Port authorities on an evolutionary journey

COMMENT: The role of port authorities is evolving, for the better. Where once port authorities were simply required to toe the government line on transportation, they now need to drive change, foster collaboration and nurture innovation, writes Carly Fields. 

It is no longer enough to simply serve customers. Dynamism is now a requisite skill for port authorities looking to be part of the conversation on future port development.

This metamorphosis of port authorities was a recurring theme at this year’s annual American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) conference, which took place in Chile in October.

Patrick Verhoeven, managing director of policy and strategy at the International Association of Ports and Harbors, spoke of the need for port authorities to be more vocal, collectively and on a global level, on the benefits trade brings. Today’s port authorities have morphed into hybrid entities that must marry a clear commercial role with a public vocational one.

A particularly-pertinent remark was that while the moniker ‘port authority’ is not fashionable these days, it still says what it does on the tin. Mr Verhoeven encapsulated the potential noting that port authorities today provide “great potential for leadership, sustainability, closer collaboration and a stronger voice for the port industry in global fora”.

But as port authorities shift into this more prominent, public-facing role, they mustn’t neglect their commercial roots, which are also transforming in tandem.

At the AAPA event, Association of Canadian Port Authorities president Wendy Zatylny remarked how port authorities are evolving to become critical links within the supply chain, building resilience through collaboration and partnership. Provincialism should be consigned to the annals of history.

Shippers present spoke of port authorities taking more responsibility for what goes on in their ports — concessioning of terminals does not absolve authorities of their commercial responsibilities, no matter what the tender contract says. Here, the Maersk Line representative at the event called for more “partners” in the ports and terminals industry.

Social responsibilities also remain with port authorities or at best are shared with concessionaires. Today, ports need a ‘social licence’ to operate, sometimes literally, but always figuratively. Let’s showcase ports, not hide them away, through the adoption of joined-up approaches.

That the role of port authorities is shifting is plain to see, but the breadth of that transformation — socially, publicly, commercially and collaboratively — might come as a surprise to many. Ultimately, there needs to be a willingness to change. Without that, natural selection will play its part in deciding which port authorities make it to the next stage of their evolutionary journey.

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