Christopher Columbus and many of the early explorers of the New World had it all wrong: The world actually is flat, and it is becoming flatter as new information technology, project delivery systems and global business practices increasingly even out the playing field for hungry competitors in the engineering and construction marketplace. Some large U.S. companies with a long history of dominance in the global E&C market will be hard-pressed to stave off a flood of new competitors from China and the developing world. The Chinese firms, in particular, are hungry and coming on fast, using every toehold and connection to crack international construction. And offshoring design work to them on sophisticated projects is accelerating the process.

Some groups, such as the American College of Construction Lawyers, feel that Americans are too insular and are missing out on megaprojects. It held the first of what it says will be series of symposiums on the changing E&C world at Princeton University Nov. 2-3. The consensus, with which we agree, is that doing nothing to adapt and change is the recipe for failure.

Better, faster and cheaper project delivery systems are evolving at a torrid pace, along with excessive risk shifting, corruption and influence pedaling. Firms that don't want to keep on top of such developments, or can't, will struggle. "My final advice is to kick in the afterburners," said Conniff.

If things are not complicated enough, the networked world now is producing a horizontal shift in governance that will have a profound impact on construction. Government officials are networking with counterparts across the globe in formal and informal groups to establish best practices that can have the rule of law. Banking, finance, insurance, justice and human rights are only a few of the issues involved. National non-governmental organizations are doing the same, as are corporations. These links were the underpinning of the European Union, which "is a model that is of extreme interest in Asia," noted Anne Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School.

In the end, the only advice for U.S. firms is to hold onto the business ball as it bounces on a flat world, or they will be bounced.