Let’s make 2017 a year of opportunity

With market shifts that defied prediction, 2016 will be remembered as a turbulent turning point for the industry and the globalisation agenda. Despite ongoing uncertainty 2017 can be a year of opportunity, writes Nelson Ogunshakin.

The only thing certain about 2017 is uncertainty; which already has and will continue to permeate into the business landscape. Industry leaders must answer that with collective adaptability.

At the end of 2016 I identified five key challenges and market drivers for our industry. The Chinese economy, oil and energy prices, big data and digital economy, market consolidations, and Brexit as well as the US elections. These drivers were debated in London in November at the seventh European CEO Conference, attended by more than 120 leaders from over 24 countries. To meet these challenges, I intend to focus on each in turn over coming months, looking at the ramifications and actions needed for our industry to ensure that 2017 is a success.

A key issue for many is the current political turbulence worldwide. 

Brexit, alongside international political events like the Italian referendum result, turbulence in Spanish politics, as well as upcoming elections in France, Germany, and the Netherlands, are all fuelling a populism that could disrupt European politics as we know it. The outcome of these could either result in a radically modified EU or even a complete breakup of the EU project. In addition, our industry will be unpredictably impacted by the arrival in office of new US president, Donald Trump

All these political situations intertwine, with Brexit uncertainty directly impacting infrastructure investments in the UK and to some extent, across the global market.

The government is not alone in finding a solution to coming challenges. All businesses have a role to play in what is to come, concerns to voice, suggestions to make and actions to take as the prime minster triggers Article 50 and commences the UK’s divorce from the EU. The government in turn must ensure that the business reality we face is understood and addressed, to future proof UK enterprise. 

"The government is not alone in finding a solution to coming challenges. All businesses have a role to play in what is to come, concerns to voice, suggestions to make and actions to take as the prime minister triggers Article 50 and commences the UK's divorce from the EU."

Our political leaders must ensure that alongside the EU negotiations, we concentrate domestically on that which drove people to vote leave – the growing power distance between political leaders and the people. Politicians cannot lose sight of this issue which already permeates all regions, fracturing our society at its core, making the future uncertain for business.

Politicians must pursue realistic forms of devolution, where devolved powers are not merely words on paper but forms of true political determinism, with appropriate policies and the funding to enable both national and local projects to be delivered. 

Infrastructure investment, whether transport connectivity, residential capacity, broadband connectivity or otherwise presents a massive opportunity for both local and UK politicians to address regional pinch points in the UK. Each infrastructure project is an opportunity to improve local communities by enhancing the connectivity and service provision of residents  and addressing the looming threat of isolationist movements.

Within the coming uncertainty there is a strong need for talented individuals to collaborate side by side – politicians and industry – to ensure success. Not just in producing timely and investable infrastructure assets, but also in fostering societal progress aimed to heal division, ensuring that the UK is truly fit for the future – no matter what that future brings.

While uncertainty in politics perpetuates discord throughout the business landscape, a robust and coherent infrastructure policy remains a steady path to societal progress. Most social and economic infrastructure investment stays in the United Kingdom, so no matter what your political persuasion, whether politician or businessman, let’s think outside of the box to seize the opportunities before us.

In 2017 we need an entrepreneurial UK drive that doesn’t just think outside the box, it breaks through the confines of the box. The development and implementation of an appropriate industrial strategy for our sector will be critical and industry representatives such as the ACE and others will continue to work with government departments and the private sector to position the UK as a thriving investment destination.

Together we must establish the UK as a “multiple centre of excellences”, harnessing innovations, digital technology, fostering skills development, embracing  true diversity and inclusion across infrastructure and engineering, and expanding our thinking to invest in social and economic infrastructure to solve the wider challenges facing our industry, our country and our society.

Instead of thinking what do we have to do, think about what can we do and how can we work together to achieve it. If we do that, the possibilities are endless.

Dr Nelson Ogunshakin OBE is the chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.