What Willy Brandt International Airport tells us about infrastructure spending

Bigger isn't better.

The myth of German efficiency:

Willy Brandt International Airport, named for Germany's famed Cold War leader, was supposed to have been up and running in late 2011… After four publicly announced delays, officials acknowledged the airport won't be ready by the latest target: October 2013. To spare themselves further embarrassment, officials have refused to set a new opening date…

German media have tracked down a list of tens of thousands of technical problems. Among them: Officials can't even figure out how to turn the lights off. Thousands of light bulbs illuminate the gigantic main terminal and unused parking lots around the clock, a massive energy and cost drain that appears to be the result of a computer system that's so sophisticated it's almost impossible to operate.

Every day, an empty commuter train rolls to the unfinished airport over an eight-kilometer-long (five-mile) stretch to keep the newly-laid tracks from getting rusty, another example of gross inefficiency. Meanwhile, hundreds of freshly planted trees had to be chopped down because a company delivered the wrong type of linden trees; several escalators need to be rebuilt because they were too short; and dozen of tiles were already broken before a single airport passenger ever stepped on them.

It might be entertaining to poke fun – and god knows it's nice to hear a story about this sort of construction-project-gone-wrong in some other country for once – but it's a good reminder that massive infrastructure projects are hard. Like, really, really hard to do. They require immense co-ordination of millions of moving parts, and anything which goes wrong frequently has knock-on effects which reverberate throughout the entire organisation.

That's why the class of things which we lump together as "infrastructure spending" deserves a bit more disaggregation than we currently give it.

The most obvious divide is between so-called "shovel ready" projects and those which are only on the drawing-board, or just a glimmer in a politician's eye. No matter what the final bill for them might be, it will be many years before ideas like Crossrail 2 or new nuclear power stations actually start costing serious amounts of money – and thus many years until any stimulative effect of those projects kicks in. On top of that, the first few years of the project will be putting money into relatively healthy sectors of the economy like legal advice, accounting and planning, only providing stimulus to the beleaguered construction and manufacturing sectors once ground is broken.

But there's also a divide between megaprojects, like the Willy Brandt Airport, and smaller infrastructure investment, like renovating a local train station, or resurfacing a road. The latter can not only get going much faster – and thus hopefully provide stimulus during, rather than after, this recession – but also doesn't have the millions of potential failure points. Now, local infrastructure projects are frequently run just as badly as national ones; but the chance of a four year delay on a six month project is, at least, slim.

So when we say we want infrastructure spending, what that means in practice is a lot of small, nimble, shovel-ready projects.

An aerial view shows the 'Willy Brandt' Berlin-Brandenburg International. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.