Smart Ports: The Next Leg in the Relay Race of Shipping

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at the Smart Ports: Piers of the Future conference. No flights, no hotels, no long dinners. No, this conference was completely virtual.

Speakers delivered their keynotes from screens suspended over a TV-level production set. Discussion panels were moderated on-set by Jordi Espin, Maritime Transport Policy Manager at European Shipper’s Council (ESC); it was almost like an actual conference.

It was insightful, impressive, and symbolic of the industry trend toward digitalisation.

But it also surfaced a new challenge… what do we do with all the data?

New technology — like Smart Ports — generate data. While that data holds value for each port, that’s not where it should end.

The Great Relay Race

The shipping industry is interconnected. Like a relay race, we pass the baton from one to another as we move cargo across the world. Carriers, ports, terminals, freight forwarders — we all work together to move cargo from A to B.

Each link is important, and each link is connected. Gains in one area can be offset in another.

There’s little point cutting transit time at sea, if a vessel ends up stuck at port.
What value is a smart container if that data can only be used by the carrier?

If shipping is a relay race, then standards define how we pass the baton to each other. The better the standards, the smoother the transitions.

We cannot do it in isolation. As an industry, we must not just aim to win our own leg, but to win the race.

And sometimes, that means working with competitors…

In bed with the enemy

“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it” — Einstein

In 2018, the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA) was just an idea. I envisioned a collaboration between carriers to develop technology standards and frameworks and create a more seamless, easy-to-use service for customers.

Many said it wouldn’t work… but it did.

DCSA has defined technology standards to improve collaboration and information flow in container shipping. Everything from data & interfaces like Track & Trace and cargo operations, to IoT for Smart Containers, and Just-in-Time Port Call, by setting common standards we aim to facilitate better communication across the entire industry.

Just-in-Time Port Call standards will play a key role. They allow the exchange of event data in a uniform way between carriers, ports and terminals, and in doing so, enable ships to optimise steaming speed, reduce fuel consumption and decrease CO2 emissions. Subsequently, they improve customer experience with more predictable cargo operations at ports and terminals.

The shipping carriers have come together to collaborate, and perhaps there’s an opportunity for ports and terminals to do the same.

Whether through an organisation similar to DCSA but for ports, or in collaboration with DCSA, the emergence of Smart Ports, and the data that comes with them, means that standards will be essential if we are to capitalise on the opportunity.

Smart ports. Smarter shipping.

By 2030, we’ll be shipping 16 billion metric tonnes of cargo a year. That’s a 5 billion tonne increase from today.

Meeting that demand will require collaboration. It’s not enough for us to advance in silos, there must be industry-wide collaboration in order to meet such growth.

As ports, terminals, carriers, and freight forwarders embrace digitalisation, it’s important that we’re all heading in the same direction.

As Chairman of DCSA, I’d like to welcome all ports and terminals to start collaborating with us on defining and implementing Just-in-Time Port Call standards. These standards lay the foundation for better communication, enhanced shipping customer experience and improving resilience. Your feedback and input is valuable in shaping the direction of the industry, and we look forward to doing it together.

Thank you to “Smart Ports: Piers of the Future” for the opportunity to speak at the conference. It was eye-opening and a welcome inspiration for this piece. The session was recorded and is available on the website



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Andre Simha

Andre Simha

Husband, father, bass player, shoeaholic. CDIO at MSC and chairman of DCSA. I mostly write about the digitalisation of container shipping.