Collaborative innovation within the maritime sector

Ensuring the future competitiveness of the maritime industry in post-pandemic times will require us to be more efficient, predictable, sustainable, and resilient. This implies a change in the recipe for capital creation among involved actors and a change in mindset to overcome existing legacy industry systems and silo-thinking. Enhanced collaboration and innovation are crucial to achieve improvement.

Engaging the ‘crowd’ – a wider majority of industry stakeholders – in innovation ecosystems is a key ingredient in maritime informatics, a discourse that unites practitioners and researchers in their efforts to improve the efficiency, resilience, and sustainability of shipping.

In this article, we review open innovation efforts that have brought inspiration and pathways for new ideas to improve operational efficiency, suggesting how we can design and implement new business models and develop solutions for the common good. We direct specific attention towards maritime hackathons as a form of collaborative innovation.

Innovation through collaboration

In recent years, there have been calls to engage the ‘crowd’ in driving forward innovation in the maritime sector. This is urgently needed, as the majority of the 4,900 ports in the world are not yet using digital technology for even their most basic processes; 80% of ports continue to rely on manual, legacy solutions such as whiteboards or spreadsheets to manage critical marine services like towage, pilotage and berthing.

Collaboration between traditional industry leaders and start-ups is on the rise and a number of maritime testbeds and accelerators have emerged. Some examples include the Trade & Transport Impact Program to produce commercial partnerships between start-ups and transport companies, as well as Eastern Pacific Shipping’s (EPS) tie-up with investor and accelerator Techstars.

Innovation efforts are also picking up in leading ports. For instance, port and maritime accelerators, such as PortXL, which originated in the Port of Rotterdam, have also surfaced in the ports of Singapore and Antwerp.

New data sharing platforms supported by the ports are empowering third-party developers to build applications to connect local information sharing communities and better respond to the needs of the global supply chain. Physical LivingLab environments, such as one in the Port of Singapore, are allowing service providers to experiment and demonstrate solutions in authentic settings.

A joint venture between Hamburger Hafen and Logistik AG (HHLA) and HyperloopTT is exploring how to move containers at the speed of sound through a vacuum tube, an enclosed highly reliable system, connecting ports with their hinterland in a new way while reducing time and carbon emissions.

Also, in Sweden, there are initiatives such as I.Hamn and SARGASSO. For I.Hamn the ambition is to allow the 50+ ports in Sweden to join forces in building towards a more sustainable and resilient transport ecosystem. SARGASSO is an open innovation platform for blue growth, that engages industry clusters across domains to contribute technology to the maritime industry.

Another great example of economic and environmental co-benefits is Cubex Global, a digital marketplace selling unused space in shipping containers. Developed as part of the World Economic Forum’s UpLink Innovation Challenge, the project aims to to tackle the issue of the 100 million containers annually crossing the ocean almost empty, producing 280 million tons of carbon emissions and costing $25 billion a year in lost revenue.

These examples are indicators that the maritime industry wants to change and that it can make progress when there is courage to open up, network and bring in external parties to support innovation efforts.

Hackathons – a model for new ideas

Hackathons are another path to collaborative innovation and have, in different setups, become more present within the maritime sector during the last five years. A hackathon is a popup space, offering a broader, more concentrated and often more diverse participation in an innovation effort, focused on a number of specific use cases, often framed as challenges.

The hackathon model is very effective in cultivating innovative ideas, with networked accelerators helping to capitalise on participants’ efforts and facilitate longer-term collaboration to truly innovate and produce concrete results and returns for all contributors. Gil Ofer, head of Open Innovation at Eastern Pacific Shipping, explains:

“The approach of the past within maritime was to develop new technology either internally (e.g., legacy software systems) or due to regulation changes (e.g., the double hull for tankers) and to fund these initiatives from investors within shipping.”

“We found that an open innovation strategy whereby we invited both the venture capital and maritime communities to take part in our goal of driving the industry forward by collectively shaping ground-breaking technology was truly effective.”

“The other thing that really pleased us was how deeply involved the broader maritime community became. Large swathes of the industry – shipping companies, cargo owners, port operators, classification societies – all came by to meet with the companies we had invested in. Contracts and deals naturally followed.”

Morocco Smart Port Challenge

The online hackathon Morocco Smart Port Challenge 2020 is one example of this innovation environment in action, taking place digitally to allow participants from everywhere in the world to contribute without any travel or logistics costs. More than 500 people of 30 nationalities from Africa, Asia, Europe and America participated in this open competition.

The Moroccan port community system provided the setting for participants to collaborate over a six-week period. The digital platform also helped participating teams to connect with mentors and experts and to consult the 25 available recorded lectures at any time at their convenience.

Simultaneous English/French translation was offered, and the event included Moroccan professionals from different sectors, including maritime and ports, banking and finance, logistics and transport, energy and environment, and foreign trade, bringing diverse perspectives to solve the challenges.

The three winning solutions from the hackathon included an onshore wave energy technology company that developed a patented technology to convert ocean and sea waves into clean electricity. Production of energy from waves represents an opportunity for Morocco, which has a coastline of more than 2900 km on the Atlantic exposed to a large swell with port sites that could accommodate these energy production facilities.

A virtual line app to manage the high-volume flow of trucks at peak times within the Moroccan port industry also featured among the winners, offering an alternative to the common first-in-first-out (FIFO) process by providing three levels of optimisation: bookings for the next day, real time waiting lines and resource adjustments via a mobile app, with SMS instructions for those who are not equipped with smartphones.

The third winning entry offered an electronic payments system built on a multi-factor analysis of user behaviour and business needs, integrating chat-bot based technology to guide the users to and through the electronic payment options. 

Beyond the winners there were many other promising solutions to support ports and international trade that were presented at the event, including: a system for the mutual recognition of electronic certificates of origin by customs authorities as well as technological exchange standards to network the authorities in charge of issuing certificates; technology to detect and monitor the propagation of oil slicks using real time data from multiple sources and image analysis software based on artificial intelligence; and a method to optimise dredging work by analysing the winds, swells and currents that cause sediment to move and modify the depths and conditions of access to ports.

This hackathon brought Moroccan universities, start-ups, students, and researchers together with private sector companies to establish a base of cooperation in applied research that goes beyond the event, which was a key success factor. The support of the Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation also helped mobilise networks of expertise and start-ups from abroad, providing global insights.

Moving forward, networked accelerators should help to drive adoption of the most innovative solutions, providing business opportunities and pay-offs for the participants and winners in hackathons.


Covid-19 has accelerated the digitisation of global supply chain networks. If ports end up being the weak link in the global logistics chain, they risk inducing delays, unnecessary costs, late payments, increased fuel consumption and emissions, and even creating safety concerns stemming from a lack of traceability. Ports are thus key to enabling supply chain resilience and the green conversion of the global supply chain, a must in pandemic times and beyond.

In this context, innovative ideas are needed to simultaneously (i) achieve higher resource and energy efficiency; (ii) create additional value for each actor and improve the return of investment in assets; and (iii) reduce the costs of business upon our planet.

In a context where the gap between those ports that digitise and those that do not is rising, ports can learn from the leaders and leverage open innovation to prepare for the future. The world of ports needs more hackathons, labs, testbeds, incubators and accelerators, and more collaboration that drives innovation among them and towards more digitised and sustainable maritime logistics networks. This is a call for collaborative innovation action!

Editor’s note: This article is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the UNCTAD Transport and Trade Facilitation Newsletter N°89 – First Quarter 2021

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About the Authors

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Mikael Lind, Research Institutes of Sweden

Wolfgang Lehmacher, Anchor Group

Ines Knäpper, Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation at World Economic Forum

Margi van Gogh, World Economic Forum

Tarik Maaouni, National Port Agency of Morocco

Jalal Benhayoun, Portnet Trade and Logistics Single Window of Morocco

Dimitri Ashikhmin, FWA

Hakim Lahmar, Cadi Ayyad University

Matias Sigal, Eco Wave Power

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