Co-author of Taking the long view

By 7th September 2017 No Comments

A feature article in the “celebrating one hundred years of ACE” publication, Graham looks at how the consultancy industry has changed over the last 100 years. The cost and time associated with cleaning up after the Industrial Revolution, the adaptation required and the change in focus from profits to social responsibility.


The legacy of the past

The Industrial Revolution heralded an era of great economic prosperity for Britain with lncreasrng mechanisation and the widespread use of natural materials, lron and coal. Britain was home to the then embryonic chemical industry, followed later by steel and petroleum production. When Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition in 1851, the country was the world’s leading industrial power, producing more than half its iron, coal and cotton cloth.

Fast forward to the 19503 and it began to dawn on us that we had in some ways been the victims of our own success, forcing us to deal with the legacy of our former ‘spirit of enterprise’ and to minimise any further impact we might have on the planet.

Industrial pollution is one of the biggest contributors to contaminated landscapes. Sectors such as heavy engineering, power generation, and chemical and textile production, have left us with a huge legacy, requiring the Consultancy world to anticipate changing demands placed upon it. As well as polluting the ground around and beneath their structures and storage areas, many of our former industries also released pollutants into the air and water supply which then contaminated the land through links to water courses and aquifers.

Air quality in the largest cities took its toll on the health of residents. London, famously, was bathed in thick pockets of smog, and the Great Smog of 1952 is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of some 12,000 people living and or working ‘in the City.

At the same time, sewage discharges into rivers resulted in inferior water quality and deterioration of estuaries which saw fish populations decrease alongside the loss of other valuable wildlife from some river systems and coastal waters, Deeper still, a labyrinth of disused mines and quarries still requires ongoing monitoring and management. Asbestos, perhaps one of the most infamous products of our industrial past, has in itself opened up a whole new industry occupied with managing it in private and public buildings around the world, even though it was largely phased out in the 1980s.

The country, faced with little choice but to embark on a programme of pollution prevention, introduced a series of regulations designed to reduce emissions into the atmosphere and to enforce some form of treatment prior to the discharge of wastewaters to water courses.

With world population now predicted to rise to 8 billion by 2025, population growth, migration, climate change and rising water levels mean that land that is habitable and suitable for agriculture and farming is becoming increasingly scarce. The increasing urbanisation of flood plains causes significant volumes of water to be lost from catchments, and aquifers have difficulty recovering from periods of drought.

In the UK we have found to our cost that land for housing and schools requires careful selection. With agricultural land protected by the “green belt”, we increasingly have to look to brownfield sites, which would in previous years have been left barren as an industry declined.

The cost and time associated with cleaning up our industrial past, especially for businesses which own large portfolios of contaminated land, is huge. The cost and time required to ensure that we do not repeat the mis-takes of the past is similarly vast.

How industry has changed and consultancies have responded

The world of commerce is significantly different from the early days of the Industrial Revolution when there was a ready market to buy whatever a business chose to make. Today, with the advent of choice thanks to increased global competition and consumerism, businesses can no longer afford to work in a vacuum and, to survive, need to anticipate and deliver what customers actually want. Furthermore, the challenges now faced by businesses and organisations, be they in the public or private sector, are far more complex, driven by a myriad of economic, legal, environmental, political and social obligations, and responsibilities to their many stakeholders: employees, shareholders and the various communities in which they operate.

Like their clients, the consultancies that have thrived have anticipated the change in focus from profits to social responsibility, the so-called ‘triple bottom line’. These firms are able to demonstrate real empathy with their customers, understanding the challenges they face and providing workable solutions that allow clients to balance their many obligations.

Consultancies, through their close relationships with clients, have quickly adapted, with the 1980s and 1990s seeing an increasing number of waste, wastewater, contaminated land, environmental, ecology, sustainability and other specialists joining their ranks. They built up expertise in alternative energy, exploring many relatively new and developing technologies such as anaerobic digestion, biofuels, nuclear, solar, tidal, wind and ‘waste to energy’ technologies.

As these new technologies are developed, consultants must continuously undertake assessments of the impact they are likely to have on the economy, land use and the environment, and assist in developing mitigation measures, monitoring mechanisms and waste management plans in order to prevent a repeat of the impacts of the early industrial revolution.

To improve air quality, new methods for capturing and treating gases and dusts emitted through industrial stacks were introduced. In 1969, work began on two of the largest wastewater treatment systems in Europe – at Crossness and Becton – servicing Greater London’s then population of circa 8 million people. These facilities pioneered the most advanced wastewater treatment technologies and are still leaders in the field today. In 2013 air and water quality in the Thames are radically better than they were 100 years ago, and pressure will continue to be applied to repeat this success over the next 100 years.

Chemical plants are now managed via the Environment Agency to minimise further damage to air, water, land and the environment. From an initial baseline study, consultancies help clients estimate the damage done and identify measures to restrict the impact of future emissions, operating under the principle of BATNEC (best available technology not entailing excessive cost).

As coal and mineral resources shrink, experience gained in mining and extraction in the developed world is being used to good socio-economic effect further afield in Cambodia, Tajikistan, the Western Balkans and other parts of the world. Meanwhile, relatively ‘new’ technologies such as nuclear power have called for added expertise in the form of safety and decommissioning consultancy services.

Developers are increasingly taking advice from consultants on water capture and storage systems, grey water engineering and geothermal resources. The manufacturing and industrial sectors are looking at how they use water, and seeking assistance on how they can improve water efficiency and move towards zero discharge.

During the past 100 years we have seen dozens of Parliamentary Acts aimed at forcing improvements in health, safety and environmental standards. Some, more than others, have fostered forward-looking behaviour.

The Environment Act 1995 provided a framework to ensure the identification and remediation of land which poses “unacceptable risks” to human health and/or the wider environment, so it can be reused “to suit end use”.

The legislation also states that the remediation should be undertaken in a sustainable and cost-effective manner and should not cause a financial burden on either the landholder or the taxpayer. Since the legislation was enacted in 2000, consultancies have led the way in developing and introducing new approaches to the remediation of contaminated land which focus on treating and re-using materials on site, in order to significantly decrease soil disposal to landfill.

`Complex demands’
The more sophisticated we become, the more complex the demands. The consultancy and engineering industry has needed to continuously innovate and build an ever larger portfolio of complementary services for clients, and this is going to grow further. At the same time, the industry’s traditional engineering ‘roots’ have had to adapt in the face of increasingly sophisticated challenges in so-called ‘intelligent’ building and infrastructure design. Since the 1990s, standards such as BREEAM have provided a methodology for best practice in sustainable building specification, design, construction and operation, covering a broad range of criteria from energy and ecology to the internal environment (health and well-being), pollution, materials, transport, waste and water use, as well as ongoing management processes.

The challenges of the world have become the focus of us all, and have seen consultancies develop partnerships with universities, governments, NGOs, world banks and funding institutions in the developing and developed world to help build physical and social infrastructure, often in conflict and post conflict zones. Engineers and consultants have joined forces to become active lobbyists and thought leaders, helping shape the agenda around the world as well as the world itself.

Despite this considerable progress, there remain challenges such as the capture and use of carbon dioxide lost to the atmosphere through industrial stacks and the redevelopment and creation of habitat to encourage wildlife to return to previously blighted landscapes.

So what comes next?
The world, and the consultancy industry itself, have undergone a period of tremendous change over the last 100 years. It has been a period from which consultancies are now evolving into arguably more focused, responsible businesses that are multi-disciplinary, networked, and agile enough to pro-vide the best people for the job from both within and by and tapping into out-side and local expertise where that adds value and builds more sustainable outcomes. In some cases this means moving the expertise to the source of the problem by locating their resources in fragile and conflict-affected zones. Clients want to pay for creative but dependable partners whose consistent focus is to explore how things can be done better.

They want purposeful partners able to deliver the outcomes they are looking for rather than simple ‘delivery of a service’.

As the world faces the challenges of the 21st century head on, the consultancies of the future will become more and more focused on the hefty responsibility of building a better world in which to live and work — a theme that is important to us all, both as consumers and suppliers.

The separation between living and working is growing less distinct; natural resources and the environment, social and economic well-being and the built environment are increasingly interconnected in the so-called ‘circular economy’. Consultancies need to adopt a multi-faceted approach when delivering client solutions and must take a leading role in articulating a direction of travel. The industry will still crave iconic solutions but will expect consultants to play a lead role in making world a better place in which to live through direct engagement in planning, environmental impact, social infrastructure and international development to ensure a 22nd century that is fit for all.