The end of consultancy as we know it?

BIM is being seen as the beginning of a digital revolution that will have a profound effect on how consultants do business allied with the impact of big data, digital infrastructure models and the collaboration opportunities provided by cloud computing? What is the technology challenge for consultants and how will they have to change to meet it? Infrastructure Intelligence and BST Global brought together a group to find out. Jackie Whitelaw reports.

In the end it wasn’t the technology that the 12 people at the Infrastructure Intelligence and BST Global round table event debated in our discussion about the digital infrastructure revolution. It was how business culture had to change to meet the opportunities and upheavals that new technology is bringing. And that ranged from how businesses worked, what they did, who they employed and how their culture had to adapt to suit.

As BST managing director – international business Eduardo Niebles summed up: “Data is just an enabler. The main issues are about how you use it to work better with your clients and your own staff. People are your capital. But, here’s the main caveat, if you don’t have a view about what do with technology and big data, it will bite you.  This is the time to mobilise collaborations, take advantage of the knowledge sitting in the cloud and build new skill sets to interpret the data. Which firms are really doing anything about it?”

“Data is just an enabler. The main issues are about how you use it to work better with your clients and your own staff. People are your capital. But, here’s the main caveat, if you don’t have a view about what do with technology and big data, it will bite you." Eduardo Niebles, BST Global

There was a general view around the table that people were nervous about the changes ahead, mostly because they couldn’t really define what they would be, but also they were excited by the potential opportunities and the chance that more will be demanded of an engineer’s intellect in the future.

“We recognise this is a transition stage with new technology coming forward,” said managing director for energy, environment and design at Waterman Neil Humphrey. “How we adapt is an issue. As is not knowing how the landscape of work is going to look and change – does the competition even exist yet?; look what has happened with taxis and Uber. Things are going to alter dramatically in our sector and I can’t imagine it yet and that makes me nervous.”

According to Pell Frischmann Group director Tushar Prabhu “civil engineering in particular is going to be turned on its head with new technology. A bunch of people will become extinct.”

He introduced the idea to the discussion of a tank for a water plant that with development of BIM and libraries of standard products could be designed more cheaply in China than an as a bespoke option in the UK. “In fact, why design anything here?” he asked.

For WYG regional director Marc Davies this development would create opportunity for UK practices. “Yes it’s a tank, yes it’s a standard, off the shelf object, but someone has to establish where to put it for maximum efficiency and whether it will work in practice; that bit requires people to do some thinking. We have to embrace the opportunity that technological change is bringing and adapt. And accept that the way our businesses use, and charge for, their time will be different.”

“My take is that it’s the people who should drive the technology rather than the other way round, and sometimes that is missed,” Tony Gee & Partners executive managing director Graham Nicholson

Prabhu concurred with that. “You are right. It’s the bits where there is no set answer that creates the opportunity for consultants. But most of what civil engineers are doing in consultancy at the moment will be extinct in 10 years’ time. We are entering a disruptive phase in industry. In China, design is done to fit round the product – that will be a big deal for companies here when clients pick up on the power of that technology. When the old clients go, the old ways will go too and what are we all going to do next?”

Having time to tackle harder problems sounded, to Sandberg managing partner Neil Sandberg, like a good thing. “I find what is happening all very exciting,” he said. “We are going to be able to solve more problems. OK so you just buy your tank in on time; great, that means we can drop all the work that’s dated and do more interesting stuff. Businesses have to stay alive and dynamic by keeping up.”

The group could all see their future value in having a business that had the engineering knowledge to underpin the technology. “You need that knowledge base,” said GHA Livigunn director Stewart Tennant. “You can see a generation coming through that is good at the technology but doesn’t have that knowledge, yet. I’m waiting to see the first major project designed in BIM to have overlooked something fundamental. What is going to be key is having people with expertise, not people with expertise at using the technology.”

“My take is that it’s the people who should drive the technology rather than the other way round, and sometimes that is missed,” Tony Gee & Partners executive managing director Graham Nicholson said. “The fear is who drives the technology? That’s the big void as the software gets more and more complicated. That’s why we are pushing for more technician engineer apprenticeships to combine the skill sets.”

Niebles suggested to the group that collaboration, strength in unity and knowledge, is a way forward. “Is there an opportunity to collaborate and make the consultant engineering role even more specific?” he asked. “If you can refine the knowledge base, I see that as an opportunity. Your clients will be paying not for the numbers of hours or drawings you deliver, but for your experience and knowledge.”

Keep up with developments in digital infrastructure on the Infrastructure Intelligence Digital infrastructure hub.

According to Pick Everard partner Mark Colby, the broader industry could do worse than look at what architects and structural engineers have been up to. “Structural teams collaborate well with architects,” he said. “And they have embraced the technology better. Civil engineering has been much slower to engage.”

Architect Harbinder Singh Birdi, a director with Hawkins Brown confirmed that cross discipline and cross company collaboration was a norm in his business. “But it’s a myth that computers will solve the co-ordination issues,” he said. “Its about homo sapiens and how we engage with one another.” 

It is also working out which work needs to be done by whom. “Good CGI renders can cost up to £200,000 in the UK. Or they can be done more cost effectively in China with my architects putting in the local detail to make the images relevant – the people that would be using a building for instance or walking past such as the Shoreditch hipster that couldn’t be imagined in China!”

Everyone round the table was concerned at the cost of buying in new technology. Which software was the right one, for instance. But Niebles cautioned that buying new technology was one part of what would be needed. “People want to buy new technology but they are not interested in changing the business model,” he said. “You need to think about how the business will look after the investment. Often companies go through a business restructure and then bring in the IT. But if you are looking to redefine your organisation you need to elevate the IT side so it’s involved in the restructure.”

His colleague, BST Global regional director Ben Ashmore added more. “You can use technology to win business,” he said. “But there are also internal operating efficiencies that it can also bring about like taking out the cost of overheads or technology taking more of the load meaning that you can reboot the business model, cut costs and also help win more business.”

But it’s a myth that computers will solve the co-ordination issues. Its about homo sapiens and how we engage with one another.” Harbinder Singh Birdi, 

Everyone was using technology to spread work around their offices. BWB managing director Steve Wooler explained that that option allowed his company to open an office in London which has transformed the company, with the capital now providing 25% of the consutant’s income. “But we are keeping the London office small necessarily because of the cost of space and ‘north shoring’ the work to out offices in the Midlands and the North,” he said.

The culture of offices was also changing with the advent of more technology and the company bosses present were detecting a clash between structural and environmental types who wanted to work outside the office in cafes using their own computers and picking their own hours, and a civils culture that preferred people stuck to their desks. All realised that their HR and management processes would have to adapt to keep staff, particularly the new, tech savvy staff, happy. They had also noticed that it meant they didn’t need quite so much office space as in the old days.

“Use technology as an enabler,” was Niebles’ advice. “If one group wants to be in the office fine, and one wants to use a coffee shop, also fine. But if you try to put the coffee shop people in an office you’ll find production goes to zero.”

It’s all about horses for courses and not established procedures. And he highlighted that in future consultancy will be competing with high salary paying hedge funds for the graduates that can do the predictive analysis necessary to make sense of big data. “You have to make your companies attractive to them so think about what they want,” he said.

Round table attendees

Steve Wooler, managing director, BWB

Stewart Tennant, director, GHA Livigunn

Harbinder Singh Birdi, director, Hawkins Brown

Tushar Prabhu, director, Pell Frischmann Group

Mark Colby, partner, Pick Everard

Neil Sandberg, managing partner, Sandberg

Graham Nicholson, executive managing director, Tony Gee & Partners

Neil Humphrey, managing director – energy, environment and design, Waterman

Marc Davies, regional director, WYG

Eduardo Niebles, managing director – international business, BST Global

Ben Ashmore, regional director, BST Global

Peter Campbell, senior policy officer, ACE

Jackie Whitelaw, associate editor, Infrastructure Intelligence

Antony Oliver, editor, Infrastructure Intelligence

Five emerging trends that will reshape business

By BST Global executive vice president Javier Baldor

1.The Cloud

There is a significant transformation and fundamental shift emerging in computing architecture. It is called Cloud Computing – the use of computing resources that are delivered as a service over the Internet. Factors driving this growth, according to private equity firm KPCB, include:

  • •Rapidly falling processing costs, while the cloud and accessibility rise.
  • Computing costs declining 33% annually (1990-2013).
  • Storage costs declining 38% annually (1992-2013).
  • Bandwidth costs are declining 27% annually (1999-2013).
  • Smartphone costs declining annually at a 5% clip (2008-2013).

2. Web 3.0: 

The Cloud will be the foundation of the Internet of the future. Web 3.0 will see everything connected, anywhere and all the time, over the Cloud. Not just computers, but also refrigerators, clothing, and cars will carry IP addresses. This is also known as the “Semantic Web.” And according to Murray State University, researchers are trying to teach computers to know what we mean when we search, not just which keywords we type.

3. Going Mobile: Anywhere, anytime

The consumerisation of technology has taken shape and is dictating what the business technology landscape will be.It is estimated that 1 in 8 people will have a tablet in their hands by 2017.

4. The wearables and everywhere computing

The benefits are clear:

  • Hands free, voice and gesture control,
  • Always connected to the internet, and
  • Environment aware with built in GPS.

5. Surface computing: The vision of the future

Imagine a world where everything is a computing surface: your coffee table, mirror, desk, refrigerator, or windows. It is coming by 2020. It is not easy to envision, but Microsoft has developed a video at to demonstrate the power of this trend.

What is certain is that the world will witness unprecedented changes and opportunities in the years ahead leading up to 2020 and beyond.

The key question is, Will you be ready?

You can read the full article on or in the July-August 2014 edition of the magazine available free on the II website by clicking the magazine button.


If you would like to contact Jackie Whitelaw about this, or any other story, please email