ITER will be the largest nuclear fusion reactor in the world. Its construction seeks to cover the future energy demand of increasingly numerous urban populations. Credit: ITER.

  • Innovation


Colossal infrastructures aim to provide a solution to the needs of a growing population, increasingly concentrated and eminently urban. From guaranteeing the water and energy resources of growing cities, to creating sustainable and smart urban growth environments. These are some of the megaprojects under construction that are going to transform the world geography.


Enormous infrastructure projects are a mark of identity of modern cities. They make it possible to connect metropolises, reorganise urban planning and even manage water resources in search of economic, social and habitability improvements. In total, 8% of the world's GDP is currently allocated to megaprojects (projects costing more than one billion dollars). In a world in which the urban population will surpass the rural population by 2050, according to United Nations data, these megaprojects will be fundamental pieces in shaping the future of a planet with an ever more urban lifestyle.

The necessary specifications for these infrastructure megaprojects have often influenced the execution times and, in some cases, even their completion. In fact, 90% of megaprojects exceed their initial budget, according to estimates by Bent Flyvbjerg, an expert in project management from the Saïd Business School in Oxford, and up to 65% fail due to budgetary or scheduling problems or excessive complexity, calculates the consultancy firm McKinsey. However, these huge projects can also provide a transformative economic return for a society, as in the case with Dubai’s international airport, accounting for 21% of its employment and 27% of its GDP, according to McKinsey.

Inhabiting the uninhabitable: the transformative power of water

One of the objectives of some of the most ambitious megaprojects in the world is specifically to make some areas of the Earth more habitable, for which it is essential to guarantee a water supply. One example is the Great Man-Made River Project in Libya, which aims to construct the world's largest irrigation system and has been underway since 1985 (despite the armed conflicts in the region). This is a key infrastructure project to access the world’s largest known fossil groundwater reserves, located under the Libyan desert. When completed (by 2030), it will allow the irrigation of more than 140 million hectares of crops and facilitate access to drinking water for cities like Tripoli or Benghazi. The cost of the three phases developed to date amounts to almost $20 billion.

With the same intention, China is developing the South-to-North Water Diversion Project, a monumental plan to divert water resources towards the drier north of the country, where half of its population lives. The plan involves moving water from its large rivers through a complex system of canals, the largest of its kind ever built, which will require decades to complete (forecasts point to 2050) and cost some $62 billion.

Ensuring the water supply in the north of the country is the goal of China's largest South-to-North Water Diversion Project canal system. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Large, connected and smart urban centres

Another challenge of a more populated planet is to connect the different urban centres in an efficient and sustainable way. To this end, megaprojects such as the California High Speed Rail System promise to change the mobility dynamics of the main cities in this American state; it will be possible to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two and a half hours. Due to administrative issues, the budget and timeframe have changed over time since the project was approved in 2008. The first phase is planned for 2029, and the total costs are estimated at between 63 and 98 billion dollars, but they have also fluctuated over the years.

For their part, large established population centres such as New York City are opting to continue to grow intelligently. To achieve this, a new neighbourhood is being built: Hudson Yards. At an estimated cost of $25 billion, it will extend along the Hudson River, above the rail yard used to store commuter trains. Up to 16 skyscrapers, totalling more than 1 million square metres of living space, will be connected by a fibre network to make daily life easier thanks to the Internet of Things.

Associated with urban development, megaprojects also look to the future and the long-term sustainability of cities. How can we supply power to a more populated planet that will, as a result, demand ever more energy? France is building the world's largest nuclear fusion reactor, ITER, which will have 39 different buildings and structures and weigh 23,000 tons —three times the weight of the Eiffel Tower. This machine aims to make history in the production of clean and safe energy, for which it will reach temperatures ten times hotter than those found in the Sun's core: up to 150 million °C. The budget is also an astronomical $25 billion.

Dubailand, established as the largest and most expensive recreational complex in the world, aims to become a world tourist center. Credit: The Dubai Land.

Megacities à la carte

A further step in the conceptualization of tomorrow's world is to create it from scratch. The New Cairo project, for example, plans to build a new city from the ground up, which will also be the country's new administrative capital. With a budget of $45 billion, it will be able to house up to 7 million people when it is ready (2022). In parallel, King Abdullah is building his economic city (KAEK) in Saudi Arabia. At an estimated cost of more than 66 billion pounds, the city will be less than an hour away from the city of Mecca and plans to establish itself as a global tourist destination.

Dubailand, an idea of the Sheik of Dubai, goes even further; it will be the largest (278 square kilometres) and most expensive entertainment facility in the world. In addition to having several theme parks, it will also have space for research and a university, although it is not clear when it will all be operational. The project is also being modified over time (after the crisis of 2008, only 22 of the 45 infrastructure projects initially planned have been taken up again).

The transformative power of these megaprojects is undeniable; they change the geography and the way of life of the inhabitants of their region of the world. In addition, according to experts, they will be necessary in the future, which is why they are becoming more and more common. In the coming decades, we will need megaprojects to adapt to the changes brought about by climate change and the future societies of the Earth.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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