“You could say they are doomed to fail”

A journey into unknown territory … an impossible target … and an estates department determined to go down fighting … Alright, so it’s not exactly Andy McNab, but the challenge facing the Defence Infrastructure Organisation is still pretty dramatic. Over the next four years, the MoD’s new estates division must save £1.2bn from property disposals, direct estate costs, energy and water bills and staff numbers. This means it must cut an organisation with a headcount of more than 7,000 down to just 2,000 people, rationalise a property portfolio worth about £20bn, and reinvent itself from the ground up, with new business processes, IT infrastructure and operating procedures. I spoke to the heads of the DIO to find out how they’re going to do it – and the rest of the construction industry to assess their chances of success.

How the world might not end

If you think green building is a niche topic, head down to Ecobuild. It’s not only one of the largest events in the UK, but the largest in the world focusing on sustainable construction and architecture. More than 50,000 people came to ExCeL in east London for Ecobuild 2011 – and when I was there, most of them were trying to fit into the conference hall where Brian Cox was speaking. But there were a great many other contributors over the three day programme, with a very diverse range of views and interests. I edited a blog on the Ecobuild site in the months leading up to the event, which meant I got to talk to them about all sorts of things including why climate talks fail, the truth about eco-cities in the desert and why Christmas houses might not be a total sustainability nightmare…

“We must be seen to be co-operating with the authorities at all times”

As this article went to press, there were 680 people held at gunpoint in the Gulf of Aden: the crews of 30 merchant ships hijacked by Somali pirates. It may be weeks or even months before their ransom is negotiated, and they know there is little hope of rescue. For the 20,000 ships that sail the Gulf of Aden every year, kidnap by Somali pirates is a constant and growing threat. The world’s navies do have a presence here, but there are only around 40 warships attempting to patrol an area of ocean one-and-a-half times the size of Europe. To stem its heavy losses, the insurance industry is attempting to establish what has been billed as a “private navy” to guard commercial shipping – unprecedented, controverisal and extremely complex under international and maritime law, as I found out in this article for Insurance Times.

Cash in the basement

Insurance is not a sector that’s renowned for being at the bleeding edge of technology. But firms are waking up to the fact that all that data buried in dusty mainframes is one of the most valuable assets they own – if only they could work out what it’s telling them. In this tech feature for Insurance Times, I reviewed three software products developed to unlock the commerical potential of claims records.

Insuring Brazil

Everyone seems to be excited about Brazil, and where there’s economic growth, there’s more to insure. According to speakers at an ACE Group client briefing at Lloyd’s, which I covered for Strategic Risk magazine earlier this month, massive government investment and a fast-maturing insurance industry mean great opportunities for foreign companies. The Brazilian insurance industry almost quadrupled in value over the last 10 years to reach US$49.65m in 2009, with even more staggering growth of 409% in the life and pensions sector. Audience members were worried about state intervention in business following the election of  former Marxist guerrilla Dilma Rousseff as the country’s first female president. But Rear Admiral Chris Parry, a strategic forecasting specialist, reassured them: “The Brazilian government knows it’s got to show a level of fiscal responsibility and political predictability, or it will be lumped in with the other South American countries…You won’t see nationalisation, but you may see the odd demonstration of state power to show they can do something if the electorate wants them to.” He also encouraged them to look elsewhere in South America – Costa Rica and Chile are both good bets apparently.

“There’s no question: this would be disastrous”

Depending on where you’re standing, legal expenses insurers are either bloodsucking ambulance-chasers hiking up premiums for everyone, or fearless defenders of justice for all, providing a much-needed service. One thing is certain: if Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations for reforming the compensation market are implemented in full, their days are numbered. As the government’s verdict looms, I assessed their chances of survival.

Big brokers do cry

We all knew the FSA was on a mission following the scalding criticism it received over the banking crisis. But now, as its inspectors storm the corridors of the fastest-growing insurance brokers, firms are fuming over greater demands for information and stricter deadlines. As only the largest 5% of brokers receive these intensive site visits, they complain that the FSA is creating a two-tier market where smaller firms get away with light-touch regulation at a distance. In this piece for Insurance Times, I asked whether these bigger brokers are under unfair pressure – or whether they should just deal with it and stop moaning.