01 December 2023
  • Commenting on his outlook for 2024, Green affirms that consolidation and supporting the global business remain at the top of the agenda. “I do not believe the local and African market is going to turn around in the short term.”
  • Green predicts that the 2024 national election will likely delay the infrastructure pipeline rollout significantly. “We are maybe two years out before we see any real significant spend on infrastructure.”
  • In terms of issues around water provision and power generation, Green points to the fact that much of South Africa’s bulk infrastructure is 40 to 50 years old. “It is going to take a really steady hand, a measured approach and a lot of time and money to rectify the current situation.”

In this Part 1 of a two-part article, global infrastructure consulting firm AECOM describes how it is on track to exceed its targets for the current financial year. Darrin Green, Africa MD says: “It has been really good in terms of the numbers. Our strategy is to diversify and work more for the global business because the local market is so challenging.”

Green adds: “On the local front, we focus on key clients and global clients that we already work for. We also look at projects of scale and complexity rather than the run-of-the-mill stuff because we are not really set up to do the smaller work. We are a business that is geared to carry out the big projects.”

Another indicator of AECOM’s ongoing success is a 30% increase in head count over the year, “which in our market is pretty unheard of.” Emigration, however, remains a problem, with the company losing on average two professionals a month to greener pastures abroad. “If you extrapolate that across the entire industry and our low number of engineers per capita compared to elsewhere, it tells a story,” says Green.

Bringing in a lot of new people at once poses the challenge of ensuring they fit in with the AECOM corporate culture, but it also injects new ideas and energy into the business. “Our expansion into other markets and working for the global business all over the world has brought a lot of opportunity and different exposure for our staff in terms of working on exciting international projects. It broadens their horizons, capabilities and opportunities.”

AECOM continues to accelerate its digitisation and automation journey, which it had already embarked upon pre-coronavirus. “We were fortunate in that we started perhaps ahead of others locally. I really can say that our South African team is ahead of other parts of the world on the digital front. Digital is a major trend and growth area.” Green adds that AECOM remains at the forefront of this trend globally, with members of the South African team forming part of its global digital hub.

“We are playing a direct role in developing some aspects associated with BIM, which is a bit of a misnomer in terms of digital. The cutting edge at present is computational engineering and parametric design, really a subset of digital. We focus on that quite heavily, which to some extent is automation,” explains Green. He reveals that AECOM is both investigating and investing in AI.

“There are still some drawbacks before it will be widely adopted, like liability issues around verification of information. It certainly is a powerful tool and much more specific than a search engine. It is ideal to organise information and generate reports, but we have to ensure that the inputs are correct. Obviously, it will learn and improve in terms of functionality. For the time being, we are mainly deploying it to make our processes and designs more efficient. AI will certainly be a large part of that at some point in the future.”

Green highlights that the industry has been maturing in terms of the application of digital twins, a significant step up from simply using BIM models to extract quantities for contractors. “We strive to hand over a smart model to clients to assist them with operations, maintenance and scheduling. That is where it is going. However, it does not replace the engineering. It is extremely powerful, if I think back to when I started out and everything was still all done by hand.”

A major benefit of the latest iteration of smart BIM models is that a global team can work simultaneously on a project in real time. “That leads to its own challenges, as it is such a dynamic and live environment.” Green says that while clients sometimes drive the process for a digital twin, this is fast becoming AECOM’s standard approach to design and engineering.

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