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Get your shirts ironed, there is plenty of work to be done

We know there's a recession and we know there's huge economic uncertainty in the future, yet we remain really busy. So what's the catch, asks NCE editor Antony Oliver?

As US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld once famously observed: "we know there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know".
It is a great quote and one that former Tory transport minister Steve Norris reminded me of this week just before he addressed a breakfast meeting at Civils this week.
In many ways it sums up why we are hearing such worryingly confused messages coming out of the industry right now. Wandering around the show at Earls Court this week, everyone knows that there is a recession; everyone knows that there is uncertainty over the future; but they also fear the "unknown unknowns" - what might yet be around the corner.
Norris, a Transport for London Board member, was of course, typically bullish in his assessment of the current market - not least the go-ahead for projects such as Crossrail and Thameslink (see page 6).
With Gordon Brown committed to borrowing for long term investment (as opposed to short term spending) Norris stated that "this is one of the most exciting times to be a civil engineer in London". Now, he added, was the moment to concentrate on delivering the deliverable projects.
It was a message shared by Nick Raynsford MP while also speaking at Civils. Now, he said, is the time to invest carefully - "throwing money at the problem is not the answer: but targeted investment is".
He pointed to the successful launch this week of the new All Party Parliamentary Infrastructure group and to the forthcoming consultation on the role of chief construction officer as evidence that at last government was recognising the value of infrastructure to the whole UK economy.
Because it's not just about London. We also heard from Sir Howard Bernstein and Sir Richard Leese from Manchester City Council this week. Despite the clear property downturn, they spoke positively of the state of the market in Manchester and the city's ability to deliver £3bn in public transport investment.
Which leaves us with the strange brand of "pessimistic optimism" among civil engineers - people seems to be saying "the world's in recession; we are all busy; what's the catch?"
As Rumsfeld might muse, what exactly are the known knowns and what are the unknown unknowns?
Am I overly optimistic to keep saying that there are some great opportunities for the industry to get stuck in to? Am I overly optimistic to believe that, provided it is efficient and effective, the civil engineering market really can ride out the down turn?
Perhaps. But then again, to borrow another line from Steve Norris: "The definition of an optimist is a banker that irons five shirts on a Sunday night."
And I love the smell of a freshly ironed shirt on a Sunday!

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