Port digitalisation, green corridors, and AI: separating the wheat from the chaff

David Yeo, CEO of Innovez One, looks at some of the latest port operations and tries to distinguish hype from genuine change.

To say that the ports sector is fast evolving would be an understatement. Ports are not only under growing pressure to reduce their environmental footprint, but they are also poised to play a critical role in enabling the energy transition more broadly.

They will be the backbone of sustainable shipping, being key facilitators of decarbonisation through the provision of alternative fuels and onshore electricity.  They will also play a leading role in a key area where shipping must improve: helping to reduce idling times for vessels in the critical “first and last mile” of their journey at sea.  

In a nutshell, the challenge for ports is to become greener and smarter, making the right investment choices to position themselves for the net-zero shipping era, while continuing to run profitable businesses throughout the journey.  

Promising to support ports through this challenge is a range of technologies from digital platforms to artificial intelligence, as well as initiatives such as green shipping corridors – concepts that have all been greeted with a mix of enthusiasm and scepticism. 

David Yeo, CEO, Innovez One

We are now at the starting line of implementation, with ports making critical decisions on investments, infrastructure, and partnerships. Openness to change is a necessity if we are to achieve decarbonisation. On the other hand, hype can lead to flawed concepts being embraced as panaceas.

To cut through the noise, ports need to know what solutions will be practical, workable, and deliver tangible results. This starts by acknowledging that while port digitalisation, green corridors, and AI all have tremendous potential, none is a silver bullet.

Decision-makers need to put their critical thinking hat on, pay attention to the nuances of each technology, and focus on how their implementation can work in practice for their unique profile and operations. Such analysis brings three key lessons for ports in differentiating hype from true change.

Port digitalisation is essential for decarbonisation

Port digitalisation has made significant strides in recent years, in part as a response to logistics challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic. But for many ports, the adoption of digital technology has been focused on targeted initiatives aimed at replacing existing manual systems, as opposed to looking at the wider opportunity for change management. 

This lack of a strategic approach to port digitalisation has contributed to the creation of data silos, where legacy systems fit awkwardly with new platforms. This limits the flow of information and the ability to coordinate all the moving parts that are needed to enable ships and goods to transit seamlessly in ports. 

To truly optimise port calls and deliver the efficient and decarbonised supply chains of the future, port digitalisation must happen in a coordinated way. In practice, this means taking a holistic view, where berth planning is organised in conjunction with vessels’ ETAs and availability of nautical services.  

Integrating systems to coordinate those operations seamlessly is the next frontier for data-powered optimisation and will mark a step up – from smart ports to smart supply chains. Indeed, it is not just information silos within ports that must be addressed, but ports themselves must not become silos in an interconnected world. “Just-in-Time” promises environmental and efficiency benefits, but ports need to have the right digital foundations in place to make this new paradigm a reality.

AI is a powerful tool, but we need to look under the hood

AI has gained publicity but also ignited controversy. Its potential to change ports and the maritime sector for the better is huge, but what we really need is a more thorough and down-to-earth understanding of the true nature of the technology — its capabilities, limitations, and pragmatic applications.  

Not all AI is the same, and algorithms vary enormously depending on how they were developed and trained. With ports and maritime operations, there is no room for mistakes, so we need to ensure that there are safeguards in place to ensure that any AI-powered system does not come up with unrealistic solutions.  

For example, with our marineM system, which uses machine learning to optimise and automate port, tug, and pilotage operations, we achieve this by giving the algorithm a clear set of parameters and a carefully curated dataset. Having defined outputs ensures that marineM will deliver the right answers, and the process of constant learning also means that the longer the system is in place the more accurate it becomes.

Green shipping corridors could accelerate innovation and collaboration

Green shipping corridors will be judged by their results; specifically whether they deliver the infrastructure, including bunkering, storage and digital, needed to scale up alternative fuels in shipping.  

To be successful, they rely on the alignment of several public and private-sector organisations, as well as the appropriate technologies. They also recognise that although improving vessels’ performance is important, many of the improvements needed to truly optimise and decarbonise shipping originate on the port side.  

As well as the removal of siloes and institutional barriers, green corridors highlight a need for closer integration, including greater data standardisation and exchange. But an additional layer of complexity is added by the fact that each port location will to an extent be unique and necessitate optimisation systems to be adapted to their operations. 

As the maritime industry charts its course in this new era, decision-making must be founded on data and facts. Ports around the globe are not just facing a transformation; they are at the forefront of it. By judiciously evaluating and incorporating these technologies, ports can lead the way in transforming the industry, positioning themselves not just as technological pioneers but as champions of a genuinely transformative future.