ecent trips overseas - to the UAE to visit ACE members there, to Indonesia for the 2017 FIDIC conference and to Singapore for Bentley Systems annual infrastructure event - have offered an opportunity to reflect on 2017 and to look forward to 2018 and what events might have in store for the industry over the next 12 months.
Consultancy and engineering businesses are facing a period of change, structurally, politically and economically, as 2017 nears its end. The market drivers I identified last year - China, energy, industry consolidation, technology and politics - are all still relevant with the effects currently being worked through.
Middle East challenges
During my annual visit to the Middle East, I found a challenging and not uniform market situation, with firms grappling with demanding clients and a somewhat uncertain payments and contracts regime. The market in Qatar is very difficult, Abu Dhabi is quiet while Dubai is busy along with Saudi Arabia, with its usual difficult working conditions and environment. Firms need a good bankable business case to continue future operations in the region and companies need to review the way they work, adapt where necessary or exit the market, as other markets are more attractive with better returns and manageable risk profiles.
It was heartening to see the excellent work being done in the region by ACE’s Progress Network for young professionals. They are averaging around 70 people at their well-attended events which are involving firms of all sizes, under the leadership of newly elected chair, Noor Hajir from WSP Group. The success here means that ACE is seriously considering establishing a formal ‘chapter’ in the UAE to better represent its members working in the region.
International success for UK
The FIDIC general assembly in Indonesia was, as ever, an important event for the global consultancy and engineering sector. The conference theme, Resilient Infrastructure, was especially relevant given the natural disasters that have befallen the region in recent times. The role of engineering consultancy in making the world’s infrastructure more resilient and people and communities safer cannot be overstressed and delegates in Jakarta were keen to highlight this at every opportunity.
The event was also a success for the UK, with ACE board member and immediate past chairman Gavin English being elected to the FIDIC executive committee and our Young Professional of the Year Ben Freedman being recognised with a special merit award as FIDIC Global Young Professional Consultant of the Year. Gavin’s election is very good news for the industry in the UK as it strengthens our position at the top table of the global consultancy and engineering profession and gives us a key voice with global decision makers, private investors, international public sector clients and multilateral funding agencies.
Presentations at the congress by UK representatives were very well received and we are clearly viewed as a market internationally that is attractive and worth investing in, with many major infrastructure projects on the agenda going forward.
My visit to Bentley Systems’ Year in Infrastructure conference in Singapore was an eye-opener in revealing the progress being made by the infrastructure sector in ‘going digital’. This is another area where the UK is leading the way, especially on BIM, where projects like Thames Tideway and Crossrail are seen as fantastic exemplars of the new and innovative approach to infrastructure asset development, delivery and management.
The event saw ACE enhance its excellent relationship with Bentley Systems, who as an ACE Affiliate organisation are an important strategic partner for the industry. We look forward to working even more closely with Bentley during the coming year and more immediately during our forthcoming CIO conference in London in December.
Looking ahead, the market drivers previously mentioned will continue to shape the economic and business landscape facing the construction and infrastructure sector. Embracing digital technology will be a game changer for industry productivity and consolidation will become an integral part of companies’ growth strategies. Politics will also be a constant influencer as the Brexit negotiations continue to pan out and international events, some unexpected, affect global markets.
A world leader in infrastructure delivery
In the UK, I see major projects like HS2, Hinkley and Thames Tideway being used to position the industry as a world leader in infrastructure delivery. It is therefore very heartening to see the government’s willingness to highlight the skills of UK engineering and consultancy in targeting countries that need infrastructure support. This is just what the industry needs and is exactly the kind of strategic approach required to showcase UK plc’s capability ahead of Brexit.
Initial previews of the 2017 ACE European Industry benchmarking study to be published at the CEO conference in early November are promising, with productivity on the up and a steady increase in profitability, which should enhance investment in staff development and increasing future pipelines. Therefore, the UK built environment and infrastructure sector enters 2018 with confidence.
This opinion piece originally appeared in Infrastructure Intelligence.