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Maritime ports serve as a natural test bed for blockchain ecosystems

Testing smart city concepts, technologies and operations in a semi-confined setting

As detailed in TBR’s most recent Digital Transformation: Blockchain Market Landscape, maritime ports present an intriguing test bed for blockchain technology, given three intertwined elements essential to successful blockchain adoption. First, ports rest at the center of a diverse ecosystem, with players engaging directly on varying cadences, with different technologies and IT infrastructures and collaborative as well as competing needs — in short, a place messy and competitive enough to warrant a comprehensive solution to restrain complexity and digitize trust. (And if you do not believe ports can be messy, corrupt places, watch the second season of HBO’s “The Wire.”) Second, governments typically have a strong interest in port operations, either running them as quasi-governmental entities or regulating and overseeing them to advance national security and local and/or regional economic interests. For blockchain, as has been made clear in this report, government involvement can accelerate adoption. And third, with their diverse landscape of actors — shipping companies, trucking companies, freight forwarders, inspectors, stevedores, even local fire and rescue units — maritime ports are self-contained mini-universes, like small cities, a characteristic that pulls together the diverse ecosystem and government interest into a useful whole, for the purposes of blockchain.

As TBR noted previously, “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 … 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.”

Some blockchain consultancies have been experimenting with these ideas, as we noted here: “For EY, a firmwide approach to addressing every element of trade — including supply chain, tax and regulatory compliance, blockchain solutions, in-port IoT, connectivity to inland regions, and real-time shipping data — comes together under its NextWave Global Trade Initiative, a white space for EY to build cross-border, cross-service-line and cross-industry solutions.”

As is clear from both the Oulu and EY examples, blockchain can only be part of a port’s digital transformation, not the entirety of it. In line with the concept that a “rising tide lifts all ships,” connectivity, IoT and analytics round out the picture (cloud and cybersecurity should already be there), making blockchain an essential component, if not the most easily adopted or most transformational (arguably IoT sensors on every element of a port — with supporting analytics and insights — would more rapidly lead to streamlined operations, even if blockchain-enabled tracking and trade-based financing would lead to longer-term value).

Even recognizing the limitations, for blockchain services vendors, maritime ports may provide an essential opportunity to test solutions in diverse, yet manageable, ecosystems while partnering with governments or quasi-governmental institutions that will be critical to wider blockchain adoption. If the use case appears limited, consider the more than 50 ports that exist between Duluth, Minn., and the Atlantic Ocean. Blockchain-enabling that supply chain archipelago could be a massive use case and spark wider adoption across the enterprises interacting with every one of those ports.

For further details about blockchain in the context of digital transformation, IT services and consulting, see TBR’s most recent Digital Transformation: Blockchain Market Landscape, which includes use cases, vendor insights, and client pain points and needs.

Global trade and maritime ports: How EY tackles both with digital transformation and data

Bringing expertise, technology and experience to the business of running a port  

TBR has covered EY extensively, reporting on the firm’s evolution in both technology and global operations, most recently in a special report that noted, “EY has rapidly evolved its technology consulting practice and its overall value to clients around emerging technologies and is now addressing scale, standardization of quality across the globe, and sustained investments in innovation and the ecosystem through its common global strategy and practice architecture.” The wide-ranging discussion with Jonathan Beard and his colleagues reinforced that assessment, particularly in the way EY emphasized its opportunity to apply its industry markets expertise and technology capabilities to an ecosystem in need of rapid digital transformation.

The firm, according to James Wainwright, has been building on its NextWave Global Trade Initiative with its own assets and intellectual property, harnessed to long-developed understandings of the maritime industry, and pulling together its global technology consulting expertise. While the Global Trade Initiative is still a work in progress, EY has clearly made a commitment to play to its own strengths, move rapidly in an evolving market, and become a critical, trusted link within the broader ecosystem. Heading into the latter half of what has been a horrible year for everyone, EY’s specific challenges will reflect the headwinds across the maritime port and supply chain markets overall: coping with the pandemic, growing in a turbulent global macroeconomic climate, and investing in the right technology to solve the knottiest business problems.

To set the stage, Port Optimization solution Lead Wouter van Groenestijn noted that there exist “many suboptimalities in ports” and the operators, port authorities and others in the ecosystem collect vast amounts of data but very rarely tap into it. As an example, EY cited workforce planning — ensuring the right people are on location exactly when needed, based on a ship’s expected arrival — can be enhanced through data management, AI and analytics, provided the data is collected and used properly. With skills and experience combining vast and constantly evolving data sets, EY can play a role in addressing specific run-the-port problems, which span multiple ecosystem players, such as operators, shippers, regulators and freight-forwarding companies, and have a direct impact on operations and profitability.

In addition to providing expertise around data, EY serves as a useful ecosystem hub as it is a trusted partner to all the stakeholders within a port. TBR has heard multiple variations on this idea that maritime ports contain vast complexities with overlapping interests, jurisdictions and business models, reinforcing the need for a neutral party to handle shared concerns such as data. Optimizing that data then comes from, in EY’s estimation, knowing what to look for, which only comes through experience working with maritime port clients and their ecosystem clients and partners.

In mid-July TBR continued looking at the digital transformation parallels between maritime ports and smart cities by speaking with a team from EY’s Global Trade Initiative about the firm’s efforts with port authorities and broader port ecosystems. Jonathan Beard, partner, Strategy and Transactions, Hong Kong; James Wainwright, senior manager, Financial Services Advisory, London; Wouter van Groenestijn, associate partner, Strategy and Transactions, Singapore; and Lynn Dike, associate director, Brand, Marketing and Communications, London, described EY’s initiatives and solutions in the context of a wildly uncertain market. The following reflects that discussion and builds on TBR’s previous reporting on this space.

Intelligent supply chain and ports: Atos on the present and future of digital transformation in port operations

Applying emerging technologies to supply chains  

In a wide-ranging discussion, Atos Technology and Innovation Lead Erwin Dijkstra and his colleague Bas Stroeken, Scrum Master & Pre-sales Consultant – Intelligent Supply Chain, shared a few key insights into their company’s strategy on integrating emerging technologies, such as AI, blockchain and IoT, into maritime port ecosystems, highlighting Atos’ current clients and use cases. Noting that Atos’ client base includes airports as well as traditional supply chain solutions buyers (such as manufacturers), Dijkstra and Stroeken described Atos’ differentiation as its ability to integrate across an entire enterprise and ecosystem, optimize around delivery times, and build a platform for intelligent supply chain management, which Atos then manages as a service to the client. A critical factor for Atos’ clients, according to Dijkstra and Stroeken, has been the company’s in-depth examination of actors and roles within an enterprise and how those actors will engage with the platform. Various roles require different information and options in the event of an out-of-plan event, making the ideal platform more than simply a collection of data points and alerts. As Stroeken explained, real-time insights are meaningless if everything is going according to plan (think Homer Simpson working at the nuclear power plant — all good, until it is not). When something deviates from expectations, multiple actors need to be alerted, informed and given options for remediation. With multiple actors involved, real-time information becomes critical as one person’s decision nearly always impacts options or needed actions for others in the ecosystem.

Bringing the discussion back to the broader enterprise level, Stroeken made two observations that resonated with TBR. First, professionals tasked with managing supply chains within many enterprises are not deeply experienced in AI, which necessitates Atos acting as the bridge between the technology and the humans who need to understand it, deploy it and benefit from it. Second, as Stroeken said, “Collaboration begins with the proper sharing of data,” which may be a perfect mantra for digital transformation and emerging technologies.

Atos provided two additional use cases, both tied to port operations, specifically customs, an area in which Atos has expertise. In the first, natural language processing and AI contribute to understanding the text in customs forms, improving and expediting the classification process. In more colorful terms, Dijkstra explained how a drone could be classified as a toy, a military use item, or a camera, all with different tax implications, creating a need for assistance among customs agents to get the classifications correct. In a second use case, Atos helps cargo screeners operate more efficiently and with fewer random checks by scanning containers with X-ray machines and using AI to match the images to the manifests. In both cases, Atos operates as the integrator, bringing together various emerging technologies and providing the platform for clients’ continued operations.

TBR and Atos also discussed blockchain as a tool across the maritime shipping and supply chain ecosystems. While the well-known benefits of increased transparency and a more level playing field appeal to enterprises across the shipping world, including manufacturers, ports and shipping operators, Atos’ role primarily comes through facilitating adoption and overcoming the human barriers, such as lack of trust in the technology and uncertainty around data-sharing (see the collaboration mantra above). In TBR’s view, blockchain solutions apply more readily to supply chain than nearly any other use case outside of bitcoin. Atos’ approach — which assumes the technology has been proved secure and reliable, but the humans need coaching — reflects what TBR believes will be the long-term reality for blockchain.

We continue to be intrigued by ports as test beds for emerging technologies and as starter kits for large-scale smart cities. Following a presentation on IoT by Dijkstra, TBR analysts discussed intelligent supply chain solutions, ports and emerging technologies with Dijkstra and Stroeken, including details about Atos’ use cases and current offerings. The following reflects that discussion as well as TBR’s analysis of the consulting and IT services opportunities around emerging technologies, including insights from TBR’s Digital Transformation portfolio and Management Consulting Benchmark.