Ports have been a crucial foundation in each of the UK’s great economic leaps forward, from the earliest days of trading in open boats across rough seas to the huge flows of goods and materials that transited the UK’s ports in the steam-driven days of the Industrial Revolution. And the same is true today, with globally interdependent manufacturing supply chains and the worldwide flows of goods that sit behind the magical tap of your finger on a phone or mouse.
Is this foundational role likely to continue with smart technologies, digitalisation and automation in the growing fourth industrial revolution? Well, lets start with some geography. The UK is an island nation, with 95% of the goods we trade arriving or departing by sea. Despite the bold visions of some of our politicians to build long distance bridges and, perhaps more feasibly, the potential of long-distance trains and alternative new freight modes such as hyperloop, it seems overwhelming likely that large scale shipping and port activity will remain a very large enabler of the UK’s trading economy for decades to come.
But what might these trends mean for ports themselves? Putting aside for a moment that there are only two types of forecast – the wrong and the lucky – the UK Major Ports Group canvassed its members – most of the UK’s biggest port owners and operators – on what developments could shape the port of the future. We set ourselves the notional target date of 2050, 32 years into the future.
Now, a memory test. Regan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik talking about Glasnost. Chernobyl. Maradona scoring his ‘Hand of God’ goal. Wham! splitting up. Seem like a long time ago? 1986 – 32 years ago. A lot can change in 32 years. But we like a challenge in ports. And we have to think long term. So we put our thinking caps on and cast our binoculars to the horizon.
The results fell into four broad themes: Changes to the physical environment of a port, exciting developments in both the digital and augmentation/automation areas to transform competitiveness and customer propositions, and last, but by no means least, developments to further improve sustainability and the environmental responsibility of major ports.
What does thinking about the port of the future reveal? A few thoughts:
1. The future, today – It is already possible to point to real, commercial scale examples in the UK’s major ports of what some might characterise as a future state – transition to a low carbon future, remotely operated equipment and sophisticated data platforms, to name but three.
2. Harnessing the data and digitisation revolution – The UK’s major ports see significant potential for the greater availability and use of data to drive more efficiency and create new businesses and services for customers. Advanced analytics can bring great predictive power to logistics chains as well as operations and maintenance. The generation and facilitation of data streams will be an increasingly central part of the customer proposition. Major ports can act as global gateways for data as well as physical cargoes.
3. Augmentation, not just automation – It seems fashionable to focus debate on autonomy. But augmentation of human operation is driving continued significant productivity improvements – productivity that in many cases full automation currently struggles to match. And there is further potential for increased augmentation.
4. Making the future work for people – Economy-wide developments such as major technology changes pose questions for society as a whole. Ports are no exception. These challenges must be addressed responsibly. But there are opportunities from technological change, such as a safer working environment. What will persist is that ports will remain important sources of good jobs and catalysts of wider employment.
5. Setting a framework for a fast-evolving future – The future for ports is difficult to predict with total confidence. What is important is that there is a flexible policy and regulatory framework, beneath a consistent pro-trade and pro-investment direction of travel, that allows port owners and operators to react to opportunities and challenges as they emerge.
But as former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld noted, there are also "unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know". So, the UK Major Ports Group has also undertaken an ‘open innovation’ competition – a ‘Digital Dragons' Den’ – inviting input from anyone with good ideas on how the digital revolution could transform the port of tomorrow. We’ve had some fascinating input, from start-ups to the biggest names in port equipment and data technology. The ability to streamline supply chains, the role of technology in future borders and improving the effectiveness of the ship and human interfaces have been strong themes. The authors of standout submissions are preparing for their ‘Den’ with the UKMPG Board, made up of the CEOs of the largest port operators in the UK, later this month (November).
At the heart of all of these activities is a determination by the major operators that ports will play as crucial a role in the fourth industrial revolution as they have in its predecessors. This determination from port operators, taken together with the right enabling pre-trade and pro-investment policy frameworks from Government, is what will build the powerhouse ports needed for post-Brexit Britain, further boosting the UK’s ability to trade with the world.
Posted on: November 1st 2018