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Singapore Solutions

Shipping is ripe for disruption and Singapore leads the way

Thu 07 Mar 2019 by Ed Martin

Shipping is ripe for disruption and Singapore leads the way

Singapore shows how successful bringing models of innovation from the tech startup world into the maritime context can be

If I had to pick a theme for this year’s Singapore Solutions, it would be disruption – a re-evaluation of established priorities and ways of doing things. And the maritime-focused tech accelerator programmes such as PIER71 and others are a perfect example of this.

For those who are not familiar with the term, a tech accelerator is an investment programme in which investors provide mentoring and other resources to startups over a fixed programme, culminating in a pitch day where the startups present their solutions to potential investors. In some cases, such as PIER71, profiled in more depth in this issue, investors may issue a particular call for action setting out a challenge that the accelerator programme will seek to resolve through innovation.

Sometimes this innovation may be so significant as to entirely disrupt existing ways of doing things, for example the impact Uber has had in the taxi space, or AirBnB. Or, in the maritime sector, steam power replacing sail, or introducing the container. Accelerator programmes first arose in Silicon Valley in the mid 2000s, and in my view the maritime sector is ripe for a dose of the optimism and healthy willingness to challenge convention exhibited by tech startups that arose in that environment.

The maritime industry is often criticised for being conservative, and as arguably one of the oldest industries in the world, this is perhaps not surprising. It also makes it ripe for disruption from this model of fostering innovation. It certainly doesn’t lack for opportunities for innovation. IMO’s sulphur cap, which comes into force in 2020, has caused a flurry of activity with a host of competing ideas for compliance, all with compelling arguments for and against. And the changes from the much-heralded digital transformation are already being felt. We may not yet be at the point where a vessel can cross the ocean operating purely on battery power, or where entirely unmanned vessels are plying trade routes, but innovations such as using drones to carry out dangerous inspections, or of using AI-powered algorithms to produce optimised stowage plans for container ships, make life easier both on- and offshore, and can have a positive impact on the balance book through efficiencies gained.

In Singapore’s maritime accelerator programmes there is a coming together of shipping, one of the oldest industries in the world, and the new kids on the block, the tech startup industry. It is perhaps not surprising that maritime-focused accelerator schemes are taking off in Singapore, given its status as a financial, maritime and tech hub. And in its 200 years of existence, Singapore has faced change and disruption. But it has also innovated and found a way to succeed. The authorities have always been keen to facilitate trade and innovation, and the city now has a global reputation as a hub for trade, technology and finance.

Disruption of some sort is inevitable. At times it is a cause of pain – as in the case of the downturns in the offshore sector and elsewhere in recent years. But regardless, it necessitates change, and the organisations and industries that do the best job of surviving are those that engage with and embrace proactively this need to change.

It is my belief that those in our industry who follow the Singaporean model and choose to invest in change through models like accelerator programmes, rather than simply reacting after the fact, are those who will thrive in the changing world of the 21st century maritime sector.

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