Turbulence ahead for shipping’s smart future

2017-02-28 10.57.40The view from 30,000 feet can provide an interesting perspective, even when the subject is the future of shipping.

I happened to be flying from Hamburg to London last week when storm Doris was doing her worst to disrupt travel and transport in the UK. Having already had my original homeward flight cancelled, I raced onboard and sat tight even though I knew what might be coming.

After an hour on the tarmac while Heathrow decided if they would let us take-off, we finally departed and I turned my attention to typing up some notes on – what else – digital disruption and the future of smart shipping.

As the flight drew on, the bumps and shocks grew worse, as did the queasiness of many passengers for whom being violently buffeted by high winds had not been part of their plans.

On final approach conditions worsened dramatically and much use was made of what we used to call sick bags but which are nowadays probably known as universal waste fluid solutions.

How apt, I thought, in an increasingly desperate attempt to take my mind off the buffeting. I am experiencing a physical manifestation of what is happening – and will continue to happen – to shipping.

The principle trouble with the future of shipping is that, to my mind the graphics department has got ahead of engineering’s ability to deliver. But there are more fundamental issues too.

Let’s begin at the sharp end of the challenges. A realistic re-valuation of shipping assets and re-ordering of business models will call for a very strong stomachs; it’s the reason why so little of either has happened.

The prospects for digitally disintermediated sectors – freight forwarding is under pressure but there are others – look fragile. We are told almost continually how much the industry needs to embrace its role in the wider supply chain but many will baulk at the changes this requires.

There was plenty to ponder but I wondered if in fact this wasn’t the storm but really just the tremors that precede the real action. My notes on disruption and shipping’s digital future are increasingly typically of the content I produce and some recent conversations make me think there may even be something of a backlash building against the futurologists.

I won’t speak for my clients but from a personal point of view, some of the ideas we hear proposed as part of shipping’s smart future will remain at the very outer edges of credibility.

I’m pretty tired of lazy reversions to arguments for autonomous ships that prefer snazzy graphics to actual use cases. Forget a milk run from the Elbe to the UK, when transiting the North Atlantic in winter, an owner as well as a shipper will want crew on board to keep an eye on the cargo and the ship. Problems that go unattended can very quickly have huge commercial and environmental consequences and crew costs are relatively minor compared to the potential costs of not being able to respond to problems.

Equally, when I hear speakers talk about the Uberisation and digital disruption I wonder whether those making the assertions really understand their context. We are hearing about this subject as if it is expected tomorrow and the over-excitable believe the industry can solve operational problems with better apps.

Yes, software will help make operations safer and play a powerful and transformative role in connecting demand with supply, but when it comes to fulfilment it’s still all about steel.

What is much harder is for companies to look at their internal structure, cost base and business model and decide whether it is sustainable. Just because the future is not going to be like the past doesn’t mean we have to throw everything away.

As for the return of wind power, well I don’t need to remind you what happened to the last company to try this one on. Navigating bad weather is difficult enough without having also to manage sails, so the usage window will likely be small.

Agree or disagree, the mistake is to buy the hype. Spending too much time thinking about wind power, autonomy or Uberisation risks wasting time that could be used on more pressing problems. There are plenty of technologies whose time – thanks to better bandwidth and cloud computing – has come but where to focus and refocus is as important as simply looking for the latest shiny and fashionable thing.

As my flight landed safely a round of applause broke out – only the second time I’ve witnessed such an outbreak of airline love – in three decades of business travel.

I won’t labour the fact that this was because a qualified and highly competent team of humans was in the cockpit making decisions and anticipating risk faster than a computer. You’re human, and I suspect had already worked out how the story would end.

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