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Change is part of the modern world and innovation is one of the key drivers for change. The prevailing question is: are the ports in the right mindset towards innovation?

Many port authorities, port operators, and important stakeholders of the maritime supply chain are investing many efforts to introduce innovation into their organisations.

They understand that the industry is changing, sea shipping companies operate air cargo fleets, retailers are operating sea cargo fleets, and to continue operating successfully in the new reality, ports need to do things differently.

With the aim of closing the gaps of ports around the world in terms of competitiveness of both physical and digital infrastructure, the International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH) gathered a group of innovation experts from ports around the world to develop a set of tools for innovation in ports.

The first one developed was a short non-technical guide for ports’ innovation role, with practical examples from ports who have already commenced their own innovation journeys: “The mindset shift towards innovation in ports”.

6 common misconceptions about innovation

Dr. Patrick Verhoeven, managing director of IAPH, said, “A lot of it is about thinking differently. Different may not always be better, but better is always different”

There can be a number of misconceptions about how innovation is applied in ports. Some of those can be considered includes:

“We have operational challenges to handle; this is not the time to invest efforts in innovation”

Indeed today, ports face multiple challenges such as new international and national regulatory requirements, strong international competition, accelerated digitalisation, and major climate and environmental challenges as well as the after effects of the global supply chain crunch. 

Innovation is one of the tools with which ports can tackle these challenges, an innovation strategy makes it possible for ports to adapt and reinvent themselves in what has now become a highly competitive and uncertain environment.

“Innovation is about technology, mainly information technology (IT)”

Innovation is often referred to as IT and technology, but innovation can be implemented in many of the port’s activities: products and services, processes, organisational structures and the business models at ports; with technology enabling innovation rather than being a solution in itself. 

“Innovation can be managed in conjunction with an operational role at the port”

Some ports assign the innovation activity as an additional responsibility to an operational role at the port, mainly in the IT division. By doing this, limited efforts are dedicated to innovation, because operational needs consume most of the resources and the few activities achieved are mainly focused on technology.

Efficient innovation requires someone in the organisation who can focus all their efforts in fostering innovation.

For that reason, one of the first steps in the innovation journey is appointing a Chief Innovation Officer (CINO) who should report directly to the top management.

“Innovation can be a one-person-show”

Some may expect that the CINO can bring successful innovative solutions without the support of all other departments in the ports, but this is not the case.

One of the important roles of the CINO is to build an innovation culture at the port, raising awareness and building a team of innovation agents in the various departments.

Those innovation agents will highlight existing pain points and the port’s processes knowledge, which will be the base of the innovation solution scouting. This will help build the use case for hackathons/pilots/proofs of concept, and support the successful implementation of innovative ideas.

Open innovation, which builds collaboration with the different agents of the port community, can accelerate the innovation process and bring benefits to all the members of the maritime supply chain.

“Innovation tools as hackathons/pilots/proofs of concept can be managed as a stand alone activity”

Hackathons/pilots/proofs of concept are useful tools for innovation activity, but they bring limited contribution when they are treated as stand alone projects.

It is important to engage in these activities as part of a predefined and structured plan that determines the transition parameters from each phase, supported by the needed legal/contractual framework, and backed with the needed funding.

“The right time to invest in startups is after they already have an established customer base” 

This is not always the case. It depends on the amount of the investment required. Those ports which prefer to invest a small amount, can invest in start-ups that are at their earliest stages.

Establishing a Corporate Venture Capital (CVC) arm in ports is an innovation mechanism that can generate revenue streams (in the long term), while also increasing the appeal of collaborating with the port. 

Innovation is a key tenet of the IAPH Data Collaboration Committee (DCC), and the IAPH would like to encourage ports to join DCC and take part in this exciting journey we have embarked upon, where everyone has something to gain.

Gadi Benmoshe is Vice Chair of the Data Collaboration Committee of the International Association of Ports & Harbors and Managing Director of Marinnovators.