Kicking off this exclusive series in partnership with Port Technology, INFORM’s Matthew Wittemeier sat down with Sjoerd de Jager, Managing Director at PortXchange, Powered by Port of Rotterdam, to discuss where we’re at today and what changes we might see over the next 20 years.
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MW: In 2038, we talk a lot about today’s emerging technologies and the impact they’re going to have on the future. What technologies do you see today that will impact the future of ports and terminal operations?
SJ: Well, a general remark on technology, and humans think about these things, is basically we structurally overestimate the things that we can do in one year, but we structurally underestimate the things that we can do in five or 10, let alone 20 years. So, combine that with the emergence and further maturation of some of the key technologies that we have available today, such as augmented reality, virtual reality, 3D printing, but also the artificial intelligence driving autonomous cars, vessels, and vehicles, and I think we can be very bullish about the future, viewing it from a technology perspective.
A word of caution, though – I think the fact is that we are currently looking at these technologies instead of actually implementing them on a larger scale. These technologies are still on the lower-end side of the Gartner-hype cycle, and if you think of the shipping and port industry, it’s a genuine laggard when it comes to technology adoption. So, bottom line, I can be very enthusiastic and happy about those different technology areas, including 5G, that will really exponentially increase the possibilities that we’ll see in five to 10 years, but we have to be a bit bearish, or let’s say more conservative, when it comes to adoption in our industry.
MW: You talk about technology, and considering that in general, the port industry is a laggard. There are ports out there that have seen the benefit of embracing technologies and are pretty rapidly investing. Do you think the terminals that choose to invest today will have a distinct advantage in the future?
SJ: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think if you combine the technologies that I just mentioned with some new elements that will be added in the next couple of years, we’ll get to a point of data abundance pretty quickly. So, whoever is now investing, let’s say, or divesting from the traditional business models and investing in more data-driven decision-making, will definitely benefit from that.
MW: The technologies you mentioned included autonomous vehicles. We’ve talked a little bit about autonomous shipping today as well, and you mentioned 5G. Are those the two that you think are really worth focusing on now, or are there maybe others that you would add to that list?
SJ: Well, I think we’re not there yet. It’s great that we see other industries adopting those new technologies and bringing them forward. I think if I look at even the Port of Rotterdam and the implementation of the software solutions that we are driving, but also on the other ports that we visit, we need to get the data right first.
I think we still have a huge disparity between the different levels of digitalization in general, where we face some terminals making their planning on chalkboards or whiteboards. Let’s fix that first. Let’s make sure that the data quality is in order and we have standards in place that can make data comparable between different parties in a port and between ports. Then we can move on to the other technologies that will drive further automation, but also data sharing and getting us closer to that data abundance level will be of good support.
MW: At what point do ports and terminals need to start taking these emerging technologies seriously and looking at business cases?
SJ: Oh, the business case starts almost at the beginning. I think the Port of Rotterdam took more of a leadership role when it comes to implementing new technologies within the marketplace or the community as an authority to say, “Well, if the market is not taking it on themselves, we’ll do it.” You see that also in other ports, right? You see other ports mandating data sharing and mandating particular ways of collaborating within the community to the benefit of operational efficiency, sustainability, but also innovation. So, I think as soon as the market is not driving the new innovations or is not, let’s say, complete enough in the adoption, I think authorities will take that role.
MW: You’ve talked a lot about data sharing. In 2038, in the early 2020s, we saw the data wars. That was in part one. We sort of anticipated that by the mid 2020s, industry and business in general would move past this idea of competitive challenges, particularly around data sharing, standardization, and collaboration. Do you think that’s a possibility, that time frame, and as well as coming to a resolution? Obviously, you’ve said that you believe it’s something we need to do, but does a mid ’20s outlook seem feasible?
SJ: Partially. So, from the current experience, I think… there are a few elements that hamper this. One is the lack of standards. We know standards are emerging. They need to consolidate and get wide adoption so that in terms of data sharing, we know what type of data we’re talking about and we can actually compare data between ports and port communities. The second thing is, as I mentioned, there is still a huge difference between the different levels of automation and maturity when it comes to digitalization within the port community. So, you need to get… Let’s say there’s already a difference within the port community in Rotterdam, let alone port communities in developing countries. You need to start all over again and there will be huge differences.
On the positive side, however, in Singapore and a lot of the Asian ports, like Busan, they are far more advanced as well. So, there’s a huge gap to get everyone on the same page, and I think the UN and the IMO also have a role to play there to get a level playing field. But that will take time. The third is the thing that we currently see is data authorization. There is quite a lot of work to be done on trust and collaboration… In general, the shipping industry is not really trustworthy towards each other. It’s low on trust. And the fact that the bad examples of, for example, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica do not put data in the right bucket when it comes to trust. That’s sort of an inherent xenophobia and thing that we need to overcome with these companies in order to ease the reluctance of data sharing. And what you see happening currently is that companies and legislators are waking up, and they install roles like a data steward or a data governor, which I think is a good development.
On the other hand, if you look at it from an innovation point of view, now we start with risk assurance. We start by trying to figure out what the damage could be when we share data, which is not really a catalyst when it comes to innovation. So that’s why I’m a bit, let’s say, conservative, about whether it will happen in 2024. Partially, yes, but there are a lot of challenges to take on.
MW: The other element there, of course, is collaboration, and I think you just said that our industry isn’t generally perceived as being particularly friendly toward each other. What role do you think collaboration is going to play in moving us forward to that point where we are willing to share?
SJ: Well, I think the way we try to do it now, it’s… well, you see two models. Basically, it’s either the “carrot” or the “stick.” We started with the carrot. So let’s see if we can together create benefits for the individual companies, for the port community at large, for the environment, and say, “Well, if it benefits all, then it makes sense to collaborate and share data,” and we need to go through this experiment of data sharing together and we need to step onto that learning curve together as well. So, it’s sort of a coalition of the willing.
Whereas you also see other ports taking a more “stick” approach where they say, “Well, in the end, if we want to get to a 100% data quality and sharing and collaboration within our community, we need to mandate a few elements of it in order to really make it work.” And only time will tell which model is the most feasible. I like the carrot approach from the beginning as it is sort of tailoring to each individual company’s benefits but also reservations when it comes to data, and thereby we learn, and learn much better, to see what can we do to actually overcome those reservations in order to create the benefits that we see.
MW: We’ve reached the year 2029, so we’re 10 years into the future now. The impact of technology in 2038 is used as a frame to look at many social issues that we’re familiar with in our industry, like automation and job loss, something we’ve already talked about a bit today, as well as more technological ideas like the ethics surrounding the development of advanced computing systems. What social challenges do you think we’ll be facing in a decade?
SJ: Well, I think every change will have an impact on the social dimensions, basically. So, what I really see in similar ways is an entire paradigm shift. Data abundance, automation, and autonomous developments of ports will definitely have an impact on job creation. I think there will be a big shift in the type of jobs and the way people work in a port and a terminal, and as with the introduction of the container back in the ’50s and ’60s, I think there will be a huge protest movement as well. That will happen again with this probably, and that’s all part of the change that we go through.
MW: You just mentioned that there’s going to be a shift in the type of work that we see in ports. What do you envision that will look like?
SJ: Well, what I really liked about your novella was that there will be sort of no-human areas in the port. You already have a bit of that in Rotterdam as well, where there are parts that are completely autonomous. That will further increase. Then again, there will still be… creativity and the intuition of the human brain are hard to model or to machine-learn and duplicate with artificial intelligence, so part of the problem-solving and particular highly skilled jobs will still be there. And we’ll need to look at the sort of change of the labor force, from how we currently work towards more data science or data-rich types of jobs as well.
MW: Are there any new challenges that you can think of? Job loss and job change are something that we’re talking a lot about as an industry, and I think something that, whether they are for the good or the bad, are definitely on the agenda. Are there new challenges that you would foresee? A technology or an evolving sector presenting itself?
SJ: Well, I think the model that will flip upside down is the insurance model. Who is owning a vessel that is sailing autonomously? Who’s owning particular assets, and who can be held accountable and responsible for it? I think a complete shift in that model will happen as well.
MW: Our industry doesn’t exist in a bubble. The environment physically and politically around us has real impacts on us. I’m going with a really pointed question. In 15 years’ time, is Rotterdam going to be underwater?
SJ: We’re already below sea level, so we might go down a bit further. However, I feel very confident that our history in water management will prevent us from being really underwater.
MW: We predicted in 2038 that climate change is going to have a very real impact on global trade routes as, for instance, the Arctic Passage opens. We see the shippers actively pursuing routes through the Arctic Passage. Do you think the ports that we see today as the global transshipment hubs, are they going to be the same ports in 10 or 15 years’ time, or is it possible that we’ll see a shift there?
SJ: Obviously, coming from the Port of Rotterdam, I hope that will be the case. However, I think it’s not just the climate change that may open up new trade routes. It’s also the energy transition and the move from fossil to other fuels. It will also have a huge impact on the trade flows and which ports will be new regional hubs.
MW: There are definitely political shifts. For example, currently we’re seeing a move away from globalization. Will that have an impact on our industry with regard to which goods are shipped, where they’re shipped, or whether they’re locally produced?
SJ: Yeah, so I’m – I’m actually still waiting for this democratization of 3D printing. I think if you look at, for example, things that we do with RAMLab or the RDM Next Campus, you see quite a lot of products being able to be 3D printed. That’s still in isolation in the end. If we’re talking 2035 already, it’s not unlikely that everyone will have their own 3D printer, and that will have a huge impact on the goods that will be shipped. On the other hand, beans to make coffee or fresh mangoes, for example, still need to be shipped from one place to another due to the ecological geography that we currently have and our diet preferences. So, it will have a huge impact on basically the type of goods that will ship; however, some elements still remain to be shipped between different parts of the world.
MW: Are there any political trends that we’re seeing now or that you think will proliferate in 15 to 20 years that are going to have a very significant impact on our industry?
SJ: Well, I think the trade wars will end sooner or later. That will dissolve. As long as capitalism is the dominant design, there will be globalization. I think that’s inevitable. So, as long as that’s the case, we’ll still be shipping goods from one place to another. The type of goods will change. In the end, if the largest regimes remain capitalism driven, there won’t be much for political change, I guess.
MW: We’re fast approaching 2038 and, as well, fast running out of time. So as we build into the year 2038, what is perhaps the single insight you’d like to share that you think we should take away from something like 2038 as a creative view of the future or even perhaps your ultimate view of the future?
SJ: I really like the creativity and also some of the science-based elements of the novel. I think there’s great value to that, and hopefully, partially, it will be true, and we can all hold you accountable for the fact that it indeed happened. But as with many of those things, the future starts now.
If I look at the present… and that’s why I’m also conservative in the earlier parts of our talk. If we want to avoid climate change and actually open up the Arctic trade route, or we want to really start making this happen, there are huge issues that we need to solve first. That’s all about data quality in the beginning, within the port community, within each individual company on a global level, which is a critical task. Another thing is really to standardize those things because otherwise, they will never be a global system or a system of systems. Finally, we need to shrug off as an industry this notion of low trust. There’s plenty of room to experiment. Let’s do it thoroughly. Let’s do it together and think it through, but also let’s keep the speed.
So, more collaboration, more experimentation, and a bit less risk assurance will definitely help us get there.
Who is Sjoerd de Jager?
Prior to joining the Port of Rotterdam in 2017, Sjoerd de Jager (co)founded several start-ups and worked as New Business Developer for large corporations including Phillips and DSM. At the Port of Rotterdam, Sjoerd led the business development for Pronto and the creation of spin-off company PortXchange, a start-up activity accelerated by Port of Rotterdam focused on bringing the Pronto Port Call Optimization solution to market beyond Rotterdam. Sjoerd was part of the initial team that started working on the Pronto solution, has seen it develop from proof of concept to a fully operational system, and is now responsible for leading the team to implement it in other ports worldwide. Sjoerd is also responsible for overall PortXchange performance, strategy execution, and strategic partnerships. Sjoerd is an experienced entrepreneur and business developer, and a starting angel investor.
Prior to his professional career, Sjoerd graduated cum laude in industrial engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology. He is father to two sons. In his spare time (which is limited), he likes to kitesurf and is currently trying to finish Antifragile by N. Taleb.
What is 2038: Future Visions?
2038: Future Visions is a series of interviews from leading maritime logistics professionals who share their view of what our industry will look like in the year 2038. It is brought to you in partnership with Port Technology. 2038: Future Visions builds on the award-winning 2038: A Smart Port Story, which INFORM published in 2019.
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2038: A Smart Port Story explores the terminal of the future and the intricacies of technology and its impact on society and our industry. Join Douglas as he unravels the mystery around an incident at the Port of Reykjavik that sees an AGV collide with a human, leaving their life hanging perilously in the balance.
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Missed the beginning of The Athena Interviews? You can pick it up from the start at PTI Exclusive: Athena Q&A Part 1.