Over the past year, numerous international firms have acquired or merged with a number of big Australian design and construction companies.

Leighton Holdings (possibly soon to be called CIMIC – Construction, Infrastructure, Mining and Concessions) was acquired by Spanish construction group ACS a year ago, and has recently sold John Holland to the China Communications Construction Company. These sales, combined with the growing presence of other major international firms including UK owned Laing O’Rourke, indicate an increasing globalisation of our industry.

A similar pattern has emerged in the consulting side of the industry with GHD and Conestoga‐Rovers & Associates (CRA) merging in July 2014 to establish one of the world’s largest professional services company providing engineering, architecture, environmental and construction management services.

Additionally, in late 2013, New York-listed services firm Jacobs bought Sydney-based Australian engineering consultancy SKM. This all means that Australian design and construction firms are clearly part of the global industry.

These acquisitions have many implications for how our industry competes both domestically and internationally. Critically, we need to ensure we are undertaking research that has a global as well as an Australian bent. This will allow Australia to be “leading practice” in the global space.

So how do we work in this environment?

There are definitely challenges ahead. Main Roads Western Australia have highlighted some of the challenges they face in the 2014 focus paper on Intelligent Transport Systems Master Plan: International Trends:

  • changes in how the community and the economy benefit from the use infrastructure and the services it provides
  • fiscal constraints – in many Australian states, expenditure growth is surpassing revenue growth, forcing the government to reconsider its business model. For example, in Western Australia funding for roads is unlikely to increase in line with increasing demand from economic and population growth or the increased costs resulting from ageing assets being increasingly intensively used.
  • a growing need to do more from less – for example, increasing the productivity of our transport assets to provide more from less can benefit our road users through reduced travel times, more reliable travel, improved safety and a better road user experience. While finances are a key driver in needing to do more with less, other factors such as increasing scarcity of land, changing community expectations and a renewed focus on productivity all contribute to the need to achieve more from less.

It is clear we need to better manage our infrastructure assets rather than still building more.

We also need to understand what other countries are doing in this space. Planning and creating effective urban infrastructure is a challenge in most urbanised societies. Australia is one of the world’s most urbanised societies, and the trend toward cities is intensifying.

It is crucial Australian industry, government and research networks are part of global industry networks such as the International Council for Research and Innovation in Building and Construction (CIB). CIB is a worldwide network of over 5,000 experts from about 500 member organisations with a research, university, industry or government background, all of whom are active in research and innovation for building and construction. The benefit of being involved in an organisation such as this is that it facilitates and encourages international cooperation and the sharing of information.

Global connectivity allows us to learn from what others are doing or have done. The different economies around the world tend to be in differing states of development or maturity at any given time. This provides an excellent opportunity to learn from the economic and socio-cultural transitions of others so that are less likely to repeat their mistakes, and more likely to understand their success.

This is why being part of global research networks such as the CIB is so significant. CIB is aware of the importance of international collaboration and is actively linking its multinational members via a series of task groups, such as the newly established TG90 – Information Integration in Construction.

This Task Group will use industry-focused international case studies to examine efficient knowledge creation, preservation and integration across the life cycle of constructed facilities. It also seeks to identify “relevant, reliable, interoperable and long-lasting data and information into the different stages of design, construction and asset management of buildings and infrastructure.” It is expected this will create a more effective and reflective industry and deliver benefits to public and private asset owners.

The next decade will demonstrate how effectively Australia has adapted to the new globally competitive world order. For our children’s sake, let’s hope we succeed.