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.
So when the Department for Transport asked for ideas to help them draw up their Maritime 2050 vision – 32 years into the future – there was a certain amount of head scratching.
But we like a challenge in ports. And we have to think long term. The UK Major Port Group canvassed its members – most of the UK’s biggest port owners and operators – on what developments could shape the port of the future.
The results – summarised in the attached infographic – highlight a number of exciting developments in the digital and augmentation / automation areas to transform competitiveness and customer propositions. These build on continued evolution of the physical assets of ports, their hinterlands and their connectivity with main economic and urban areas. And these changes must occur within an environment of sustainability and responsibility.
What does thinking about the port of the future reveal? A couple of thoughts:
- 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, sophisticated data platforms to name but three;
- 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;
- 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;
- 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 technology 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; and
- 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.
At the heart of these reflections from major operators is a determination that ports will play as crucial a role in the 4th 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 Brexit Britain, boosting the UK’s ability to trade with the world.