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New engineering giants must provide cures, not treatments for infrastructure ailments

Another week, another merger. OK, Arcardis buying Hyder is not quite in the same league as Aecom buying URS, but it is further proof, if any were needed, of the move in our industry towards a select few global firms controlling most of the consultancy market.

After the Aecom-URS merger was announced, we reported that firms like Arup and Atkins were now looking decidedly medium-sized and noted how our sector was increasingly shaping up to resemble the accountancy and pharmaceutical sectors where a dominant elite has near total control.

Arcadis clearly has eyes on being a part of that elite: with Hyder joining EC Harris and a host of other firms acquired in the last few years by the growing Dutch giant.

And it may well be there is nothing to fear from such an oligopoly. But it will be interesting to observe how attitudes change within these mega-organisations. What are the motivations? Can they genuinely be in the business of using engineering ingenuity and innovation to develop cutting edge alternatives to costly infrastructure projects? Or does the business model mean rolling out the same tried and tested solutions to clients who know no better?

Fundamentally, are these mega-firms in the business of offering treatments or finding cures?

I’m pondering these questions having indulged in a bit of light literature on holiday last week. Bite by Nick Louth is an entertaining romp in which humankind faces extinction from a new strain of malaria, deliberately and cynically introduced into the wealthy West so fortunes can be made selling a magic pill that treats the symptoms.

It’s quite a clever concept, and is teed up at the start by the brazen attitude of “Iron” Jack Erskine, chief executive of pharmaceutical giant Pharmstar. Cure for cancer? Forget it, says Iron Jack. “What we need are treatments, not cures,” he says. “Treatments that patients take every day, year in, year out.” The treatments are for predominantly Western problems - arthritis, depression, cholesterol control and weight control. “And the target market is one: first world and affluent,” says Iron Jack.

Of course, he dies of malaria - a different pharmaceutical firm has the magic pill for that. But his brash view made me think: how different is that fictitious world of big pharmaceuticals to our real world of increasingly big engineering consultancies?

Are these global giants truly interested in cures for “diseases” such as long distance travel demand, increased flood threat, water scarcity, and the push for urbanisation and ever denser cities? Because we have lots of treatments ready for those - metros, high speed rail, airports, flood defences, dams and desalination plants, and ever taller buildings.

But they aren’t cures. Any fool knows that as soon as Crossrail 1 is finished demand will force Transport for London campaign for all its worth for Crossrail 2. Demand for infrastructure is our parasite and it keeps beating the treatments.

So who is looking for the cures? Technology-driven solutions that radically reduce the need to travel, transform flood risk management, or significantly improve our urban spaces.

How much are we truly investing in those solutions? NCE is ready to share successes and technological advances. Surely that is our role, as civil engineers. We have to find these cures. Because sooner or later, the malaria will get us.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor

Readers' comments (1)

  • It's interesting that you appear to be abandoning the mantra which Anthony Oliver shoved down our throats in nearly every editorial that he ever wrote, i.e. investment in infrastructure design, construction and maintenance is a good thing (and why can't the UK emulate all of the other countries who pursue this line?). However, I don't think your disease-cure analogy really stacks up.

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