Stepping up to a smart gear with clusters

Blyth is one of five ports involved in a smart port project in the North of England. Credit: Port of Blyth
Blyth is one of five ports involved in a smart port project in the North of England. Credit: Port of Blyth
Barcelona has spearheaded the collaborative PierNext platform. Credit: EvgeniT, CC0
Barcelona has spearheaded the collaborative PierNext platform. Credit: EvgeniT, CC0
Halifax's Centre of Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship is just one of several innovation clustering projects. Credit: COVE
Halifax's Centre of Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship is just one of several innovation clustering projects. Credit: COVE
Industry Database

Innovation clusters are popping up across the sector, as ports recognise the value of exploring new technologies together. Felicity Landon reports

When the Port of Barcelona unveiled PierNext, a new digital knowledge hub, it declared its intention to “enrich Barcelona's innovation cluster” with its specialised view of the port and logistics sector. The sector is full of opportunities and potentialities, mainly for start-ups and SMEs, said the port.

PierNext, launched last year, is one of many such ventures in which ports are turning to 'non-port' partners for new-tech solutions – and in which they are also prepared to work with their competitors to move ideas forward.

Cars Rúa, head of strategic projects and innovation at the Port of Barcelona, says: “The main concept of PierNext is that we have realised we need to create a structure around innovation – to organise a strategic way to develop innovations. This is an initiative of the Port of Barcelona. It is open not only to the port authority, all port agents and other stakeholders, but also to other ports.

“It is necessary not only to work with research centres and universities but also with those in the port industry, terminals, ship agents, forwarding agents and government – all these, and consultancy companies too, are represented on the PierNext committee.”

A port can't develop a lot of innovations by itself, says Mr Rúa. “You also need the help of other ports, you need to join with the smartest ports in the world, you need to benchmark what others are doing and tell them what you are doing well. That way, everyone can advance. If you keep innovation and activity to yourself and try to hide what you are doing from others, it isn't a good idea and it makes it more difficult to advance.”

Four pillars

PierNext is based on an innovation model which has four pillars. First, governance: all stakeholders are included on a strategy and innovation committee. Second: development of an innovation ecosystem, with programmes to stimulate innovation. That has included running a hackathon in the port and setting up training innovation programmes for students.

Third is partnership with other actors, such as universities, research centres and other ports, in particular through Barcelona's membership of the international Chainport project.

Finally comes dissemination. You can't innovate and then put the innovation in a box so that no one knows about it, says Mr Rúa. “You have to explain what you are doing and also what others are doing – that is the idea of PierNext, to identify some innovations and explain them to the audience.”

Inviting other ports to participate can, of course, bring competitors together, he says. “You may be competing for the same market but in fact in most cases what you need is co-operation to reach the market,” he says. “There are a lot of elements common to all ports and you do need to know what other ports are doing – otherwise you risk making the same mistakes as others. If you can avoid mistakes and benefit from others' experience, all the ports will act better. In the end, all ports have the same mission – to facilitate international commerce and help companies to import and export.”

PierNext has not been set up as a new accelerator for start-ups but rather as a hub to bring together the two sides, says Mr Rúa. “We want to integrate more than create. If a start-up company comes here with an idea and I know the industry wants this idea, we can join the two. It's about adapting technology to the reality of the port.”

Widespread projects

Maurice Jansen, senior researcher and business developer at Erasmus UPT, says: “There are various innovation clustering projects going on at the moment and the value is recognised across a number of cities, including Rotterdam (Rotterdam Maritime Capital, in which he is involved), Singapore, Oslo (Green Capital of Europe), Halifax (COVE) and Le Havre (SmartPort).

“In each of these port cities, there are designated areas. Rotterdam has the RDM Campus, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. More recent is the M4H (Merwe-Vierhaven), which is a port area in transition – from old port users to new.”

Halifax, meanwhile, has the Centre of Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship, and Le Havre is looking to scale up its SmartPort efforts significantly.

Rotterdam's project has worked out well, with a rich innovation landscape including Yes!Delft, PortXL, RDM Campus and others, says Mr Jansen. He is also involved in Human Capital Ports, a new coalition of ports from around the world which is considering digitisation, automation and sustainability, and the way in which these will transform ports and the way people work in them. The members met in January and will meet again in Vancouver in October.

The aim is to share knowledge on social innovation and HR issues, and establish a Human Capital Ports Action Programme in which port authorities, educational institutions, and city and port authorities will work together. Port Strategy will look deeper into this initiative in the May 2019 issue.

English pilot

In the UK, another cluster has been developed to push smart objectives. Five ports in north-east England are collaborating in a new programme piloting smart digital initiatives to boost trade and foster economic growth.

The Smart Port North East Testbed, part of the Situational Awareness Information National Technology Service (SAINTS) which is being led by consultant Urban Foresight, will test satellite-based solutions to enable ports to become more intelligent.

AI, data analytics, unmanned marine vessels and drones will be examined as ways of speeding up trade, increasing efficiency and reliability, reducing costs, tracking cargo, improving security and protecting the environment.

“The idea is around exploring new technologies, specifically satellite-related applications, working out ways that ports can manage logistics better,” says Port of Blyth communications manager Tom Chaplin. “That might involve tracking the use of plant, finding more efficient ways to deliver services or more modern ways to track requirements around dredging, for example. The idea of the organisers was to work with five ports of varying sizes, output and requirements.”

The Northumberland port of Blyth is used to the innovation cluster concept – it was home to the UK's first offshore wind farm and the National Renewable Energy Centre, now called the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, is next door. Blyth has become a hub of international renewable energy, offshore and subsea companies and within the Testbed project the focus will be on technology advances for servicing the renewable and green energy sectors.

“We are in the fact-finding stage of the project with the consultants working across departments with the port to explore challenges, needs, opportunities and how technology could help us,” says Mr Chaplin. “The idea is that the public money is available to bring smart technology companies and ‘old technology’ ports together.”

Competition question

As for commercial sensitivities, Mr Chaplin says: “Yes, there is always competition. But this isn't like a round table for ‘here are our problems and secrets’. Having the consultancy as the hub means we can all plug in without giving anything away to anyone else. The consultancy is also talking to the digital businesses and is there to put us together.”

The other ports signed up to the Testbed are Berwick, Sunderland, Tees and Tyne.

Ian Blake, head of information technology at the Port of Tyne, says: “The Testbed project is about introducing high-level innovation into the North East ports – for example, using drones for deliveries or introducing fully automated vehicles. There are a lot of good ideas – we need to find the right fit. Urban Foresight has been appointed to put innovators and ports together, finding the right project for the right port.

“Although we are competitors, there is generally in the North East port sector a desire to work together a bit better, understanding that if we work together and share ideas it will be beneficial.”

The Port of Berwick will be trialling smart solutions for boosting tourism, specifically cruise, while Sunderland is expected to pilot solutions to improve operations, processes and transparency. Teesport, the largest in the region, will test solutions for boosting operational efficiency in logistics and warehousing processes.


Eramus’ Maurice Jansen has previously commented on the value of clustering: “Collaborative innovation does not just happen, it needs to be orchestrated through partnerships.”

He quotes a recent study by Richard Florida which suggests that generating creativity requires finding the right mix between technology, talent and tolerance – 'creatives' being not only artists and designers but also engineers, architects, artisans and software engineers/programmers.

“The main concern I see is when the right mix is not there. For creative capital to be unlocked, it requires a positive flow of financial, social, human and cultural capital – entrepreneurial or 'can-do' mentality based on inherited maritime values,” says Mr Jansen.

“In some ports, the social capital is negative, meaning that there may be a cohesion between members of the community but it leads to inertia rather than innovation. With inertia, I mean there is a kind of distrust between stakeholders, such as between unions and employers. In these cases, I can imagine it takes quite a lot more effort to ignite the ‘spark of creativity and innovation’.”


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