A consultant is commuting to her office in a driverless car when her cell phone buzzes with an alert. The text message indicates that TCE concentrations at her client’s aerospace facility have just exceeded established threshold levels from two vapor intrusion (VI) monitoring stations. She opens her laptop to access her secure web data portal where she can view a live feed of a dozen monitoring stations. After reviewing time-series plots of recent VOC data, the consultant then views a playback loop of plume visualizations to evaluate trends and possible causality. With a click of the mouse, she checks the status of mitigation blowers and notices that high TCE levels indeed triggered the blower actuators, however, the system appeared to have little effect on subsequent indoor air readings.
The consultant immediately contacts her client and informs him that “an exposure condition exists in Office #4, however, the VOC source does not appear to be from the subsurface”. After a discussion of potential causes, a professional field technician is dispatched to the site for diagnostic evaluation of the event. The technician finds that the VI mitigation system is operating perfectly and begins an audit of the effected office including an interview of relevant site workers. His audit discovers that an equipment repair service was utilizing a degreasing product that included TCE. After removing the offending source and turning on the HVAC, both the technician and the offsite consultant watch as the TCE levels diminish to below actionable levels. The technician files his notes on the web data portal and the consultant generates a brief event report that is automatically disseminated to the Client and company Counsel. After reviewing the report, the Client forwards the report to the company’s insurance agent and regulatory case worker for compliance documentation.
While most of us are not yet riding in driverless cars, the convergence of emerging technologies has already demonstrated the capabilities described above. With the widespread availability of inexpensive broadband, ubiquitous wireless communication, embedded systems, sensor technology, and real-time analytics, the environmental industry is poised for major disruption to its legacy business model. Regardless of what we label the evolving interconnectivity of smart devices (Internet of Things (IOT), Wireless Sensor Networks, Artificial Intelligence, etc.), we are already seeing major disruptions to industries and especially service provider markets (taxi vs Uber, cashiers vs self-check kiosks, toll booth vs EZPass, etc.).
IOT and automated, unattended, real-time sensor networks are already seeing successes in industrial automation, process control, energy monitoring, homeland security, leak detection, and even weather tracking. We now have earthquake and tsunami early-warning systems that offer real-time lifesaving advantages, yet the average consulting firm continues to deploy manual labor for collecting and reporting information from the environment. Some would argue that the pervasive billable-hours business model combined with a tiered compliance process is to blame for industry’s slow adoption of automation technology. Resistance to investing in change may be further complicated by a growing skills gap that is often outpaced by the rate of emerging technologies. It seems clear that innovative firms that decide to adopt tools that automate much of their field service and reporting roles will require alternative revenue sources to replace the lost hourly labor billings. Consulting managers and principals will have to look at their revenue models with entirely new lenses and begin to offer alternative packaged solutions in addition to traditional professional consulting services.
Perhaps market forces will necessitate these changes. When internet commerce rolled across the business map like a well-armed tactical army, we saw what happened to the industries that resisted the urge to change their operating model. The emergence of the mobile connected economy not only disrupted the service industries, its infectious influence on consumer expectations was left intact. The condition of high-paced expectations will begin to permeate corporate boardrooms and responsible parties will begin to demand faster answers (and remedies) from professionals. Given the rapid pace of innovation driven by a convergence of reliable technology, it seems to be a compelling time for this change to occur.
Consultants will have to make the shift to the new faster paced approach to managing, interpreting and advising. Perhaps a work environment where less time is spent writing, and more time is spent reviewing and advising based on electronic data and graphics. As Responsible Parties and Regulatory decision-makers learn about cost-competitive and quicker alternative solutions to environmental problems, their expectations will drive market adoption. Similarly, as earth scientists start to recognize the efficiencies and intellectual insights offered by temporally-relevant spatial data, their business models will necessarily adapt. Perhaps we will start to see outcome-based service models develop where flat fees are charged for a desired outcome in services like compliance monitoring. As innovative agile players enter the market, legacy firms will need to re-examine their business models and either adapt or partner in this coming tectonic shift to NextGen Environmental Consulting.
In this multi-part series, I will discuss how our industry is changing from these emerging technologies and share some of the new insights, advantages, and challenges of adopting these tools. I will also present profiles on the leading-edge products and services that are ushering in the next generation of environmental professionals. Because this is a fluid topic, I welcome contributions by innovative practitioners willing to share their experiences with this forum.
Brian M. Kahl, PG