Is the ‘holistic practitioner’ the future of environmental consulting?

Ongoing activity around mergers and acquisitions in the built environment consultancy sector has led to the formation of large-scale, global companies offering breadth and depth of services – including environmental consultancy. These mega businesses are complimented in the market by smaller niche service businesses – but for the large part this means it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate firms on their services alone.

The traditional role of an environmental consultant has often been narrow in scope –focussed on a single service area aligned to a specific area of expertise.  The disadvantages of such an approach can include siloed behaviours, increased project costs, lack of innovation, lack of efficiency, for example in areas such as data management through the project lifecycle, and segmented project delivery.  We are operating in a geopolitical climate that holds many multifaceted challenges.  Understanding and unearthing opportunity in an increasingly complex environmental consultancy market requires an evolution of skills.    

With the support of technology the way businesses assess risk is evolving. Business leaders are increasingly recognising the value of integrated risk management.   The benefits of including environment, health, safety and sustainability (EHSS) considerations together, and as part of a wider operational or capital expenditure programme, can be substantial and wide ranging.   

The pressures of Brexit and the need for the UK to be competitive on an international stage will no doubt mean we will need to focus on driving productivity.  However, alongside this we need to foster and encourage responsible business by understanding and responding to the large-scale societal needs and aligning the skills and capabilities of the next generation of environmental consultants with these needs.

The outcome of this evolution is a move from EHSS consultancy being a commodity or compliance exercise, into something which can really drive value through the sustainability agenda – bringing value to society, the economy as well as addressing some of our most difficult environmental challenges.

Skills for the Future

Environmental consultants are proud of the diversity of technical skills in the sector and the ability to bring together multidisciplinary teams.  Perhaps now is the time to really test our capacity for collaboration with an even broader range of skills – integrating, amongst others, technologists, IT specialists and economists with the more traditional specialisms of the sector.   

To do this, the next generation of environmental consultants will need a much greater understanding of context and an ability to weave together skills to drive to sustainable outcomes for Clients.  There are already many examples where this transition is taking place including around the UK’s largest infrastructure programmes, such as the Lower Thames Crossing, and in support of CAPEX programmes in the private sector.  These “holistic practitioners” are consultants with strong quantitative and analytical skills, breadth of technical knowledge and understanding – environmental, H&S but also social value and sustainability - and all combined with commercial focus.  

Recognising a UK skills shortage, these consultants are geographically diverse, supported by the opportunity that technology offers for collaborative working.  They will be comfortable with working in global teams, bringing the best of the sector to deliver on UK projects, and aligned to the footprint of their global clients.  Their greatest impact is when they are engaged throughout the project lifecycle, and where their capability is embedded into large programmes.  

Green is the new cool?

We have seen a shift in the public dialogue around sustainability issues perhaps most notably with Adidas with their trainers from recycled ocean plastic leading a ‘green is the new cool’ revolution and with China recognising the impact of environmental impairment on GDP, now making a significant investment towards green financing.  Other markets will follow.  

We are lucky.  The recent election has shown that the 18 to 25’s are not the selfish selfie generation the media would like us to believe.  They are engaged, motivated by a sustainable future, and want to make a difference.  The environmental consultancy sector will be in good hands.

In depth technical knowledge will continue to underpin decision-making, but the most effective holistic practitioners will know when and how to engage with specialists in their network to ensure sustainable outcomes.  The word “integrated” has never been so apt. 

Lara will be speaking about the future of the Environmental Consulting sector at the Environment Analyst Business Summit on 21 June

Lara Potter

Business Director, Strategic Environmental Consulting Ask me a question