The Year of Big Ideas

Post-Sandy response will include major resiliency improvements to public infrastructure, including tunnels, airports, bridges, rail, and highways in 2016.
Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

It is an exciting time to be an engineer in the United States. There is clearly an increased awareness of our place in the world and our future living within its dynamic environment. The result is a renewed interest and political will focused on tackling big issues. The nation is looking to engineers to make its will a reality, and our business marketplace will reflect this challenge in 2016.

Setting the stage
Changing weather patterns are not only a problem for coastal communities. Roads and bridges experienced extensive damage on the Blanco River near Blanco, Texas, from the Memorial Day 2015 Flood.
Photo: U.S. Geological Survey/photo by Michael Nyman

The engineering marketplace is particularly sensitive to the nation’s economy. Having largely returned to the world’s safe-haven for investment, credit markets have eased and opportunities to tackle big issues are peaking. The corporate engineering world has responded to this marketplace, executing a series of mergers and acquisitions that created multinational “mega-firms” capable of solving our largest and most complex issues.

The fact is that there is an emerging suite of big issues to deal with. Led by climate change and an energy revolution, these issues are societal in nature and present a more serious challenge than those we’ve tackled in the prior three decades. The tech revolution of the 1990s was transformative, but we largely ignored the emerging issue of clean drinking water availability. The development speculation of the 2000s was lucrative (and ultimately economically disastrous for many), but it didn’t have the potential to shift the world’s energy geopolitics. We are in uniquely important times, and the engineer will play a particularly large role in the nation’s future, starting with what we do in 2016.

Climate change and resiliency
Repeated storm impacts, combined with sea level rise, make development and improvement of models that help forecast coastal change important to planners working to build more resilient communities.
Photo: U.S. Geological Survey/photo by Karen Morgan

Largely ignored for the last two decades, the climate change resiliency effort now occupies center stage in the engineering community. The losses experienced in recent natural disasters have highlighted the fact that non-response to climate change is societal suicide. Simply put, the benefit-to-cost ratio of resiliency against climate change has exceeded 1.0. In response, both public and private entities are financing resiliency efforts focused on sea level rise, climate pattern change, and increased storm intensity and frequency.

In 2016, the engineering marketplace will experience particularly high demand for resiliency services in the Superstorm Sandy marketplace. The large capital expenditures associated with the post-Sandy response are making their way through the bureaucratic and regulatory pipeline, and we will see real action on major resiliency improvements to public infrastructure, including tunnels, airports, bridges, rail, and highways in 2016. These demands will be supplemented with major investments by municipal entities (principally New York City) to provide flood protection for the nation’s most densely populated urban areas.

Environmentally responsible extraction and distribution of extensive shale gas are primary engineering issues.
Photo: U.S. Geological Survey/photo by Kelly Maloney

Despite the focus on Sandy-impacted areas, the nation recognizes that a proactive response to climate change is warranted. Public and private interests throughout the nation are developing resiliency plans and implementing them. For instance, the State of Washington has recognized that its coastal highways are vulnerable to coastal erosion and sea level rise, and has identified those vulnerabilities and prepared action plans. In the private marketplace, where finance rules the agenda, Goldman Sachs has defined climate change as a “defining interest for the 21st. century,” and explicitly ties companies’ long-term investment performance potential to their ability to respond to climate change. Companies take note of these types of analyses, and are implementing resiliency plans that protect their infrastructure, continuity of operations, and sources of revenue. Lastly, climate change is not a problem only for coastal communities. Changing weather patterns affect agriculture, water supply, and the fundamental distribution of people and resources. As a measure of this impact, a marketplace is evolving for “climate-resilient agriculture” that recognizes the importance of food supply security in a changing environment.

Of course, the challenge of climate change is global and societally pervasive. It will remain as a strong influence upon the engineering marketplace for decades, subject to periodic peaks associated with major storm events.

Energy revolution

The U.S. Energy Revolution, driven by shale deposit extraction, is second only to resiliency in the attention of the engineering marketplace. With the resource identification and extraction efforts largely under control, the engineering challenges have shifted to distribution and environmental compliance.

The well-documented abundance of shale deposits throughout the nation, and the technology to extract them, has had substantial impacts upon energy prices and geopolitical relationships. However, the ability to realize the potential of these resources is restrained by distribution. Engineering demand for solving this problem will be substantial in 2016 and beyond. Internally, the nation must resolve the environmental and societal conflicts associated with petrochemical distribution by pipeline, barge, and rail.

A hydrologic technician from the U.S. Geological Survey Idaho Water Science Center measures streamflow in Lightning Creek at Clark Fork, Idaho. The USGS is collecting data at hundreds of sites on rivers and streams in six western states to document the 2015 drought.
Photo: U.S. Geological Survey/photo by Ryan Smith

While distribution is the primary engineering issue associated with the energy revolution, environmentally responsible extraction remains a problem that will be of particular interest to the engineering community in 2016. The use of chemical extraction and the responsible disposal of shale extraction wastewater is an emerging environmental issue. Corporate entities will look to get ahead of forthcoming regulatory restrictions and environmental liabilities.

Clean energy — in the form of solar, wind, and hydro-electric generation — remains a strong marketplace for engineers. Financial incentives in this sector have rebounded, and public sentiment for clean energy remains strong. We expect that clean energy will remain a substantial marketplace in 2016.

Water
Urban stormwater issues require the particular attention of engineers to establish measures such as green streets and mechanical treatment to meet federal requirements.
Photo: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency/photo by Eric Vance

The engineer’s role in providing clean water to society is perhaps its most important and historically substantive responsibility. The American West is in crisis over water supply, and the engineering community will respond in 2016. Drought, combined with increased demand, have created a water supply cocktail of epic proportions. Engineers, while hoping for rain, are pursuing fundamental changes in the way we source, distribute, and allocate water to various demands.

The clean water issue extends beyond drought, and includes the issue of water quality. Urban and agricultural interests throughout the country are being pressed by the EPA to remedy water quality impairments caused by urban runoff and nutrient-laden discharges. The urban issue requires the particular attention of engineers to establish measures such as “green streets” and mechanical treatment to meet federal requirements.

Gulf Coast
Clean energy — in the form of solar, wind, and hydro-electric generation — remains a strong marketplace for engineers.
Photo: U.S. Geological Survey/photo by Paul Cryan

The Gulf Coast is a national treasure that is in rapid decline due to natural disasters and man-induced environmental changes. During the last decade, the region has experienced multiple hurricanes, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and continued coastal subsidence caused by petroleum extraction and delta hydraulic manipulation.

Restoration of the Gulf Coast is a massive undertaking, and requires a national effort. That effort will be partially underwritten in 2016 by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement, which will provide multiple billions of dollars for environmental restoration work. Engineering companies are positioning themselves for that work, and it will provide a substantial source of revenue in 2016.

Rental housing and long-term care

In the wake of the “Great Recession” and a societal move toward re-urbanization, the residential development marketplace has shifted substantially toward construction of rental housing in urban environments. This trend has created an urban redevelopment boom that requires engineering skills falling outside of the traditional greenfield development model. Urban redevelopment involves site remediation professionals, utility retrofitting, and planning exercises that are substantially different from those skills necessary to develop housing in the suburban/rural environment. The re-urbanization phenomenon is expected to persevere; therefore, we expect that it will represent a strong marketplace for 2016 and beyond.

Restoration of the Gulf Coast will be partially underwritten in 2016 by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement.
Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

The nation’s aging population presents a similar opportunity for development of long-term care facilities. Demand is strong, and national developers and insurance providers have recognized the opportunity.

Summary

The engineering marketplace is strong and dominated by “big idea” projects. The most compelling evidence of this marketplace is the emergence of dominant multi-national engineering and construction corporations that are designed to take on the most complex and substantial projects. In fact, their existence relies upon them.

Given the gravity of the issues facing the nation and the world, favorable economic conditions, and shortages in engineering talent, we anticipate an exceptionally strong engineering marketplace in 2016. Companies should be able to demand premium pricing and anticipate strong workload throughout the year. Beyond commercial interests, the engineer is presented with a unique opportunity in 2016 to make a difference in the trajectory of humanity. Think big!

Andrew Raichle, P.E., is vice president of Matrix New World Engineering (matrixneworld.com), a woman-owned business that provides engineering solutions for the nation’s infrastructure and environment and promotes an equitable and high standard of living for all people.

Posted in Uncategorized | November 29th, 2015 by

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