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‘A smart port researches the future’

In Rotterdam we are continuously searching for answers to make the port smarter, more efficient, better and more sustainable. How have partners in the port addressed this, why, and what could they have done smarter?

SmartPort is a neutral knowledge platform that initiates and finances innovative scientific research and disseminates knowledge. Its aim is to speed up innovations in the port of Rotterdam. Elisabeth van Opstall is the Director.

Elisabeth van Opstall, Director SmartPort

‘After working as a tax consultant for over 10 years, I concluded that I was not a specialist but was in essence incredibly curious. When I started as consultant, I was able to take a look in lots of other ‘kitchens’. I became acquainted with the port world in 2014, including topics such as LNG and sustainable inland shipping. The port of Rotterdam has a magical appeal, with its robustness, 24-hour operations and go-getting mentality. My regional Twente level-headedness is a great match for this. I also think it’s important that I’m involved in issues about the future. All this comes together brilliantly at SmartPort, where I’ve been working for almost two years now.

With SmartPort we investigate how we can make the port future proof with respect to logistics, infrastructure, energy and industry. We do this based on the issues posed by companies. We put companies in touch with science, knowledge institutes and the government. Moreover we ensure that the scientific knowledge gained from this research is not only channelled back to these collaborating companies, but that it is also accessible for all companies in the port of Rotterdam. This enables them to anticipate and innovate. The research focuses on long term prognoses, 2030 to 2050. We’re looking particularly at trends emerging as a result of the energy transition, digitisation and automation and climate change.

Data is the new gold
A smart port is a port with vision, that thinks and operates in an integrated way, and looks further than its own organisation. A port with companies that develop new business models. Digitisation and automation demand this and this will have tremendous impact on processes and therefore also on companies. The party that has the right data is sitting on a gold mine. If we want to become a smart port, we need to ensure that data are available from the right neutral party and are disseminated securely and in the right way. And that the data can be used for research and to accelerate innovations in business processes and products.

This means we’ll immediately need to address a dilemma, as the crucial question concerns who will be responsible for collecting these data and making these available. As a port you cannot sit and wait until this is organised as you’d be side-lined. It is important that we create a structure now regarding who should organise and manage these data. In my opinion a market party shouldn’t be in charge on its own, as commercial interests will then take precedence over the collective interests. I think the independent government or a combination of public and private parties should take on the governing role. This will ensure availability and security.

Glaciers and bridges
SmartPort looks beyond the port of Rotterdam’s geographical borders. Companies’ chain activities in the port of Rotterdam don’t end at the port boundary. Our links with research institutes and market parties mean we have all the required expertise in-house. And yet some projects are a quest. It’s clear that a certain development is getting closer and will have impact. Not tomorrow or next year, but certainly in the coming decades. But most companies do not have a sense of urgency when it involves such a time period. This makes it difficult to get them involved in the SmartPort research, which means that a research project doesn’t get off the ground. Then it’s important that you make adjustments or wait for the right moment. External factors can play an accelerating role in this.

An example is our ‘Climate change and inland shipping’ project. The idea in 2017 was to investigate the influence on inland shipping of the high and low water levels resulting from climate change. But there was insufficient enthusiasm for this in the inland shipping sector. Until that hot, dry summer of 2018 … Low water levels put pressure on transport to the hinterland. Fewer cargo volumes with higher tariffs. The research now is being embraced by market parties. You can use predictions to anticipate events. It is, of course, important that predictions are reliable.

‘You’ll only see it when you understand it’
Take how the Rhine will look in 50 years, for example. The water in the Rhine is partly created by the melting of glaciers. However, the fact is that glaciers are in decline. If there are far fewer glaciers, water levels in the rivers will depend on the discharged rainwater. We’re at the end of the waterway in Rotterdam. How do you handle this? Will more barrages or locks be needed, different types of vessels with smaller draughts, higher bridges, deeper channels? Such questions are important for Rijkswaterstaat and others but are still hardly ever considered. Mitigating measures, measures that reduce or remove these negative effects, demand an international approach and will take decades. That means you need to start investigating now. You’ll only see it when you understand it.
Source: Port Of Rotterdam

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