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Education, Technology and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The future of shipping requires that we invest in education and skills with the same enthusiasm as we embrace technology

The fourth industrial revolution – that is, the digital technology revolution – should not be defined within the maritime industry by technology alone. Rather, it should also promote education and training, seek poverty alleviation and knowledge propagation as the foundations of sustainable global trade.

By adopting an approach that puts the emphasis on development as a means of meeting human needs, we have an opportunity to create an industry that reflects diversity, encourages personal achievement, reflects social values and is fit for the challenges of the future.

Technology alone cannot achieve this, it requires skills and innovation, new champions and entrepreneurs to shape it. These are all traits common to shipping but in the next generation of emerging leaders, they must be used to develop an industry which encourages the development of human capital.

The Trouble with Technology

The shipping industry is in danger of being overwhelmed by a focus on new technology and in the process, being led into a future defined by the technology vendors. Unfortunately, the western view of technology tends towards the patrician – as divisive as it is unifying – and does not address the needs of the majority of the world’s citizens.

This does not stop it being touted as the solution to everything from the crewing crisis to greenhouse gas emissions, but without the social and political groundwork in place to enable it, there is little chance of such results.

In particular, the industry is very bad at recognising the difference between the personal technology that we in westernised economies enjoy and the industrial technologies that can be used to further global development.

These are emerging – quantum computing, gene therapy and AI for example – but the lesson from consumer technologies is the necessity of understanding whether the benefits and risks are properly understood before they are adopted.

The other problem with a technology-led approach is that very few of technologies with which we are apparently obsessed are the solution to the majority of our very physical problems.

They are like another patch of code released to update software that is no longer performing as designed. Simply adopting new technologies as a means of solving short term problems is not a long term answer.

Instead, we need to create a future defined by a sustainable development strategy that actually reflects global trends and the needs of communities around the world.

Trade and Development

It has become fashionable for western economists to call the end of globalisation and a consequent structural decline in world trade, even though serious poverty still exists around the world.

Shipping is the connector between global supply and demand and given the scale of economic development challenge remaining, there is good reason to believe that demand can be sustained, albeit at a lower rate.

In fact the world may be about to see another period of economic development that completes the gravitational shift to the east. China’s Belt and Road programme covers an area that is home to three-fifths of the world’s population and could re-shape supply chains in regions and countries whose development has been stalled by isolation or political systems.

This includes some countries for which the positive impact of globalisation is an increased opportunity for learning and education. We know that bringing people out of poverty depends to a large extent on better access to education, especially for women. It is a once in a generation opportunity.

We know too, that many in the industry fear that the regulatory regime that has governed it for nearly 70 years is, if not broken, then in desperate need of reform. This is not because the ideals are necessarily wrong, but because with an apparent breakdown of political consensus, regulation that makes rules by consent cannot function to its fullest extent.

While this may be true at local and some national levels there are other trends in play. For example, we have already seen that citizen activism is beginning to play a more important role in political and social processes.

Greater connectivity makes it harder for barriers to exist in practice but we also need rule-makers who are able to respond to the challenges of the 21st century. The shipping industry needs people who can advocate for it as well as those who can critically appraise it.

A Lack of Image?

While these external influences are continuing to make their mark, the shipping industry is – in some quarters at least – still wringing its hands over its public image. This is ultimately a pointless and diversionary process, a rabbit hole of self-regard that simply skirts around more important issues.

While the industry obsesses about why it does not garner its share of the news headlines, shipping is missing an opportunity to use its central role in world trade to support the creation of better societies and win back trust in globalisation.

In the process it would have a much better chance of building for itself a sustainable public policy position, using the profits it generates – even in the bad times – to invest in further education. Such a programme could help to create the professionals that the industry needs and in turn could also foster new technologies from which it could benefit in the longer term.

If the shipping industry wants something back from society it needs to put more in. There are laudable and concrete projects that are already doing this – physical commitments that should be applauded – but education, unless it is for the seafaring workforce, receives far too little attention.

Above all, what is needed is an understanding about the kind of people we need to attract to the industry in future and how to train and educate them.

In the future we are likely to see an increase in automation and machine learning, a change to the way that industrial sectors operate and how many people they employ. The same is arguably true for education; it cannot simply rely on either national public education or mandatory skills training to shape and nurture the talent we need.

Machines of loving grace

The worst possible error would be to simply shrug our shoulders and say ‘not to worry the machines will run everything in future’. Not only is this to misunderstand the relationship between humans and machines, it is an abdication of our responsibilities to each other and to succeeding generations.

The head of the leading international shipping organisation said recently that equipment vendors should not be allowed to push shipping down a road towards the adoption of certain technologies simply because it is possible.

The reason that technology is so attractive a solution to so many owners and operators is that it requires so little intellectual effort, only more capex and opex. It allows the patch to be applied without addressing the industry’s deeper needs.

In part because of the clamour around technology adoption, too few people recognise the importance of educating the workforce we need to work with these new technologies, systems and business models.

Those Millennials and Gen Zeroes are likely to take a much less indulgent view of shipping’s traditional exceptionalism and instead see their professional lives as a means of addressing social issues as well as professional ones.

Yes, their ‘native’ attitude towards the use of technology will cause its own displacement and disruption, but if this is something they are doing with broader goals in mind then the result is likely to be a greener, leaner and more socially-engaged shipping industry.

Creating that future would be a far greater achievement than simply applying technology as a means of circumventing the industry’s current challenges. They are far too numerous for that.

And we do have an opportunity to develop that future. It is almost within reach, but it must reflect not just the dreams of a technology-driven ideal, but the education and nurturing of the minds that will help to make it a reality.