Market forces

If you’re in any doubt that insurers secretly rule the world, take a look at the latest edition of Lloyd’s Market magazine. For this issue’s Foresight section, I interviewed insurance experts on Mexico’s controversial new government and its likely impact on infrastructure, organised crime and the oil and gas sector; the latest EU sanctions that prohibit insurers and reinsurers covering the transport of Iranian crude oil and petroleum products; how a Greek exit from the euro could throw contract law across the EU into chaos; the construction of the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s largest radio telescope with 3000 antennas spanning Australia and South Africa; and gadgets in your car that log not only your driving behaviour but reveal your whole personality…

Dark side of the cloud

Cloud computing is becoming a corporate no-brainer as a sustainable, energy efficient alternative to buying and managing your own servers and software. But is it actually any greener? Greenpeace says not – it points out that the extraordinary growth in the number of data centres means that even significant improvements in efficiency are dwarfed by the increase in total energy demand, and that if the cloud was a country, it would have the fifth largest electricity consumption in the world. But the crucial detail is the source of that electricity. Because data centre owners seek a cheap, constant power supply and have historically favoured locations – Virginia, North Carolina – where electricity is produced from coal, their carbon emissions can be enormous. The good news is that in a fiercely competitive market where all the main providers are building furiously, some have realised the marketing potential of locations like Iceland where the power grid is almost zero-carbon. By shopping carefully, companies can not only reduce their own carbon footprint, but everyone else’s as well. For this piece for the Sunday Telegraph’s Business Technology supplement, I investigated the hidden environmental cost of cloud computing, and the key questions to ask a potential supplier.

Why don’t UK contractors work abroad any more?

The British engineers who led the building of the industrial age played a prominent role in Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony. But his inclusion of those globe-trotting Victorians belies the fact that, with a few notable exceptions, UK contractors have almost completely disappeared from the world stage in the last 20 years, retreating home to the safety of familiar contracts and supply chains and lavish, low-risk PFI building programmes. They have remained resolutely domestic even after four years of recession, the dwindling of those PFI programmes and despite booming markets around the world – where, according to UK Trade & Investment, clients are crying out for British expertise. So what are they scared of? And why don’t any of the risks of overseas contracting seem to faze their European rivals? For Construction Manager’s October cover feature, I spoke to contractors of varying levels of adventurousness, and one very baffled German who can’t understand why they’d squander the advantages of language, legal systems and brand recognition bequeathed by those Victorian ancestors.

Multiple risks

Question: What do Mongolia’s mining boom, $225bn of deep-water drilling in Brazil, the rising threat of terrorism in Asia, European financial regulations, cyber-risks, Qatar’s growing SME sector, and the difficulty of predicting natural disasters in Australia and New Zealand all have in common?

Answer: They are all insured through Lloyd’s of London, and I covered them all for the news section of its relaunched Market magazine in June.

The P word

Wanted: a senior civil engineer, with a strong commercial background and experience of working in Asia, currently serving on the board of a FTSE 100 company. There aren’t many men with that CV, but this was the brief given to headhunters seeking the first female non-executive director for FTSE 250 company Balfour Beatty earlier this year. If such a person exists, they have yet to find her. In the end, the contractor had to look overseas and outside the industry — Canadian Maureen Kempston Darkes is a former group vice president of General Motors and a lawyer by training. Since 2011’s Davies Report highlighted the under-representation of women in British boardrooms – just 12.5% of the boards of FTSE 100 companies were female, and it would take more than 70 years to achieve gender parity at the current rate of change – there has been progress, but construction still lags behind other industries. As Balfour Beatty’s experience shows, there just aren’t that many senior women coming up through the ranks, and those who have made it almost always have an HR, finance or marketing background. In this piece for Construction Manager magazine, I asked how companies can ensure a ready supply of female board members for the future – without resorting to (whisper it) positive discrimination.

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Indian construction boom

I spent January researching and writing a 12,000-word report on India for Building magazine’s White Paper series. One of the world’s fastest-growing economies, India appears unstoppable. While foreign investors continue to flock to its Special Economic Zones, domestic demand from its 1.2 billion citizens is more than sufficient to maintain GDP growth well above the global average. But to live up to its potential, the Indian government knows it must invest billions of dollars on every aspect of its infrastructure – under the Five Year Plan just finishing, it spent $500bn, and it has set out a further $1trn of projects in the next. This feature, published in Building the same week, offers a snapshot of what’s going on.

“Life seems more meaningful in a tiny house”

Small may be a relative concept when it comes to homes, but there’s no question that the “micro homes” increasingly popular in crowded cities around the world are very, very small indeed. I investigated the phenomenon of shrinking spaces for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, speaking to residents of tiny houses smaller than most people’s garages, office designers condensing the footprint per employee by a third, and psychologists seeking to find out how our diminishing place in the world is changing the way we think.

Lonely at the top

On a Wednesday afternoon in early August, Julie Fadden was walking around the streets of Speke and Garston with her staff, talking to her tenants and resolving issues on her estates. The chief executive of South Liverpool Housing was doing what she does on the first Wednesday afternoon of every month – even though her father had died early that morning. This is an extreme example of what sets the chief executive in a housing organisation apart from their staff, but it does shed some light on why the chief executives in Inside Housing’s salary survey are paid so much more than their employees. I spoke to them to find out how they earn their six-figure salaries.

However bad it gets, we still have to eat

If you think the UK has reached saturation point for supermarkets, think again. In fact, we’re still relatively under-served compared with other European countries and the US – France and Germany have nearly twice as much supermarket space per capita, and the US has triple. All the big chains and quite a few newcomers have been taking an aggressive approach to expansion over the last few years, and they’re not planning on slowing down any time soon, as I found out in this analysis of the supermarkets sector for Building magazine.

How not to get into a fight with a brickie

Before I wrote this piece for Construction Manager, I struggled to picture a room of builders discussing their feelings and filling in personality tests. But a growing number of contracting firms are using exactly these methods to help staff win friends and influence people on site. I spoke to the owners of some of the muddiest boots in the business to find out whether you can really teach site management in a classroom, and compiled a handy quiz to help readers identify their own management style.