Ambition (Lack Thereof…)

French tech blogger and fiber enthusiast Jean-Michel Billaut pointed on his blog to a recently published study about the electrification of France. According to this study, the cost of electrifying France was 762bn of today's euros.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if someone in the 1910s had been tasked with building an ROI calculation for that. Poor guy. He would have been faced with refusal upon refusal. I can hear it:

– "A 40 year return on investment? You've got to be kidding me! Better spend money on beefing up our army and organising olympics!"

And yet someone back then was visionary enough to consider that it would be money welll spent. Money that would come back to the state thousandfold, and in ways that no one could predict. The fact that half or more countries in the world made this selfsame investment in ubiquitous energy and can only congratulate themselves for doing so is a testament, in my opinion, of an ambition in government that I'm afraid has been lost.

Yes, I'm talking about connectivity. A recent study by Tactis for the DATAR in France calculated that the total cost of fibering up 100% of French homes would be 30bn EUR. That's 1/25th of the cost of electrification. And yet with the exception of Australia, not a single country in the world has deemed that investment worthwhile. Governments seem to think that ubiquitous connectivity is not as structuring as ubiquitous electricity perhaps.

That's easy to say now, but I'm really curious as to how those decisions were made for electrification back in the early 20th century. Surely the decision makers had no more foresight into the impacts of electricity as we currently have into the impact of connectivity. Nicholas Carr's The Big Switch looks at the economic impact of electrification, but not at how the political decisions to finance part or all of that network were made.

Ironically, just the week that Jean-Michel unearthed this little gem, France won the right to organise the Euro 2016 Football (that's 'soccer' for my American readers) competition. The investment this represents is roughly 2bn EUR to build stadiums. President Sarkozy stated:

"We in France think that sports is an answer to the crisis. It's because there is a crisis, because there are problems that the whole country must be mobilized towards the organisation of great events."

On the radio, the president of the French Football Federation (FFF) also came out with numbers in terms of jobs created as a direct consequence of the Euro organisation. I couldn't find a direct quote, so you'll have to take my word on it, but the numbers of jobs created sounded (to me) fairly small considering the investment.

More importantly, it struck me that the government seems to understand the "investment in infrastructure creates economic wealth" logic when it comes to high visibility sporting events (even though the track record in, for example, Olympics is far from good, just ask the Greeks…) but not when it comes to vital, ubiquitous infrastructure design to sustain a digital economy for the next 50 years.

I can only find one explanation: lack of ambition. Our governments, at least in the developed world, are happy to change little things and over-inflate them with PR, but when it comes to vision and ambition, there's no one left. Sarkozy is happy to be "the president that brought you the football!" but doesn't want to be "the president that initiated the most radical economic transformation of the XXIst century…"

I'd like to swap this bread and games mentality for a bucket of ambition please…