less electricity than the million people of Alabama. Overall, more than half of all Africans have no access to electricity.
But this is changing, thanks to the emergence of renewable energy. The cost of building larger-scale solar panel and wind turbine farms continues to plummet, making governments and utilities more likely to choose them over traditional sources like hydro, coal, nuclear or natural gas. As we saw with the water shortage in Zambia — or the nuclear meltdown a few years ago after the earthquake in Japan — power stations of the past are less reliable, more expensive, far worse for our environment, and slower to build. So this seems like a no-brainer, Africa needs to go green, baby! There’re just three problems.
One, until now planners have lacked the necessary data to identify where to develop wind and solar projects that are socially equitable, have low-environmental impact, and are most cost-effective. This problem was recently tackled by a groundbreaking study of 21 countries that combined satellite and ground measurements with geospatial data on roads, towns, and existing power lines. It provides the first blueprint for where wind and solar projects should be built to maximize their effectiveness. The study also revealed Africa’s eye-opening, untapped potential for renewable energy generation. There are an estimated 550 million megawatts of potential solar and wind power spread across the continent, just waiting to be harvested. That’s 3,700 times as much electricity as Africa currently consumes. That’s so much extra energy, that Africa should aim to be powered 100% by renewables by 2050. It’s even possible for Africa to become a clean energy exporting superpower by sending its abundant surpluses of electricity to Europe; the Middle East, India and the rest of Asia; and even the Americas.
Of course, this is dependent on overcoming the second major challenge: the continent’s completely inadequate power grid. Modernizing it to connect clean power stations with cities all over Africa will be a long-term megaproject costing tens of billions of dollars in the coming decades. For fast-growing urban areas — like Lagos, Cairo, Kinshasa, Mogadishu, and Johannesburg — uninterrupted electricity is critical for the emerging industries that will fuel economic growth and provide jobs for billions. On the other hand, most Africans currently live in small villages and towns, so their energy needs can be met by inexpensive solar and wind turbine systems that are located on-site, but are disconnected from the main grid.
The challenge will be connecting cities — where more and more people are moving — with the mega-power stations that will often be built far away, in geographical sweet spots to maximize the amount of harvestable solar rays and wind gusts. This brings us to the third problem: money. African governments don’t have much to spare, so if we’re expecting it to fund this clean energy transition — one of the most expensive endeavors in human history — we should just keep on dreaming. Organizations like the World Bank understand this. In 2015 it created the Scaling Solar program to help investors partner with African nations that are looking to go green, but are often seen as risky places to start a large project. If ideas like this prove successful, it will hopefully lead to a huge influx of private capital in the coming years. Another strategy is for wealthier nations to provide the money, understanding that every time an African country chooses clean over dirty energy, the entire world is a little better off in the long run.
The U.N.’s Green Climate Fund is intended to be the centerpiece for this action. It hoped to raise hundreds of billions of dollars by 2020. But so far it has received just $10 billion from countries. US President Obama transferred $500 million into the fund in his final week in office, then handed the government of the world’s richest country over to a climate change denier, so it’s unlikely the US will be contributing more any time soon. Still, while progress may be held back for a few years, it is an undeniable fact that helping Africa go green is best for everyone in the long-term. Time will tell if we’re able to seize this moment. But every single day that passes without action, every time a baby is born in Africa, the pressure on governments to pull energy from the ground increases, and the window of opportunity for a clean future closes a little bit more. We love to take sci fi adventures through space, but the reality of how we’ll someday explore worlds beyond our solar system will be much different than the cryogenically-induced slumbers astronauts take in the movies.
This is how the spacecrafts of the future will probably look. Instead of a team of astronauts, it’s cargo will include tiny sensors, a camera, and a plutonium
battery. Instead of rocket fuel, it will be propelled by a 4-meter-wide sail that will catch concentrated laser beams so powerful they haven’t been invented yet. This most interesting megaproject of the future, a real Hail Mary, is called Breakthrough Starshot. It’s mission? To give us our first view of a planet outside the Solar System. Last year researchers announced the discovery of Proxima b, a potentially Earth-like planet orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, part of a triple-star system that’s closest to our own Sun. It’s our next-door-neighbor! This gave interstellar explorers searching for extraterrestrial life their first truly appealing target, one that could — theoretically — be reached in our lifetimes. The project is backed by a $100 million investment from Russian billionaire Yuri Milner: “This is something that people have been dreaming and thinking about for thousands of years.
The first one to propose that type of project was Johannes Kepler in 1610 and there were many smart people after him. So we’re sort of standing on the shoulders of giants. But only in the last fifteen years it became practically possible to talk about this project. And we know that this is just the beginning. We know it will take a long time, probably a generation, to actually launch a spacecraft that can travel interstellar. But we do know that the time is to start now given that technology is available and it’s mostly an engineering challenge and not a scientific challenge.” Milner’s $100 million is just a down payment to spur development of the tech needed to launch the mission within 20 years. The project’s total cost will be in the ten billion dollar range.
Here’s how it will work. A chip about one-centimeter wide will carry circuitry, thrusters, a camera, spectrometer, plutonium battery, and a laser beam to send data back to Earth. It will be surrounded by a sail. An array of lasers back on Earth will beam it up to a speed of roughly 20% the speed of light. At that speed, it will take the craft just three-and-a-half days to reach the edge of the solar system. Five months later it will reach the treacherous Oort cloud — trillions of icy objects surrounding the Solar System that will take seven-and-a-half years to pass through. If it emerges intact it will then journey for another 13 years before encountering the Proxima Centauri system. But it won’t stay long. Traveling so fast, with no way to slow down, it will scream through the star system in just two hours, giving it a brief window of opportunity to capture data, which will take four years to transmit back to Earth.
Sounds simple right? Until you think about all the hurdles. All this technology — from the lasers to the craft
itself — doesn’t exist yet. The good news is that initial research on sail-based laser propulsion looks promising. The bad news is that the lasers needed to propel the sail are 1 million times more powerful than what’s currently available. The lasers will hit the craft with g-forces tens of thousands of times stronger than anything we feel on earth. Artillery shells can take this level of force for less than a second. Starshot will need to withstand it for minutes. Any object — even a speck of space dust — could easily destroy the probe, or if it somehow survives a collision, send it careening off course. The interstellar medium is the vast unknown. The first and only manmade object to reach interstellar space is the Voyager 1 probe, launched in 1977. It took the iconic pale blue dot image of planet Earth in 1990 and crossed the heliosphere in 2012 and is still active. Breakthrough Starshot will launch exploratory probes as soon as a prototype propulsion system is complete. While Voyager took incredible photos of the Solar System, no camera has ever taken a photo while traveling at one-fifth the speed of light.
No manmade object has ever even travelled the fast period. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be transmitting any photos and data it does collect back to Earth.
Fitting a power source on an already crowded centimeter-wide chip capable of shooting a laser back home to us doesn’t seem possible. That’s why it’s best to think about this project in the broader context of space exploration. Even if it fails, simply attempting to solve the seemingly impossible always has residual benefits, just like the space race and moon missions did. There are other efforts underway to reach Proxima b up close, including sending a larger, nuclear-fusion-powered spacecraft. But that mission wouldn’t launch for a century. Another hope for taking a peek at Proxima b lies with several giant telescopes coming online in the next decade, including the James Webb, scheduled to launch late next year.
But as Voyager demonstrated time and again, there’s nothing like going to a new place. Which sport do you think will be played in the most expensive stadium ever built? If you said American football, you’re right. This is the story of Atlanta’s $billion Mercedes Benz Stadium that’s set to open by the end of the summer. It will be home to the world’s most spectacular roof and will be the first NFL stadium to achieve the highest certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
“For a roof to open in this fashion, with eight petals that actually move in a straight line, we can’t find another precedent ever in the world.” The roof was inspired by the oculus in the ancient Roman Pantheon and takes the retractable concept to a whole other level. The first retractable roof in a major sports venue was Civic Arena — home to the Pittsburgh Penguins — and the first large stadium to have a ceiling that opened to the stars was Toronto’s SkyDome. Not only will Mercedes Benz have the most complex roof ever constructed, but it’s ridiculous 58-foot-tall halo video board will be three times larger than the one in Jacksonville, the reigning king of LED displays.
The project also landed the city the Atlanta United, an MLS expansion franchise that began play this year. Mechanized curtains will cover the upper deck during matches, providing the more intimate feel common to other MLS venues. This entire stadium effort doubles down on the success of its predecessor, The Georgia Dome. It was the only facility in the world to play host to the Olympics, Super Bowl, and Final Four. Atlanta’s centralized location is part of the secret to its success as a sports mecca. It has by far the busiest airport in the United States, making it the most convenient spot in the country to travel to. The new stadium is already scheduled to hold championships for the next three years: 2018’s College Football Playoff National Championship, Super Bowl LIII in 2019, and the 2020 NCAA Final Four. “I think downtown Atlanta is very unique, I think the stadium itself is very unique.
I think it sends the right message to many cities in terms of public-private partnerships that are honored in the NFL. As co-founder of The Home Depot in 1978, Blank has built an empire selling quality products that people use everyday. To achieve the elusive platinum LEED certification, the stadium is using tons of recyclable materials and will have 4,000 solar panels to generate enough renewable electricity to power nine Falcons home games. Overall it will use 29% less electricity than a baseline stadium of its size. It will collect millions of gallons of rainwater for HVAC cooling towers and for irrigating the surrounding landscape that will include edible blueberry bushes and apple trees. The project was even recognized by the Obama administration for its commitment to sustainability. “It became apparent that platinum was within reach and that really excited me to know that we could be the first professional stadium to reach platinum.
That’s why I came here from Seattle, I wanted to be a part of this project, because of Arthur’s commitment to quality and Arthur’s commitment to doing the right thing.” The stadium will be financed by about $550 million of public money, with the majority coming from a tax on local hotel bookings through the year 2050.
This funding scheme makes sense from a local perspective, let the out of town visitors pay for it. It also seems like a win-win for Atlanta residents and their city council members who approved the project. Still, $550 million is a lot of money for citizens of the state of Georgia to spend on a stadium, especially one whose primary tenant will be the richest sports league in the world.
That 7% tax on hotel rooms could’ve gone to many other things that would enrich people’s lives more in the long run rather than the immediate gratification of building a shrine to sports stars. Still, hosting so many massive events will also have economic benefits for the city, not to mention the pride and prestige it will add to downtown. Atlanta quarterback and reigning NFL MVP Matt Ryan — who was just one magical Tom Brady drive away from a championship — summed up the excitement surrounding the new stadium: “Atlanta’s such a great town. And for hosting events that are coming in this stadium’s going to be unbelievable. But for us to have it as our home field, it’s gonna be the best in the NFL. It’ll be fun, it’ll be fun to play in it and it’s gonna be a great home field advantage for us.” India loves megaprojects.
The country’s $90 billion Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor is one of the most ambitious, expensive endeavors in human history. Completing 1,500 kilometers of new railway and more than 20 brand new cities will set the stage for India to become a manufacturing superpower in the next two decades. It’s so important I made a video all about it a couple years ago, it’s linked below. Now, the corridor may be vital to India’s future economy, but it’s not the project that will deliver the largest day-to-day improvement in quality of life. Neither will a new mega-airport under construction in Mumbai, or World One—the largest residential tower in the world, or even a 500 km high speed rail line planned for India’s west coast. No, the project Indians need most is more basic than all that: it’s hundreds of thousands of kilometers of paved roads. Like the rest of the world, the Indian people have fallen in love with driving. But there currently aren’t enough reliable highways to hold all the cars in a country of billion people and growing.
The good news is that the Indian government has learned one of the key economic lessons of modern history: that the not-so-secret ingredient of America’s dominance over the last half century is our vast network of well-maintained streets and highways. Roads allow us to move ourselves — and all of our goods — fluidly from city to city, from fields to towns to air and sea ports, and beyond. China learned this lesson a while ago. They’ve spent tens of billions of dollars on roadways over the past two decades as their economy boomed. Now that its transportation infrastructure is maturing, the Chinese are positioned for rapid development. India wants to follow the same blueprint and is in the midst of a sustained, years-long, multi-tens of billions of dollars megaproject to do just that. India has about the same population as China, but double the density.
Get this, of the five most-densely populated cities in the world with more than four million residents, four of them are in India, including the planet’s most crowded megacity, Mumbai. So with much less land to work with, India’s challenge will be expanding, modernizing, and widening its existing network of roads, which, on the plus side, is already quite extensive. On the downside, 40% of it is dirt. Without good roads, the country is less unified because its people and goods can’t move around freely enough, especially to and from rural areas. Currently, national highways connecting major cities with ports and rail junctions carry 40% of all passenger and freight traffic, but make up just 1.5% of the total road network, leading to horrible traffic congestion on these crucial arteries.
One of the new roads in the megaproject that’s already completed is a $2B expressway that slashed the travel time between Delhi to Agra by up to four hours. But barbed wire fencing all along the route keeps it clear of the people and slow-moving vehicles that crowd the rest of India’s roads, and high tolls mean it’s used only for the rich. This undercuts the whole purpose of the road: to alleviate congestion on the rest of the roads. The predictable result of this segregation is that the highway is being used far less than it should be. Challenges like this will need to be addressed and overcome by the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who’s a big fan of megaprojects, and has maintained his commitment to the ambitious goal of completing 18,500 kilometers of controlled-access highway.
One of the main obstacles to achieving this vision is that the megaproject suffers from chronic underfunding and the disappointment of only reaching about half its construction goals, year-after-year. Part of the problem that’s holding it back is the financing model, which is flawed. Using Public Private Partnerships to build toll roads doesn’t work if the road’s profitability is depressed because not enough people can afford the expensive access fees.
Potential investors see this and are scared away—no firm wants to sink significant time and capital into a project that will lose it money. This means the national government is having to get creative with its funding mechanisms and coming up with more funds than it anticipated to jump-start each construction project. Compare this to the way the Chinese operate. As an authoritarian country, a single political party controls the entire government, allowing it to push projects through and spend money as it pleases, sometimes in a brutally efficient way. The government of India, the world’s largest democracy, can’t operate like that. But while China, India’s continental rival, may have leapt ahead in its rate of completion of a mega-network of highways, it has yet to face the inevitable reckoning of a messy transition to democracy.
With a people who are much freer, on this front, the Indians are miles ahead of the Chinese. Now, they just need to build themselves enough open road so their economy can hit top speed. Having recently completed both the world’s most extensive system of expressways and the planet’s longest high speed rail network, China is now looking beyond its borders for opportunities to keep building. President Xi Jinping announced at a recent summit that Beijing has sealed megaproject deals with 65 countries throughout Eurasia and Africa to construct ports, power stations, rail lines, roads, and all the tunnels and bridges needed to connect them back to mainland China. At a total cost of over $1 trillion, the One Belt, One Road initiative is unprecedented in size and scope. So is the bold funding mechanism: China will use its large, state-run banks to provide most of the financing, a risky move, when you consider how few of the nations in the O.B.O.R. could afford something like this on their own. “Oh,” say the leaders of economically-challenged, underdeveloped Laos, Yemen, or Ethiopia — or the blood-soaked regime of Bashar al-Assad in war-ravaged Syria — “you want to loan us billions of dollars to build some cool stuff in our countries? Of course, why not!?” China is hard-selling the project as a way to boost its westward connections, an update of the silk road trade route that played a significant role in
developing China and the rest of the region 1,000 years ago.
But many analysts see this comparison as little more than a marketing pitch. Al Jazeera clip: “Is the real point of this, East-West service then simply to boost China’s westward connections? “Well I wouldn’t say simply to boost China’s westward connections, but I totally agree with Charles that it’s more a PR stunt. To call it the “Silk Road,” that’s really brilliant—evocative of romantic camel travels in the past. When, you know, you have these lovely silks and trade and so forth. And it’s good, because look at all the headlines it has been getting, but in practical terms, it’s early days yet.” Aside from the lessons China learned from its own recent infrastructure boom, Beijing is also drawing inspiration from the American Marshall Plan which financed the rebuilding of Western Europe after it was decimated during the second world war.
That program was worth the equivalent of $130 billion in today’s dollars and ensured the US had reliable export markets for the manufactured goods and machinery its growing economy had become dependent on producing. China’s modern version — first announced in 2013 — is the signature initiative of President Xi Jinping. Several projects have already been completed. Earlier this year London became the 15th European city connected directly to China through an ever-expanding global rail system, meaning freight trains loaded with goods can now arrive after a 12,000km journey all the way from the east coast of the landmass. And, at a cost of $4 billion, China also just completed Africa’s first transnational electric railway, which runs 466 miles from Djibouti to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
Chinese companies designed the system, built the line, and supplied the train cars. The many other projects under the O.B.O.R. umbrella include: A $6 billion, 260-mile railway connecting eight Asian countries. Desperately needed power plants to address Pakistan’s chronic electricity shortage, part of a larger $46 billion investment by China in Pakistan aimed at offsetting the American and Japanese-backed building boom happening in neighboring India, China and Pakistan’s mutual rival. Train lines will connect Budapest to Belgrade, Serbia, providing another artery for Chinese goods to reach Europe after arriving in a Chinese-owned port in Greece. And — in a move that adds prestige to O.B.O.R. — China is financing more than a third of the $billion cost of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in southwest England. Part of the challenge in analyzing whether this building boom is ultimately good for the world is its sheer complexity. Nothing like this has ever been done before in human history. Yes, providing underdeveloped countries a chance to have better transportation infrastructure, or cleaner power plants is a good thing.
But, by funding infrastructure that’s designed to enhance commerce and trade — instead of basic services many of these countries need more, like clean drinking water, affordable housing, and better education — China’s motives seem to favor the wealthy, elite business class. Here are other factors that explain why China is undertaking a project of this magnitude: The Communist Party has staked its reputation on non-stop economic growth. Since they hold all the power, the Chinese people expect them to deliver. But with its domestic megaproject boom nearing completion, China must find new buyers for all the steel, cement, and construction machinery its economy produces, or many of its factories could grind to a halt.
It has decided the solution is One Belt, One Road, but lending hundreds of billions of dollars to many countries with weak credit ratings and unstable political systems is very risky. Which reveals an underlying sense you get when you look closely at One Belt One Road: China’s increasing desperation. The country’s national debt is already very high, but borrowing continues to accelerate at historic levels as state owned banks loan more and more money to state owned companies. The prime example of the risks associated with the tight rope the Communist Party is trying to walk was the government bailouts issued during China’s recent stock market collapse. That crisis was caused by the same sense of impatience that’s driving O.B.O.R.—the Party’s need to feed the insatiable economic growth monster.
Using its powerful propaganda machine, Beijing urged its own people to invest their savings heavily in its immature, unstable market—causing inexperienced citizens to treat investments in companies like bets at a casino, creating a huge bubble that, naturally, burst. The government then suspended trading for a while and pumped billions into the system to avoid a total collapse. So really, when you step back, the core motivation for One Belt, One Road boils down to the Communist Party’s need to buy itself more time in order to come up with its next scheme to prop up the economy, because when it inevitably slows down, which it’s already starting to do, the Party’s promise to deliver a fantastic economic dream world will have been proven false for everyone in China but the elites. The silver lining is that many of the ventures China has undertaken will pay long-term dividends, like building up its high-tech manufacturing sector, with the anticipation that when OBOR’s transportation networks are complete, it will be ready to use them to deliver higher-cost goods like iPhones, drones, and green energy technologies to the rest of the world.
The other major motivating factor here is the unmistakable opportunity to gain even-power status with the United States in Asia. The election of Donald Trump, and then his decision to walk away from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal that would have hurt China, are massive geopolitical mistakes—completely unforced errors that China intends to take full advantage of. When it first announced the O.B.O.R. back in 2013, Barack Obama had just begun his second term and the US pivot to Asia was in full force. With rivals like Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam challenging China’s efforts to control maritime trade routes, it was clear China was being hemmed in on its Eastern flank.
Despite the election of Trump, this is still true. So by instead turning instead to the vast land mass to the west for new opportunities, China minimizes its reliance on maritime trade routes that could be cut off in the event of a destabilizing military conflict. At the end of the day, China is all about business. It doesn’t matter if you’re a democracy, a dictatorship, or a failed state, China wants to work with you. But this willingness to embrace some of the world’s more unsavory characters could backfire. Just look who Xi is sitting next to at the O.B.O.R.
Summit: Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan—two men who look more and more like dictators clinging to power with each passing day. That’s not a good look for China, and it reminds us that the Communist Party is even less transparent. But in a world where the President of the United States is a bumbling fool, these partnerships create much less of an image problem now
than they would have just a few months ago, when the widely admired Barack Obama was leading the free world.
If you ask the Chinese, the O.B.O.R. is all about peace, an embrace of the concept of coop-etition. A generation ago it was unthinkable for a country to invest billions of dollars on infrastructure in another country, but in our hyper-globalized world, dominated by interconnected markets, it may become the norm, especially when we consider the intangible benefits—greater economic interdependence lowers the risk that groups of countries will want to fight with other groups of countries, many of whom are bound together by military alliances. Every one of these projects increases China’s soft power, giving Beijing more and more leverage in any future negotiation or military conflict. The many foreign seaports it will build and manage for the next half century will be particularly valuable chess pieces. Its understandable that Chinese policymakers are romanticizing One Belt, One Road as a crowning achievement for their nation—further recognition that it has regained its former status as a great civilization that deserves recognition around the world. But the reality is that it still has a long way to go. Combined, the following factors may weaken the optimistic sales pitches being made to foreign officials: a recent Oxford business school study argued that half of Chinese domestic megaprojects actually destroyed, not generated economic value; a few of China’s previous efforts to build megaprojects in foreign countries — like the A2 motorway in Poland — failed miserably; landowners and their representatives in the national assemblies of host countries are pushing back hard against attempts to take away their land; and public demonstrations against some the projects are beginning to take root, and spread.
Another dose of reality that should sober Beijing is that— after analyzing China’s overleveraged financial position — its credit rating was just downgraded by a major agency, whose analysts concluded that its borrowing is raising red flags, and its economic growth will continue to slow down. Of course, none of these speed bumps is going to stop the Communist Party from attempting to execute their great leap. They are committed 100% to embracing a fundamental history lesson — one we were all reminded of by Brexit’s improbable win and the unlikely ascendence of Donald Trump — that fortune favors the bold—at least, in the short run. Thanks for watching. Get caught up on all of China’s major domestic megaprojects with the mini-documentary I made last year, which started some interesting conversations. To learn even more, and to support our work, sign up for a free 30-trial of Audible.com — linked below — and you’ll get one free audio download, like the great courses on The Fall and Rise of China.
Until next time, for TDC, I’m Bryce Plank. .
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