Shipping is a centuries-old industry, but in the age of automation and same-day deliveries, it needs to move at breakneck speed.

Shipping is entering a period of “incredible experimentation” according to a recent McKinsey report.

The shipping industry, and ports everywhere, are on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution, when cognitive and mobile machines, powered by data, will be as transformational in the 2020s as the launch of steamships was in the 1820s. It comes at a time of incredible opportunity: the global shipping industry carries 90% of global trade, moving more than US $4 trillion of goods every year. However, growth in global trade is contracting, in part because of national sentiments, and everyone is under pressure to find efficiencies.

The key question for Canada is: how do we ensure our tech-enabled ports are world-class?

This is key to our competitiveness. Canadian ports compete with U.S. ones and our ability to get imported goods through quickly impacts how much of our own production we can ship out.

At our RBC Disruptors conversation in Halifax on Wednesday, we’ll explore the opportunities and threats the industry faces with the rise of digital, data, analytics and automation. This is a sector traditionally focused on physical assets — but in the digital era, old business models will be disrupted and new value streams created.

Here are 6 key developments that illustrate the transformation of shipping as we know it:

  • The world’s first zero-emissions, fully electric, autonomous container ship will set sail in Norway in 2022. The Yara Birkeland is not a particularly large cargo ship, measuring 70 meters. But when you consider there won’t be any people aboard – that’s suddenly a lot of extra cargo space.
  • Led by Maersk and IBM, the maritime industry is replacing complicated paperwork with Blockchain technology. Parties can now undertake real-time exchanges of supply chain documents, securely sharing Certificate of Origin and customs clearance information.
  • Maersk opened the world’s first automated terminal in Rotterdam in 2015. A human operator sits in an office, overseeing operations in front of a computer. Automated cranes load and unload cargo, moving containers to automated guided vehicles (AGVs) on the ground.
  • The Port of Qingdao on the Yellow Sea in China was opened as Asia’s first fully-automated port in 2017. Using artificial intelligence, this “ghost post” operates 24/7, even in complete darkness. A testament to China’s efficiency: it only took three years to build the terminal from scratch.
  • Drones are increasingly being integrated into everyday port activities, assisting with vessel navigation, traffic control, and security. As of March 2019, Airbus is experimenting with drone deliveries in Singapore, delivering time-critical maritime supplies to working vessels.
  • On land, at sea, and right inside containers, sensors are gathering data and making it easier to track cargo, emissions, temperature, and tides. A Port of Rotterdam-IBM collaboration plans to use this data to make decisions that optimize ship arrival and departures times. This is all part of the Dutch port’s plans to be ready to host autonomous ships by 2025.


John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada’s leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the Office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and sits on the boards of Queen’s University, the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada and the Literary Review of Canada. His latest book, "Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future", explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don’t live here but exert their influence from afar.

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