Featuring a slew of speakers from the government, academia and from within the shipping industry, the Maritime Leadership Confer2019 kicked off with a keynote speech by Maritime Minister Nusrat Ghani who addressed the issue of the skills gap and deemed it as the most pressing issue facing the sector.

Over the 15 and 16 October, stakeholders shared their insights on how the global shipping community must upgrade their technology and facilitate future skills in an increasingly digitalised world. We outline the five key takeaways from the event.

Those who embrace technology will rule the sector

“There has been as much data created over the last 18 months, as there was over the entire civilisation before.”

Despite technology becoming more important across all industries, it has taken longer for the maritime sector to become digitalised, according to PB Subbiah from shipping firm Pacific Basin Shipping. He said: “Shipping is traditionally slow to catch up [with technology] because we are notorious for not doing anything until it actually becomes mandatory by [the IMO].”

COO of data analytics company Conccirus Nick Roscoe said the industry is now on the cusp of a transformation. He said: “There has been as much data created over the last 18 months, as there was over the entire civilisation before, which gives you an idea of the speed at which data is growing.”

Roscoe said that using technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence won’t just become an option but rather a necessity for shipowners. He said: “As my CEO likes to say, ‘in the future, there will be two types of companies. There’s those who will embrace technology and those that [will] cease to exist’.”

Describing how machine learning and predictive technology will transform shipping, Roscoe spoke about a Norwegian start-up which developed a software solution for real-time monitoring of ship positions in war zones. Shipowners were automatically alerted when their ship would enter or leave a high-risk area – a procedure which previously depended on manual routines. “There will be more automation going forward and we are now at a tipping point,” he added.

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In terms of data analysis, Wärtsilä director of business development Mauro Sacchi said one of his projects included working with cruise ships to analyse the emotions of travellers with the aim of improving their experience. With the help of a closed-circuit video equipped with algorithms that can detect facial expressions, tone of the voice and body language, they were able to understand their customer’s preferences when engaging in various activities on board.

Is blockchain a bane or a boon for shipping companies?

“There is this ‘fomo’ in the industry.”

Speakers at the event said that shipowners, brokers and insurers must take advantage of technologies like blockchain, which enable the provision of a shared digital ledger containing records that cannot be altered, creating more trust when trading globally.

Commenting on the benefits of blockchain technology, lead risk advisor at A.P. Moller – Maersk, Claes Westman said that blockchain “doesn’t just contain facts from one person but information from everyone involved in a deal.

“We are working with 35 different data points – a number which might increase in the future – wherein you can add public information which is extremely necessary in trade. In simple words, everyone has the same information.”

Westman said using blockchain goes beyond just storing and sharing information and that the future of trade lies in dealing through ‘smart contracts’ – a digital contract between two companies.

Sharing the sentiment, Roscoe said that shipowners have surprisingly been enthusiastic to use blockchain. “People have actually raised their hands wanting to be involved. A lot of it is about being scared that you’re going to miss out and there is this ‘fomo’ in the industry,” he added.

With more technology comes more risks

“Sooner or later data will be easily available and the more open the data is, the more everyone wins.”

With the ubiquity of technology, one of the biggest challenges facing maritime companies is the threat of cyberattacks. Westman said that while shipowners must embrace the latest tech in their ships, they must ensure it is digitally protected.

Talking from his own experience, Westman said: “We had one of the biggest IT crashes and virus attacks in maritime history in our company. This is proof that technology is not perfect and you can always find something that doesn’t work but you need to learn from it and future-proof it.”

Echoing the same statement, Hassiba Benamara from United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said that technology is becoming an important factor in shipping. However there “needs to be a standardisation so the industry can get together with the aim to improve safety and see how it will be implemented.”

Another topic of discussion was the challenge when it comes to using technologies such as blockchain. Given that data would be in the public domain if companies used a common platform, shipowners could risk losing their business to competitors. However, Saachi said that shipping companies who resort to “protectionism” will have a short-term profit and “the clock is ticking for them”.

“Sooner or later data will be easily available and the more open the data is, the more everyone wins,” he said.

Industry calls for better regulation to improve efficiency

“If I look at aviation, I admire what IATA [the International Air Transport Association] has enforced globally. Unfortunately the [IMO] is not the same as the IATA.”

To ensure shipping companies can smoothly trade across nations, board member Maritime London and chairman of Spinnaker Global Phil Parry said: “One solution is by having a jury or a committee, perhaps from [IMO] which decides on the data standards.”

He added that an ideal solution to regulate the industry would be a “big player like Maersk – who is influential in the market – to take the lead. If they adopted a set of standards, the rest of the world would fall into it in some capacity.”

Talking about the lack of rules and regulations being enforced Saachi said: “If I compare what happens in other verticals about standards, I wish there were standards that were more globally enforced by the [IMO].

“If I look at aviation, I admire what IATA [the International Air Transport Association] has enforced globally. Unfortunately the [IMO] is not the same as the IATA.

“I’d be a little bit provocative but based on my experience, this industry doesn’t move my finger unless it’s either demanded by regulations,” Saachi said adding that without a standard set of regulations it will be difficult to run smoothly.

Proliferation of technology will change skills demand

“Companies will need to retrain their existing labour force and that is a big challenge when it comes to maritime shipping at the moment.”

A topic which witnessed much debate was the impact of technology on future talent in the sector. During the talk, speakers touched upon the idea that the skillset required by potential employees will change.

Sacchi said that as shipping becomes increasingly data-driven, companies will shift focus from looking at qualifications to aiding workers with the tools and knowledge to use complex technologies. “It shouldn’t always be about technology but about enabling people to do a better job with new technologies and lowering the barriers in an industry that is highly fragmented. This fragmentation creates inefficiency.”

Digital Readiness Institute founder Ade McCormack reiterated the comments made by Ghani in her keynote and said that skills for those seeking a career in maritime will see a clear transformation.

“We don’t know the skills that we’re going to need in five or ten years and we have to start looking at capabilities and meta skills that can be applied to any role.

“Going beyond that, shipping firms must recruit based on traits, like grit, resilience, and sociality.  The whole economic development package for individuals is going to have to become much more fluid. Whilst qualifications are important, there’s got to be a ‘real time update’ on the syllabus, given how the world is changing,” McCormack said.

World Maritime University vice-president Jens-Uwe Schröder-Hinrichs said that with the rise in automated ships, there will be a greater demand for personnel proficient in programming and data analysis. He added: “When you’re looking at the opportunities as a result of new technologies, the whole nature of businesses is going to shift. We can already see a future where control console chips will come and with better connectivity, you can actually operate them from any other place.

“Companies will need to retrain their existing labour force and that is a big challenge when it comes to maritime shipping at the moment,” Schröder-Hinrichs said.