For decades, the business of moving goods across national borders has been hidden from the headlines. In ordinary times it is a rather dry subject, but Brexit has brought trade into sharp focus.
One thing has become crystal clear: if goods cannot move freely through ports as a result of political agreement, a much greater role for technology will be necessary.
Everyone knows that technology is already changing the game, not just in shipping but in every industry. Although the maritime sector has not always been the quickest in adapting to change, innovation is gathering pace. It is important to consider how the digital transformation of the industry could play out, and what part the UK can play in the process.
Using technology to transform how countries trade is not, as some suggest, merely a distant pipedream. Around the world equipment manufacturers, ports, and ship operators – along with a host of innovative startups – are leading the charge in digitalisation.
From Antwerp to Dubai, Rotterdam to Singapore, there are already a number of projects underway that are realising extraordinary efficiency gains through new digital innovation.
Rotterdam’s port call optimisation platform, Pronto, developed with Dutch startup Teqplay, has allowed vessel operators to cut waiting times at the port by up to 20 per cent.
And Israeli startup AiDock has shown real promise in cracking the widely discussed customs problem. A graduate of world-leading maritime innovation hub theDock, the startup has developed an automated customs clearance platform that reduces the admin burden on freight forwarders and speeds up the customs process.
Up until now, although a number of centres for maritime innovation are being developed across the world, Britain has been slow to adapt and has fallen behind some of our more agile international neighbours.
But as the UK prepares for Brexit, we are witnessing the beginnings of a rapidly growing, digitally enabled sub-sector, which is changing how the industry operates.
Whether you call it shiptech, freighttech, or tradetech, the UK shipping technology sector is a £4bn industry in its own right, estimated to be worth £13bn per year by 2030.
As we speak, a growing number of UK startups are building technological solutions to some of the industry’s biggest problems.
London-based CargoMate has developed a platform that helps containerships minimise delays in port, allowing them to sail slower and save fuel. Hull-based Relmar is developing an AI-powered maintenance platform for vessels that maximises uptime while minimising risk and cost.
A new report by venture fund and think tank PUBLIC examines which technologies will transform the maritime trade sector, and highlights 65 of the most promising maritime startups around the world.
One of the key findings of the report is that we have an opportunity to make the UK a hub for digital innovation in maritime that will not only drive greater efficiencies across the industry, but will also position us as an open, forward-thinking trading partner for countries around the world.
To do this we need to create an ecosystem that allows for greater collaboration between regulators, academic institutions, shipping companies, and entrepreneurs.
Brexit, the US-China trade war, the 2020 global sulphur cap on marine fuel, and the 2050 greenhouse gas strategy from the International Maritime Organisation all present great challenges for our industry.
It will be impossible for shipowners to solve these problems in isolation. Corporate innovation is too slow, too risky, and too expensive to be effective in today’s world.
That means that, if the UK wants to take a lead in transforming the maritime sector, we need to embrace startup-driven innovation and learn to work with fast-moving entrepreneurs like those behind CargoMate and Relmar. While startups won’t solve every problem our industry faces, this approach will open up new opportunities, create new business paradigms’, and help make others extinct.
If Britain wants to retain its position as a major maritime nation, we have to create the change the industry needs – and the relentless force of technological progress will play a key role in making that happen.