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From Broad Street to Broadband - What Can London Learn From the Infrastructure Pioneers of the Past?

21/04/2015 14:32 BST | Updated 21/06/2015 10:59 BST

When it comes to ensuring that London has an information infrastructure that can support the city's future growth, ambition and vision are required. Poor internet connectivity may be a very modern problem, but there is plenty that can be learnt from the infrastructure pioneers of the past.

Among the pubs and restaurants of Soho, lies the John Snow pub. The establishment is not, in fact, named after everyone's favourite weed-sampling Channel 4 presenter, but rather Dr John Snow, an 19th century physician. The role of Dr John Snow as founding father of modern epidemiology is now surprisingly well known, and not just amongst medicine students and pub anoraks. In short, unconvinced by the theory that cholera was an air-borne disease, Dr Snow proceeded to map cases of cholera during the 1854 Soho epidemic. The result - proof that the epicentre of the outbreak was located at a single water pump on Broad Street (now Broadwick Street). Dr Snow took his findings to the parish board, and the pump handle was promptly removed. Incidentally, a monument to the efforts of Dr Snow, a handleless pump installed in Broadwick Street on 1992, has temporarily disappeared, having been 'taken for safe-keeping' by developers working on a site opposite the John Snow pub after reassurances that it would be replaced in the very near future.

While Dr Snow's mapping was instrumental in establishing that cholera was waterborne, it took further work to establish that the root of the epidemic lay in London's sewage system - creaking, leaking, and vastly overwhelmed by the city's growing population. It was not until the "Great Stink" reached the Houses of Parliament in 1858 that members eventually capitulated and offered £3 million to the Metropolitan Board of Works to rid the city of its ungodly stench. This unenviable task was taken by Joseph Bazalgette, a man those ambition, foresight and engineering know-how has kept London's effluence running smoothly since 1865. The success of his sewage system is in no small part down to a determination to plan for London's future population, with the system's tunnels being twice the diameter required to meet the natural needs of the city's most densely populated areas at that time.

We should ask ourselves 150 years on, what can be learnt from the successes of Bazalgette, Snow and their ilk. Today, the use of data mapping is a common tool for academics, researchers and policy wonks. What's more, it's crossing into the mainstream, with a broadening range of individuals declaring themselves "data porn" aficionados. Visual analytics has grown up, and it's gotten sexy. This isn't just down to an increasingly wide range of methods for presenting data, but a need to manage the increasing amount of data. Just as Dr Snow discovered, data-mapping alone seldom drives real change - it took political will, and the leadership of an individual to create the step change in the city's infrastructure that 19th century London required.

How then, can we apply this lesson to a 21st century problem - London's flagging information infrastructure? London was ranked sixth from bottom in a recent survey of broadband provision in European major cities. A recent survey of Tech London Advocates revealed that almost half think broadband provisioning in London is damaging the city's reputation as a centre of digital excellence. While BT may be on track to hit its target of 95% broadband coverage across the capital, not-spots abound where it is supposedly not worth spending the time or money to install the necessary infrastructure.

The concept of Smart Cities has become embedded in planning parlance. However, the current focus is on how Smart cities can "use data and technology more creatively to solve infrastructure challenges", overlooking the reality that the infrastructure required to drive this data is a challenge in itself. As driverless cars begin to hum around Greenwich, and the use of real-time data increases by the minute, it is easy to overlook the most basic need for London to become a smart city - reliable, fast and accessible broadband.

London's current information infrastructure will not develop on the basis of broadband vouchers and leased lines alone. It requires ambition, and like Bazalgette, the ability to engineer an infrastructure system that will meet the needs of London's future population, rather than just that of today. As well as the capacity to last into the future, this system will need to be of high quality. As with Bazalgette's creation - protection against leaks and cracks is paramount. Most importantly, delivering an information infrastructure for London requires leadership, not just to corral uncooperative stakeholders, but to champion and defend a project that may no doubt prove unpopular on the grounds of disruption and expense incurred.

In setting up the Board of Works, Bazalgette described its mission as "the appointed physician to the metropolitan organism" - perhaps indicating an awareness of the unpalatability of his cure, in digging up much of London to carry out the largest feat of civil engineering at that time. London's information infrastructure may just require something the same. (Note to any contractors thinking about taking this work on - you best ensure the Broadwick Street pump survives any disruption unscathed!)

Smart cities, and smart urban policy, is not just about collecting data. It is about asking the correct questions, in the hope of finding a trend, proving a hunch. We must not let our obsession with collecting and beautifying data overshadow the importance of ensuring it can be communicated, securely, reliably and efficiently. The latter task may be less glamourous, but as the work of Snow, Bazalgette and their counterparts has shown, it is critical to London's future success.