Bridging between Islands: The Dawn of Interoperability in Shipping


Every new technological advance starts as an island. A new solution, a new way of doing things evolves, influenced by who is developing it and the context in which they want to use it. As vendors seek to exploit the innovation for financial gain, so development accelerates. New features and use cases emerge.

The result is pockets of related products which, nonetheless, struggle to connect. Eventually, a few come to dominate the market; how many depends on the size of the problem to be solved.

One of the ways in which certain types of products are adopted above others is their ability to integrate and connect with, or between existing systems. This notion, known as interoperability, is at the heart of any successful integration of technology. Look at healthcare, aviation, or even gaming industries. In each of these sectors, the ability for different systems to interact with each other, to share data securely, has been vital to the respective industry’s digitalization. One would expect that shipping, by its very nature, a mix of players and partners, would be another interoperability success story. So why is it that we are still in the foothills of understanding the benefits of being able to share data between different platforms efficiently?

If we look at shipping, we see an industry on the cusp of digitalization. New innovations, promising to solve the sector’s deep-rooted problems and pains, are appearing every day. The potential for positive change is immense.

Yet at the same time, these initiatives are happening in isolation, in islands. Everyone is rushing to get their product into a pilot, from pilot to market, dreaming of market domination. The technology, in some ways, is incidental – what matters is getting something in front of customers. It might be the Internet of Things; it might be artificial intelligence or even blockchain. Whatever it is, the goal is to solve a specific issue for the customer.

To focus purely on making your island the best out there, however, is a short term plan. No technology, no solution, can solve all problems. Therefore, to be truly effective, it needs interoperability to scale.

Consider blockchain. We are very much in the early stage of the adoption curve. There is any number of startups, established vendors, and other parties developing blockchain-related products, tools, and solutions, all trying to solve issues within shipping. Public or private, hyperledger or Ethereum, each hasits own benefits and drawbacks.

In shipping, the most prominent example is TradeLens and its private blockchain. On its Maersk and IBM island, this platform has been developed as a closed shop. It will apparently solve all of a customer’s shipping issues if they sign up – but in a way that requires said customer to trust that specific solution completely.

TradeLens was one of the first blockchain concepts to market in shipping, and in many ways it simply replicated the control mindset many large corporations have.

By doing so, however, there is the risk that the silos of legacy technology development. Different systems require different sets of skills and teams to manage them, are not removed, but simply digitalized. In a sector as interconnected as shipping, this approach has been at the root of many problems for the last twenty years.

Surely a better way would be to harness the connected nature of the sector, of the data sharing taking place every day, and build systems that deliver those requirements? Granted, for any one company, such an undertaking would be hugely expensive and risky. This is why we have a thriving startup ecosystem circling shipping, with new players developing specific products that target a particular problem.

Yet we still run the risk of having lots of little islands. Some believe that standards are the way forward – that common ways of working will ensure the connectivity we all crave and help people on different islands communicate and trade with each other. Somehow, it seems like the re-discovery of global trade – similar to ships sailing from Europe to India – and finding America as they go! Standards are important, but they take time to evolve, as a common language needs to be defined, agreed upon, and implemented. It is only in the last year that we have seen a number of organizations set up to push the work of standards in shipping technology, a broad remit if ever there was one. If we are to avoid a proliferation of different variations of the same technologies, we need to bridge between islands sooner rather than later.

Let’s connect those pockets of innovation, but be realistic. It’s easy for any number of commentators to make big statements about interoperability. We need to start small, two, three islands at a time. We see it with the connection between CargoX’s public blockchain and RoadLaunch’s private one, sharing data across two systems. Rather than forcing customers to choose either one or the other, they now have the power of two different approaches available in one place.

Shipping is on a digital journey, bringing together a complex mix of technologies and platforms. No one solution will ever be able to solve all problems. Those who tried to be jack of all trades ended up with being master of none. Platforms, service providers and institutions need to find a way of connecting everything together, to make it interoperable. Let the global trade evolve.

Stefan Kukman, CEO and Founder CargoX

(This article has been written and contributed by CargoX CEO, Stefan Kukman, exclusively for Sea News)

Sea News Feature, October 18

Baibhav Mishra
Author: Baibhav Mishra

Associate Editor, Sea News