Innovation, like ports themselves, has been a cornerstone of human development for millennia and the UK ports sector knows that to remain competitive in an ever-changing sector, it must continually innovate. This poses new opportunities, as well as challenges, in the way ports operate and the industry must navigate these eddies to become more sustainable and successful.

Looking at the operational foundation for customer centred supply chain ports, data and digitalisation are increasingly embedded in many key activities. Optimisation algorithms are driving better efficiency both on the port itself and across supply chains to reduce delay and waste. Data and monitoring can be utilised to assess asset health and pre-empt unplanned maintenance – including the use of other new technology developments such as drones. Development continues on building full ‘digital twins’ of port operations and ports are increasingly engaging with the opportunities of space sector applications for the likes of monitoring and mapping.

Of course, innovation in the ports sector doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Structural changes to many of the customer sectors we serve, enabled by the wider digital revolution and accelerated in many cases by the experience of the COVID pandemic, are also likely to be profound over the next decade. For example, rapid growth in home delivery and the online grocery market have impacted the retail landscape, resulting in what could be a significant and “permanent redrawing” of logistical supply chains serving the retail sector.

Ports are already adapting to these changes, with plenty of potential to expand in future directions. Port operators are working hard with customers, supply chain partners and technology providers to bring both more resilience and agility into supply chains without major productivity and cost penalties. A key method of meeting these challenges is to increase supply chain visibility – knowing where your cargo is and having the ability to make rapid decisions on routing and storage. Ports are a vital part of this data supply chain and being a core node for data as well as physical goods should open opportunities for the UK sector.

The applications go further, beyond the traditional operational sphere, to improve core foundations of sustainable success. Better data and data usage can mean lower emissions and better air quality. Better utilisation of data could also drive better safety performance. The ports sector is anxious to harness and pool more data from operators, as well as other sources, to anticipate key risks and mitigate them going forward.

Significant developments in automation and digitalisation have resulted in changes in some port roles. This is largely because Industry 4.0 necessitates a much greater generation, organisation, and utilisation of data as well as growing levels of automation in ports and other industrial and logistical workplaces. Innovation and the changes that it brings ask questions of the world of work at a human level. The answers are not all always easy, but they do not automatically mean replacing humans in the workplace. Rather the products of innovation can inform and augment decision-making and working practices that are crucial for delivering productivity progress.  More flexibility on work hours and locations can allow port colleagues themselves to work safely and productively. Innovation and technology are driving huge amounts of change in all our lives as well as in global supply chains. However, what remains constant is that ports will continue to play a vital role as the focal points for global trade – Not only as historic gateways for goods and people, but as a node for the flow of data. Overall, as a sector, we’re factoring in more agility and innovative ways of working – utilising new technology, strong digital infrastructure, and data as integral tools to providing customers with better solutions and safer, more sustainable ports.