Searching for Shipping’s Elon Musk

By Simon Phillips, Senior Consultant Shipping is not short of opportunities to embrace new technology and there are plenty of entrepreneurs seeking to bring their innovations to the…

By Simon Phillips, Senior Consultant

Shipping is not short of opportunities to embrace new technology and there are plenty of entrepreneurs seeking to bring their innovations to the maritime market. But with shipping facing an unprecedented number of challenges, where are the visionaries that are looking not just to improve shipping, but transform it? When it comes to securing a profitable and sustainable future for our industry, maybe the world’s leading tech pioneers would do things a little differently. So what could shipping learn from Elon Musk?

This industry has a history of steady, incremental change, whether in the growing size of container ships, or step-by-step improvements in operational efficiency. In some cases, shipping appears to have perfected the art of mañana when it comes to technological progress. Look no further than the BWM Convention, 14 years on from adoption and still waiting to enter into force. After all, what was the last truly transformative moment in shipping that wasn’t driven by regulation? Perhaps the shipping container, pioneered over 60 years ago by Malcolm McLean.

None of this is about blaming the industry. There is nothing irrational in how it behaves, particularly when staring down the barrel of costly regulation, red tape and incredibly tough market conditions. The instinct to hunker down and ride it out is natural. But maybe there is another approach. An approach that involves challenging received wisdom and taking not just small steps, but a giant leap forward. But where should we look for inspiration on how to think a little bigger?

It’s easy to assume that shipping solutions can only come from shipping people. But maybe we can learn something from the approach taken by pioneers in other fields.

After all, with respect to the challenges facing shipping, a tech entrepreneur like Elon Musk is not shy of taking on a big challenge. As well as being the co-founder of PayPal, Elon Musk is the man behind SpaceX, SolarCity and Tesla Motors. So that’s the space travel, human colonisation of the stars and curbing global warming through the production and consumption of sustainable energy boxes ticked.

But, what can we learn from the approach taken by the likes of Elon Musk and other technology leaders and visionaries who are driving progress in their fields?

No 1. Ask the right questions

The most impactful technology innovations not only improve on what came before it, but redefine it. This comes from asking the right questions. The iPhone wasn’t born from asking how to make a better mobile phone, it was inspired by the desire to create a phone that people would fall in love with, that was so instrumental and integrated into peoples’ lives that they’d rather leave their wallet at home than their phone.

No 2. Think big

Musk’s goal for Tesla is not to create a luxury electric car brand, but to build a vehicle affordable to the average consumer. The ambition behind SpaceX is to lower the cost of human spaceflight by a factor of 10, to establish human colonies on other planets, whilst taking on the likes of Lockheed Martin and Boeing along the way. That’s thinking big.

No 3. Have deep pockets

The ideas with the biggest impact don’t always need to cost a lot of money. But as many shipping innovators will be all too familiar, the R&D costs involved in bringing a solution to market can quickly become prohibitive. Spotify declared 2014 to be a ‘transformative’ year for music streaming, as its revenue exceeded $1billion for the first time, but its losses also continued to rise, exceeding $160m. As with many other technologies that struggled to achieve profitability, investor faith has been critical.

No 4. Keep going

If you’re trying to achieve something difficult, there are likely to be plenty of setbacks along the way. SpaceX is famous for its test launch ‘failures’, but it moves forward every time. Earlier this month, at the fourth attempt, it made history by landing its reusable Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic. A technological embodiment of the famous lesson in perseverance posed by Abraham Lincoln; from failed businessman and multiple election loser, to one of the greatest U.S. Presidents of all time.

For shipping, these lessons point towards the importance of challenging the assumptions that underpin our industry. Perhaps it is time to ask some radical questions about why shipping exists in the first place, the purpose we serve and whether there is a smarter way for the industry to supply products and materials around the globe. The future of shipping is intrinsically linked to the future of manufacturing, supply chain innovation, local sourcing, resource consumption patterns, and more.

Unfortunately, these lessons also suggest that a great idea is not enough. You also need to be willing and able to commit the blood, sweat, tears and finance to make it commercially viable.

Against the backdrop of these challenges, let’s hear it for those that are pushing the boundaries and defining what shipping’s future could look like. The likes of Rolls Royce’s conceptual shore-based ‘bridge of the future’. The Finnish-funded Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA). RightShip’s GHG Emissions Rating and the Carbon War Room’s A-G ship efficiency index. Silverstream’s pioneering air lubrication system. AkzoNobel’s landmark carbon credits initiative. Ecoslops’ innovative technology that can transform oil residues from shipping (slops and sludge) into new recycled marine fuels.

Rather than relying on a single ‘eureka’ moment, shipping’s future may instead lie in the cumulative impact of a flotilla of smaller-scale innovations, collectively capable of delivering transformative change,

In the same spirit, rather than hunting for shipping’s own Elon Musk, perhaps we should applaud the collaborative spirit in which many of shipping’s leading technology experts are coming together to shape the future of our industry. The AAWA Initiative is a great example, comprising research institutes, ship owners and other maritime stakeholders, including Rolls Royce, NAPA, Deltamarin, DNV GL and Inmarsat.

Perhaps this is the more fruitful route for our industry. Delivering meaningful technological advancement on a number of fronts, underpinned by intelligent forecasting on the future role of the industry and driven by collaborative partnerships, pooled resources and shared expertise.

That said Elon… if you fancy a new challenge alongside space travel, electric vehicles and solar energy, you’re always welcome to take a look at shipping.