The port paradoxes of our age

Challenges of the 21st century

The challenges of this 21st century are unparalleled and unprecedented in history. By the end of this century, the expectation is that 10 to 12 billion people will inhabit the world. All these people are in need of energy, food and shelter, which triggers a huge demand for trade and transport. At the same time technological developments seem to go faster and faster. Technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence and the internet of things will make our lives more convenient as unmanned vessels, vehicles and flying objects enter the stage, at least that’s what we think will happen. These new technologies will be disruptive for existing business models. How can port-cities create value ‘beyond horizons’ in a way that societal (green, quality of life, employment) can be strengthened at the same time through the path of partnerships. Does it make sense to make a vision, while knowing the future will be different? Do you think these challenges can be solved alone? Do we have a choice, should we make a choice for either one or the other?  Life is full of paradoxes.

The port paradoxes of our age

On the internet the poetic essay ‘Paradoxes of our age’ is circulating, attributed to the 14th Daila Lama. Paradoxes appear when two seemingly contradictory or exclusive factors appear to be true at the same time. In a mature port cluster, conflicting interests are usually accommodated in the sense of a settlement of differences (De Langen, 2007). According to De Langen the quality of the cluster depends on the level of transaction costs and level of coordination of conflicts. This approach suggests that the quality of cluster performance is a product of the bargaining society. An interesting example are the recent port strikes in US west coast ports, which caused the society a huge loss. The question is whether bargaining is effective for solving the highly complex challenges of today? It is certainly not the most constructive one. What paradoxes are we facing in the port landscape?

More cargo, less congestion

One of the most crucial ones it the paradox of growth and accessibility. As ports enable economic growth, attracting more cargo is a way to strengthen competitiveness. However, the more cargo is generated, the more ports are bothered with congestion, which hampers further growth. The paradox is then to grow while using smarter and more versatile ways to deal with traffic flows.

More automation, more jobs

One of the contradictions is the level of automation creating autonomous processes throughout the supply chain. Automation eliminates human errors. Just like port community systems eliminated the number of typing errors in transport systems throughout the supply chain, automation on container terminals are making the processes on the yards and quaysides more safe and stable as human failures are eliminated. At the same time, the port expansion was seen as an engine for employment, and important argument to convince governments to accept the plans for growth of the port authority. Can we find convincing arguments that automation indeed leads to new jobs, albeit different from the traditional hands-on jobs?

More economy, more nature

When ports expand nature is lost, is it? In traditional dredging and construction works it usually is, but the Maasvlakte 2 project, port of Rotterdam proofs it is possible to both grow the port while meeting sustainability objectives at the same time. Also the Building with Nature concept by Ronald Waterman (2008) is an excellent example how integral coastal policies in densely populated coastal areas can be deployed effectively to balance the little space available for living, working, transport and recreation, with the need to preserve or even enlarge natural coastal and deltaic habitats.

More port, more space and leisure

The other paradox is that people in developed markets are keen on the quality of life, which is expressed in the way they spend their leisure time. Ports – although they are vast industrial areas full of factories, warehouses, ships and heavy equipment – can form an attractive environment to go cycling or to spend time at the water or waterfront areas.

More data, more to share

The amount of data which goes with the organisation of trade flows is huge. Still, companies seem to keep the data for themselves making the planning of subsequent processes in the chain more difficult and the execution very erratic. This leads to delays, additional waiting time, missing out on sailing schedules and higher inventories. Yet, from a technology point of view, all data are available to enable collaborative planning if we were willing to share the data.

More view, more tolerance

Port cities are of a special kind. They breathe a certain atmosphere which you can only find there. The waterfront, the ever changing views on ships passing by, the movement of people, cargo and the wind playing with the water form a source of inspiration. It is for this reason that cities found new purposes for abandoned port areas. However, the more residential apartments take over the old function, the more residents tend to be bothered by noise, smell and pollution of the shipping activities in front of their doors. For city governments as well as for port authorities the challenge is how to keep the inspiration alive.

More flexibility, more investing in talent development

In a society where it is increasingly challenging to manage a business, agility is a prerequisite to stay in business. Fixed contracts are perceived as a burden. Flexibility often means shorter contracts, and therefore less certainty for employees. At the same time, technological innovations and market dynamics lead to the need for different skillsets, but investing in education, talent development and life-long learning are not considered to be the responsibility of employer.

The collaborative paradigm

According to Van Tulder (2014), thinking in paradoxes implies a search for many reconciliations of the head (rational, efficiency driven), heart (intentions, passions) and hands (pragmatic) multiple times. For effectively comprehending paradoxes, a participative, integrative, creative and holistic thinking is required. This is done by going by applying a learning approach, in other words taking the problem and go through a reflective cycle multiple times, whereby multiple people and multiple viewpoints are shared and applied into new solution paths. Existing paradigms of problem solving and solution design start from a bargaining position. What’s in it for me, is there a sound business case, will I get what I want? There are numerous examples in port management which shows this does not work. Labour negotiations end up in lengthy strikes, causing economic loss to society, hurting employment and poison relationships between stakeholders. If this is business-as-usual, what does it mean for knowledge exchange and innovation on the other dilemmas.

A way out of the tunnel starts with the acknowledgement of the paradoxes and awareness that a learning perspective can help overcome individual intentions and positions. When learning from and with others, the level of trust is fundamental. On the basis of trust, people are willing to share their backgrounds, deeper values and knowledge.  Turning knowledge into innovations, means dealing with these paradoxes in a way that 1) it brings people around the table, 2) builds trustworthy relationships and 3) events and programs are created n which this so-called tacit knowledge can flow seamlessly in an open space or online platform. The collaborative paradigm also triggers renewal for process innovations, meaning how people are assigned to participate in these learning cells. Especially students, education staff, researchers, freelancers and trainees form an important group of knowledge workers, because of their job mobility, open minds and commitment to develop new knowledge. However, these knowledge assets should be deployed by leader firms to longitudinal innovation programs, so that funding and business drive is brought into the equation as well.

Invitation to participate in this research project

These paradoxes and dominant paradigms are currently subject to my scientific research in the Dutch port landscape. This is my invitation to businessmen and women, authorities, civil servants, teachers and students to explore these paradoxes, acknowledge our existing paradigms and seek new pathways for breakthrough innovations. When you accept this challenge, you will get the learning experience and new relationships for free. This research seeks answers to the question how port-city combinations can create value ‘beyond horizons’ in a way that societal (green, quality of life, employment) can be strengthened at the same time through the path of partnerships. This research assesses the importance and effectiveness of knowledge transfers within the port cluster as a source for organisational renewal and innovation. This research is done at STC-Group and in cooperation with Erasmus University / Rotterdam School of Management at the Partnerships Resource Centre.

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