A new renaissance for port-citizens
A text signed by Maurice JANSEN, Senior researcher and business developer at Erasmus Centre for Urban, Port and Transport Economics at Erasmus University Rotterdam and also rapporteur of the 16th World Conference Cities and Ports held in Quebec.
The sensation of us standing on a pivotal moment in time is omnipresent. I heard it at the kick-off of the World Port Sustainability Program, a global initiative where some 1,000 ports have signed a declaration to contribute to the sustainable development goals. It also happened in London, where the IMO agreed to a significant decarbonize shipping. Recently I also read in a newspaper that the change into a new era may be as revolutionary as the Industrial Revolution was for people of that time. I dare to say, we are standing at the verge of a new Renaissance.
Up until now, our worldview was based on fossil energy and mass production and consumption, and consequential pollution and residual waste. Most of us port citizens got used to the image of a port being a place with supersized ships, gargantuan cranes, heavy vehicles. A place where businesses continually seek for higher efficiencies and economies of scale. It is also a world where people have become insignificant creatures, with increasingly less human intervention. In analogy of the Renaissance, our next generation will not insistently belief in profit as the only truth, and will not take the power of big business for granted. This tension can either fuel conflict or creativity.
Creative tensions in the digital era
Whether you agree or not, there are clear signs that ports and their cities are at a crossroads, an exciting time but surely ambiguous. This ambiguity creates tensions, raises eyebrows and gives cold sweat. The best way forward is to embrace the change. A port makes the perfect platform and functions as a stapling place of maritime capital, a trading place of new ideas, and a breeding ground for startups. Port-cities who embrace ambiguity are innovative not because they have smart algorithms, but they understand the laws of new competition. In this digital age, the basic principle is as old as the world: what can be harvested, needs harvesting and brought onto the platform: solar energy is harvested from panels on warehouses and offices. Sensors are harvesting the motion of transport units and let them interact with each other. Matchmaking platforms harvest the human skills of an open labor pool. Software developers harvest the abundance of data that comes along with cargo flows and turn data into user-friendly dashboards of information. With a little help from the crowd the list of opportunities is endless.
The community as innovation partner
In the port and maritime industry some countries have set up ambitious communities to foster sustainable innovation. In Oslo, the initiative “Problem to Profit” invites shipping’s next generation to find solutions to this generation’s most pressing issues. Nor-Shipping is engaging with young people from within and without the industry – including students at universities and colleges, entrepreneurs, those from the tech, finance and communications sector, and more – to find routes to a more sustainable shipping future. The fundamental condition for others to join in is that contributors will have to believe in the “do good” mission of the community. The “what’s in it for me” has changed into “what’s in it for us”. It builds on the idea that the intentions of the community appeal to the needs of the crowd, quite often linked to the Sustainable Development Goals.
Investing in future maritime capital
Engaging with communities is what maritime schools, museums, festivals and events do. They serve as a bridge between business and citizens. These institutions are vital elements to raise awareness and interest of future generations of port-city citizens. They take youngsters onto a learning path, playful at a younger age, but gradually leading towards a state of awareness, relevancy and know-how. They provide facilities for connecting knowledge and experiences of the past with those of the future. They also help shape the future work force, whether it be as a port worker, manager, entrepreneur, engineer or artist.
In port-city of Rotterdam, innovation campuses with a diversity of living labs start to emerge around universities and colleges. The Maritime Museum in Rotterdam opened a newly featured Offshore Experience serving as a high-tech classroom towards tech-classes for schools. Such innovative learning environments do not just bring simulators and games into the classroom, but are places for testing and experimenting with robots, augmented reality and autonomous vehicles. An interactive engagement between learner and educator on the one hand with the industry field on the other hand, aims to reduce the gap between the knowledge and skills acquired and the professional proficiency required.
In this 21st century Renaissance, we are experiencing a dramatic expansion of knowledge, capital and connections. It opens up a wealth of opportunity for learning, adaptation and creativity. For the future port-cities to make an impact, investing in human capital is a smart investment, an inexhaustible source of wealth.