The Shipping Industry needs to be thinking decades ahead if it is to ride out the peaks and troughs of political and economic change.
In 2000, the young founder of a fledgling tech company proposed a partnership to the Executive Board of film rental giant Blockbuster. His idea was for his start-up business to run Blockbuster’s online brand, selling film and TV rentals via the internet in real time. The young entrepreneur was laughed out of the room.
His business was called Netflix – and it is now worth £130bn. Blockbuster ceased trading in 2013.
The lesson is clear. Whatever fortunes we enjoy today will not exist tomorrow unless we continuously change, collaborate and strive for the next big thing.
The Chamber recently held an event for new maritime tech startups to come to our offices and meet with members, promoting their products and services. Among them were mobile applications, artificial intelligence and virtual reality products that will revolutionise the way shipping works.
For all the arguments and debates led by politicians and governments around the world about protectionism and trade wars, we must remember that the market has a tendency to know best. All of the problems we face can be overcome through innovation. The easy movement of goods across national borders, the training of the next generation of seafarers, the further development of the North Sea oil field, are more likely to be achieved by the entrepreneur than the politician.
Moreover, so substantial are the required reductions in carbon and sulphur emissions that the industry will need to collaborate like never before to achieve them. There is a new global innovation race underway, with countries competing to provide green tech to the world’s fleet – the winners will enjoy huge job and wealth creation. It is my very clear ambition that the UK should be a leader in this field.
It is of course the entrepreneurs who will deliver these outcomes together with established research and development bodies. We must not make the mistake of laughing them out of the room. Instead we must welcome them around our table, and this year we will find new ways to support them in their endeavours.
It is clear that we need to think differently. The pace of change in the world is speeding up, not slowing down. It is why we so warmly welcomed the Government’s Maritime 2050 strategy. For us to succeed we have to be thinking decades ahead.
The 2050 strategy, and the Maritime Growth Study that preceded it, show very clearly that Government wants to help. It is our responsibility that when Government asks what we want, we have a clear answer. It should be more robust and ambitious than the usual requests of ‘certainty’, and a platform built out of greater collaboration across the industry as a whole. Together we need a greater intellectual effort to build detailed and specific policy proposals in the way that the most innovative think tanks do, and then lobby for them with all the skill of the best agencies. Our target should be to make the UK the best place in the world to do maritime business, and everything we do should flow from that ambition. That is how a 21st century trade association behaves.
That attitude builds on what we already have achieved. Before I took the role of CEO in 2018 I knew, by reputation, that the UK Chamber had a dedicated and talented team striving to champion and protect the shipping industry. Since joining the UK Chamber I now see it first-hand every single day.
Our team offer members one-to-one advice on all regulatory matters they face. We bring together world experts in our events, conferences and seminars. We bring the industry together in committees and forums to debate issues of the day, propose new ideas and collaborate for the betterment of the entire industry. We bang the drum in Parliament and within the national and international media on a near-daily basis. We promote a career at sea proactively to ensure a regular supply of skilled seafarers. We offer training courses for new entrants into the industry explaining simply how shipping works.
These last two points are particularly important. The industry is not a club reserved for a small number of senior directors – it is a large and dynamic group of individuals of all ages and skillsets. A priority for me is to nurture the next generation, to build their knowledge and experience and ensure the UK remains a leading maritime nation well into the future.
It is vital therefore that the UK Chamber provides a meaningful and open place to discuss ideas, threats and opportunities. Our members are often hugely engaged in the process of policy development. The companies who get the most value from their membership are the ones who are most engaged. It is why it is so important to our work, and to the collective health of the industry, that members tell us of the challenges they face.
Indeed, that has been at the heart of the Chamber’s work since the very beginning. Next year is the 100th anniversary of our Royal Charter. The forthcoming anniversary is a timely reminder that periods of political instability are usually short-lived. The Royal Charter has seen the UK shipping industry through the Second World War, the emergence of globalisation, the transition from steam power to oil power and, soon enough, to hydrogen and battery power. We’ve seen the Falklands, containerisation, digitisation. It’s seen Third World countries become trading superpowers, giving it more opportunities for new routes.
In that context, we can look at the challenges of today with a degree of confidence. The world will always need shipping. The UK will always be an island nation dependent on the sea. And whatever the peaks and troughs of politics and economics, it will always need a strong and vibrant shipping industry.