Environmental firms emerge from the shadows of engineering

Since the emergence of environmental consultants in Australia some 30 years ago, engineering firms have been driving capability growth, leaving smaller, niche environmental consultancies sitting somewhat in their shadow. But now, there are clear signs that independent environmental consulting firms are becoming a force in their own right. Reading the recent report from IBIS World got me thinking about the trends that indicate this coming-of-age — or at least maturing — of environmental consulting in Australia.

Environmental consultants are valuable industry partners

The environmental industry is heavily regulated and under scrutiny from all sides. The days when getting the correct reports was enough to gain consent are long gone. The environmental consulting industry offers more expertise and capability than merely ticking boxes.

Today, developers need partners to add value. Collaborating with environmental consultants can elevate the project beyond its engineering feats to achieve more for the community and enhance environmental outcomes. When projects start with a partnership model, everyone, including the client, project, local community, and the surrounding environment, will be better off.    

Community expectations are key social drivers for corporate decision-making as well as local, regional and national governments. People’s awareness of their surroundings and environment and desire to increase community well-being bring a high degree of scrutiny to every project. Easy access to education and information — which sometimes includes fake news or biased reports — is a further driver.

We can’t build a national asset, like a power station, without addressing the concerns and issues of the local community. People’s awareness of their surroundings, environment, and well-being means they are much more interested in the projects we work on and what they mean for them.

From a client’s point of view, the best way to tackle that and achieve desirable outcomes for all concerned is to bring in a trusted partner who is specifically focused on these issues. Science-based independent consultancies like NGH provide so many services that they can now be a one-stop shop for their clients, encompassing environmental and community outcomes. Partnering with a firm which is unencumbered by engineering outcomes gives clients renewed confidence in managing community and government expectations. I see this move to partnerships as a sign that environmental consultancies are playing an increasingly important role as an independent source of confidence to the community.

Multi-disciplinary firms are the way forward

Environmental consultancies like NGH pivoted from their initial commoditised operations model, offering technical services as required to differentiated, value-adding services which enhance a project’s attractiveness.

In the past, developers hired us to produce specialised reports. Nowadays, developers work with us because our multi-disciplined approach means we can manage the many facets of a project’s approval. They want our project management and problem-solving capabilities, our science specialists and relationships with regulators, and our ability to bring multiple stakeholders together to find an outcome.

But within that umbrella of holistic services, there is continuing specialisation. Where once we employed ecologists who encompassed the whole field, now we have specialists: botanists, zoologists, aquatic ecologists, bat specialists, bird specialists… all required because the issues they deal with are increasingly complex.

I see the diversification of that technical skill base as another sign of the industry’s growth and maturation as we respond to the need for greater detail, more information and better analysis of issues.

Mergers and acquisitions are on the rise

Twenty years ago, the environmental consulting industry was primarily driven by owner-found entrepreneurial-driven firms. Like NGH founder Nick Graham-Higgs, they saw a need, an opportunity, and a niche set out to fill it.

But as an industry matures, companies tend to embed a broader set of capabilities. The entrepreneurial-led model evolves into a professional management-led model, and for that to be successful, you need to scale. Today’s active mergers and acquisitions market shows that scaling is in action. Smaller firms are merging or being acquired by larger environmental consultancies to ensure their futures and offer the multi-disciplined services clients require. This is replacing the trend we saw in the 2000’s where acquisitions were primarily being made by the engineering sector.

What’s on the horizon?

The continuing democratisation of data means access to information and knowledge will change dramatically in the next few years. The environmental industry must embrace and prepare for this now because, in time, much of the data we currently collect and analyse will be done by AI.

Most technological revolutions follow the Gartner hype curve. Initially, they generate tremendous excitement, followed by the realisation of their limitations and a settling-down period as the technology becomes mainstream.

Generative AI and large language models are likely to follow this curve, and how we respond to this technology is crucial. I see our value lying in our human qualities. Humans are hard-wired to trust other humans, and that’s unlikely to change. Our advantage lies in our ability to communicate, show integrity, and be worthy of trust.

We have a responsibility to adhere to these core values — to have integrity, remain independent, and ensure that ethics are a key driver in our business. Independence and scientific objectivity are crucial; otherwise, our opinions and expertise will count for nothing.

Our changing role

As we merge from the shadows of engineering, the environmental consulting industry is pivoting, and it’s to everyone’s advantage to embrace the change. Our expertise influences decision-making at a strategic project level and at a political level as local and national governments recognise our industry’s growth and expertise.

The present is challenging — the future is exciting.

Where will these strategic partnerships, innovative technology, community involvement and strengthening leadership models take us as an industry and a nation? I can’t wait to find out. Bring it on!

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Chief Executive Officer

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