The organisers of Nor-Shipping faced a herculean task in organising 2019’s conference. Shipping is riven with pressures; regulatory, commercial, operational – really, a never-ending carousel of things for everyone across the sector to navigate and think about.
The conference, therefore, needed to act as a valve to release some of that pressure. The gloves came off early, with changes to the programme and the structure of the exhibition designed to prompt shipping into realising the scope and scale of challenge that it faces.
The entire A-Hall of the conference, a reasonably sized space dedicated in previous years as an extension of the innovative technologies showcased in Hall B, was given over to a showcase on the ‘Blue Economy’ and the UN Sustainable Development Goals that shipping directly helps to support.
This change sent a clear message. The Blue Economy is an emerging concept across many sectors, challenging us to think about how we use the oceans responsibly and sustainably. “Think bigger”, said Nor-Shipping’s organising committee. In part, shipping did just that.
Nor-Shipping’s five halls are unlike any other maritime conference. More intimate than the sheer scale of SMM – which crawls endlessly over 87000 m² of Hamburg’s Exhibition Hall – and less hectic than Shanghai’s Marintec, Nor-Shipping is Norway’s passion for the ocean made manifest.
Incredibly, despite the aforementioned hiving off of one hall for the Blue Economy, this year’s Nor-Shipping felt like it cut to the heart of maritime more than any of the conferences I have been to. Walking around the halls is a good way to fit the puzzle pieces of the sector together in your mind and showcased here was an appropriate mix of traditional and new.
No single hall revealed this more obviously than Hall B, which was crammed full of digital technologies in a way that left no illusions that shipping is amidst great change. Data availability, the industry was told, is about to explode: the next few years will see information exchange between vessels and satellites increase a thousand fold, bringing happier crews and safer operations with it.
Of course, the Sulphur Cap still rightly dominated discussion. And at the side conferences in Nor-Shipping’s orbit, it was LNG’s time in the sun. The industry, it seems, is behind LNG as a fuel; until 2030 at least, when owners and operators will start to worry about 2050 decarbonisation targets – but, for now, that is quite a few ‘Nor-Shippings’ away.
In that sense, the tonality of the conference had shifted slightly. This was in part because of the direct influence of Nor-Shipping’s organisers, who created a genuinely excelsior programme of ‘Blue Talks’ – smaller, more intimate meetings on green finance, efficiency and optimisation – as well as the normal set of debates and panel discussions on the raw commercial factors that power our sector.
Echoing Lloyd’s List Editor Richard Meade’s excellent write-up, answers may have been in short supply. But that the questions were being asked is a marked sign of progress and an indicator of shipping slowly taking its place in the world as an ‘ocean industry’.
It can be argued, therefore, that it is easier to think of Nor-Shipping 2019 as another nail in the coffin of the idea that shipping can possibly afford to navel gaze and not deal with the challenges it faces head on.
In fairness to the exhibitors, and as I have written, a changed mood did seem to have swept over the massive halls of Norges Varamesse. In a conference that was bookended and punctuated by statements about the urgency of change from the industry’s great and good, there was a definite sense that the message, finally, was sinking in.
There is no doubt at all that Nor-Shipping 2021 will be another radically different conference, with issues like decarbonisation and autonomy almost guaranteed to dominate the week. But perhaps, just perhaps, we will look back on 2019’s conference as not just the start of an open fight for innovation with shipping, but as the moment that change finally and permanently gripped the zeitgeist of our increasingly progressive sector.
Rhys Thomas – Consultant