Test bed for smart cities: One port’s potential

At a recent event in Oulu, Finland, I heard about the local port’s efforts to undergo a full-scale digital transformation, to include everything from 5G connectivity to analytics to drones to enhanced customer experience, sparking a kind of epiphany, for me, on the potential for a relatively small port to serve as a test bed for smart cities. Unlike municipalities, ports have defined boundaries and clear, relatively straightforward missions (move stuff in and out). Similar to cities, ports have a widely diverse ecosystem: dock workers, trucking companies, shipping companies, construction workers, safety and security professionals, waste management and maintenance companies, the port’s own fleet (such as pilots and their tugboats), customs officials, emergency responders, government agencies, environmental impact authorities, and even neighboring businesses. If a port were to go through a digital transformation, the impacts would be felt across that entire ecosystem — so that entire ecosystem must be accounted for, engaged, bought in, and sustained.

The Port of Oulu has taken an approach shared by most municipalities looking to become a smart city — start small, but with a large, long, deep vision, and build incrementally. In my view, a port like Oulu’s, which is both small enough to be manageable through a disruptive digital transformation and large enough to be replicative of a larger port’s ecosystem and challenges, could be an ideal place for connectivity and emerging technology vendors to experiment and prove out the use case for bringing one of the most fundamental infrastructure environments fully into the digital age. Oh, and Oulu happens to be the Silicon Valley of the Nordics, so the local technology ecosystem could support creative and breakthrough approaches to solving the port’s technology and business problems.

How does a port measure the return on investing in digital transformation? After accepting that a hard number would probably be impossible to determine, the port can look to increased efficiency of its current clients, the ability to attract new clients (to a better-run, more efficient port), and the potential to monetize the data generated. How would a connectivity vendor like Nokia, which has already begun working with Port Oulu on 5G, see a benefit? Or how about a consultancy or global systems integrator that develops the blueprint and a proven use case for the digital transformation of ports? Beyond the simple fact that the world has thousands of ports, the world has even more cities, many looking for digital transformations. Prove it within the confines of a port’s ecosystem, and you can scale it across a city.    

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