The European CEO Conference 2019 kicked off with a passionate plea from KPMG’s global head of infrastructure, Richard Threlfall, for the construction industry to be much more optimistic about the future and the role it can play in transforming society for the better.
Referring to current economic and political challenges affecting the infrastructure sector, Threlfall said that these should be embraced by the industry as significant opportunities which would give organisations working in construction the chance to show the difference they can make to people’s quality of life.
“The rise of populism is having an effect on infrastructure because infrastructure itself is political,” Threlfall said. “There is no doubt that Extinction Rebellion has influenced the movement towards net zero in the UK and as an industry we need to be engaged on these issues. You won’t get funding for projects now unless you can show environmental and social responsibility,” he said. This was a very significant development and places a greater responsibility on the industry than ever before to demonstrate social value.
Speakers at the opening session at the event, organised by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) and European engineering consultancy association EFCA, were keen to stress the positives for the industry during a wide-ranging discussion on global infrastructure disruptors. Tractebel vice president and chair if the Belgian Federation of Industries, Bernard Gilliot, said that engineers needed to get better at explaining their role and the difference they made as this was key to raising their profile on the political stage.
Rebecca Larkin, senior economist at the Construction Products Association, struck a more pessimistic note as she reminded attendees that the construction sector’s reputation for project delivery was too often not a good one and this needed to improve if the industry was to regain the trust of politicians and funders. Danish Association of Consulting Engineers chief executive Henrik Garver was more positive, highlighting the good work being done in his country and around Europe to engage with politicians about the positive influence that those working in the infrastructure sector are having.
Garver said that the key drivers for the industry across Europe were “sustainability, resilience and demographics”. He highlighted technology, staff shortages and contracts, given the increasing complexity of projects as challenges but these could be overcome by working together in partnership on a continent-wide basis.
While current political volatility and instability, in the UK and internationally, are having an effect on the infrastructure sector, this presented a real opportunity for the industry to engage with politicians and opinion formers on how to create the right climate for infrastructure investment and how construction can help politicians realise their aims.
Those present at the conference left the first session in no doubt about the challenges facing the industry but more confident about a future where the infrastructure sector would be playing an increasing crucial role in addressing the key issues facing society and citizens globally.