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Maritime renaissance men

Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen, CEO DNV GL - Maritime, and Esben Poulsson, Chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), believe a new era is dawning for the maritime industry, and there’s a surprising catalyst for the positive change ahead.

“COVID-19 has turned the world upside down,” states Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen, “the way we work, the way we communicate and the way we live. Who could have imagined the transformation in store just seven or eight short months ago?” “A line has been drawn in history,” he continues, pausing to reflect (as we all have), before adding: “And it’s up to us where we go from here.”
“So far, we’ve had little or no choice in these developments, but coming out the other end of this pandemic we do. We can regain agency. We have a chance to reassess, redesign and revitalize. We do not have to go back to the ‘old ways’.”
This gives us an opportunity, Ørbeck-Nilssen stresses, to evolve. Or, he says, displaying obvious ambition, for something he calls “a maritime renaissance.”

300,000 seafarers still stranded on their vessels

After an event organized by the ICS, the CEO of DNV GL - Maritime is getting the word about the impact of COVID-19 on the maritime industry. He is joined by ICS Chairman Esben Poulsson, who shares both the Teams platform and Ørbeck-Nilssen’s cautious optimism for what lies on the horizon. “Firstly,” Poulsson says, “I’d like to note that shipping has done an incredible job within the context of the coronavirus. Ninety per cent of global trade by volume goes by sea, including food, medicines, energy and raw materials, and that has continued without major disruption. A true demonstration of the resilience of both this industry and its people.” “However, while society has been served, its seafarers have been largely forgotten, with around 300,000 currently stranded on their vessels. This is a crisis that demands rapid and effective resolution. We’ve been trying to facilitate that, but we need government assistance too.”

We’re all pulling together in the same direction and that shows one positive effect of the pandemic – our ability to put aside differences and collaborate for the common good. That’s something we need to retain and nurture moving forwards.

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Esben Poulsson
Chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping

Collaboration is key to mitigate COVID risks on board vessels

ICS has been working flat out on the issue and, unlike many of us at present, they haven’t been doing so in isolation. Poulsson says collaboration across industry organizations has never been stronger, with, for example, ICS working together with 15 other associations to create new industry-wide protocols in “a matter of weeks” to address crew change challenges during the pandemic. These were launched on 6 May and widely adopted by IMO member states and various national governments. Dialogue with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), the main union representing seafarers, has “never been as constructive” as it has throughout the crisis. “We’re all pulling together in the same direction,” he says, “and that shows one positive effect of the pandemic – our ability to put aside differences and collaborate for the common good. That’s something we need to retain and nurture moving forwards.” Ørbeck-Nilssen could not agree more.

Innovation is the key driver of the maritime renaissance

He describes the maritime industry as “incredibly interconnected,” making it imperative to adopt a common approach to solve common problems. This has been exemplified by the crew change crisis. Here there remains a strong need for the international community to work together to unilaterally classify seafarers as key workers, awarding them special dispensation to board and disembark vessels according to contractual obligations.

“Big issues demand consensus and commitment,” he comments, “and not just during crises. We have to work together more closely to avoid these future black swan events, while also appreciating that no one person, company, industry or nation has a monopoly on good ideas. We can all listen, we can all learn – that is the key to innovation, and innovation is the rocket fuel for the renaissance we now need.”

Transition to a new maritime epoch

So, what does he mean by maritime renaissance? In short, it’s a new epoch, or rather the means of transitioning to one. A new approach whereby traditional methods are challenged, new ways of thinking are encouraged, collaboration across the board is embraced, innovation enabled, and talent and potential is realized. If it sounds unrealistic then stop, says Poulsson, and cast your mind back over the last few months. “People say shipping is conservative and resistant to change, but look at how quickly, and successfully, we’ve adapted to the new normal when faced with necessity. It’s incredible.” Ørbeck-Nilssen agrees, stating that he believes maritime’s digital transition has been advanced by as much as five years over the course of the pandemic. “When there’s a will we find a way,” he argues. “And now we have to be willing to face up to the long-term challenges for this industry. Sustainability, both environmentally and commercially, is absolutely chief amongst those.”

Now we have to be willing to face up to the long-term challenges for this industry. Sustainability, both environmentally and commercially, is absolutely chief amongst those.

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Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen
CEO Maritime DNV GL

Leading digital developments

On the digital front, DNV GL has made a head start, which has paid huge dividends during the pandemic. Remote surveys, originally introduced in 2018, provide a case in point – with a 33% increase in uptake since the beginning of the outbreak (over 17,500 have now been conducted in total). Direct Access to Technical Experts (DATE) has also delivered remote support to a rapidly growing customer base.

“It’s clear there’s a growing appreciation of the advantage of certain digital services, and I don’t necessarily see that changing back once the pandemic fades, why would it?” Ørbeck-Nilssen asks, adding that digital evolution as a whole has been “turbocharged” over recent months.

This momentum should be maintained, he says, by accelerating developments in, for example, artificial intelligence and automation, to unleash safer, more efficient and truly sustainable solutions.

Poulsson concurs: “If we can better analyse, share and utilize the ever-growing catalogue of data captured in the industry, using platforms such as VERACITY, we create a win-win. We can optimize performance to reduce fuel consumption – still the lion’s share of OPEX for owners – and help reduce emissions in line with IMO ambitions and society’s needs. That is a real opportunity.”

Call to action on emission reduction

Facilitating this “win-win” is central to the industry, society and the maritime renaissance itself. Decarbonization and a safe, profitable and efficient industry are the ultimate goals of every stakeholder within the shipping spectrum – so, the two interviewees ponder, how do we get there?

Ørbeck-Nilssen says we need “a step change” to meet IMO targets, but suggests the pandemic (and, more precisely, our reaction to it) has set in motion “tectonic shifts” that demonstrate our abilities to innovate, adapt and prosper.

“We need to harness that when tackling the decarbonization challenge, and fuel is obviously the critical factor,” he says, continuing: “We are all aware of what’s at stake here, and we have the ambition to change. What we don’t have are the solutions yet…and that needs to be the focus of our renaissance thinking.”

“But we can still act now to set the process in motion. Indeed, we must.”

Poulsson agrees. The ICS Chairman says the industry’s integrity is at risk if its words cannot be backed up by tangible action on emissions and climate change.

“Shipping is under pressure, and we can’t wait decades to address key issues. We need to look at our vessels now and see what action can be taken. Where is the low-hanging fruit?”

Both he and his co-interviewee believe it’s high time to harvest the benefits of gas.

Unlocking benefits of available decarbonization solutions

The maritime renaissance will not happen overnight, it’s a transition to a more enlightened, greener, profitable destination. So, Ørbeck-Nilssen states, we need a transition fuel to get there.

“Greater adoption of gas is an important step forward,” he comments. “It’s not carbon-free, but it does have the potential to bring down emissions by around 20%. By working together and unlocking innovation we will find better solutions, but that takes time – time many would argue we simply don’t have. So, rather than waiting maybe 20 years in the hope that we have a robust, carbon-neutral alternative, why not make a start now with proven, available technology?

“I accept it’s a bridging fuel,” he admits, “but, as I’ve already made clear, it’s a very long bridge. I think, and I hope, we’ll see gas emerging as a key fuel for the next one or two vessel generations. Beyond that…well, let’s see what the renaissance holds!”

Facing the maritime future together

Both the ICS and DNV GL executives are realistic about the disruption, hardship and cost (in human and business terms) of the pandemic so far, but they also share a guarded optimism about what lies on the mid- and distant horizon for the industry they love.

“We’ve shown how we can come together and rise to the most severe of challenges,” Poulsson says, “and that bodes well for the future. The task now is taking positive action in advance of future crises and, as much as possible, helping to avert or mitigate them.”

Ørbeck-Nilssen gives a final nod of agreement: “That word ‘together’ is key. We don’t know where the best digital developments or decarbonization solutions will come from, or what they will be, but by opening dialogues and establishing partnerships to discover them we can be sure of progress…maybe from the most unexpected avenues.”

“The renaissance should involve, and benefit, everyone. A new age of possibility awaits.”

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