Exclusive Q&A: Nicola Clay on Smart Ports

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Smart ports are one of the most exciting trends to have hit the maritime industry for many years and they could usher in a new era of digital innovation and greater movement of trade.

It was central to Port Technology International’s Smart Digital Ports of the Future conference(SDP19), which was held in Rotterdam. To read a review of Day 1, click here, and Day 2, click here.

To pre-order an extensive report on SDP19, click here.

Now, in an exclusive Q&A, Nicola Clay, Smart Ports and Business Development at Royal Haskoning DHV, has given her take on the steps ports need to make and how the discussion around smart ports will develop in the near future.


PTI: In a technical paper you wrote in 2018 you mentioned the ‘small steps’ that ports must follow in order to become smarter. What are those steps and how equipped would you say ports are to follow them?

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NC: The route to becoming smarter will be different for every port, harbor or terminal but the steps taken will apply everywhere.  The first step is to increase understanding of what happens in the port, why it happens and what the connections and outcomes are. In practice this means carrying out process mapping – this could be of all the port activities or of a target department or operational area. 

Discover Royal Haskoning’s solutions for ports and terminals by visiting their AIS portal

Mapping the processes in detail will provide knowledge and understanding and therefore insight into the potential for improvements in efficiency, productivity or sustainability across people, infrastructure, cargo and the environment. 

From this baseline, ports could take different steps; one route could be simply making changes to processes to deliver improvements. Another step could be investigating how technology could be applied to improve the processes. 

A third option would be carrying out a data audit within the port: what data does the port hold, in what form, how can it be accessed and, if digitized and combined with multiple datasets, what value could it add to decision-making?  Again, the data audit could be focused on a single department or across multiple port functions.

Some ports may take all 3 steps thus gaining a detailed understanding of their business, recognizing the opportunity to improve decision-making through acquiring and analyzing data, automating and applying technology to deliver efficiencies and moving rapidly from being smarter to becoming a Smart Port.

PTI: How do you see smart ports developing in 2020 and beyond? Is there positive momentum in the industry towards smart port innovation?

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NC: I see a significant momentum towards smart ports from the maritime industry.  Ports are asking ‘what is a smart port?’ and ‘what can it mean for my port?’ and they are now actively joining the conversation. 

The momentum is apparent across different sizes of ports as well as from around the world.  There are clear leaders that have the resources and interest necessary to quickly become smart ports (e.g. major ports in NL, Belgium and Singapore), but the conversation is also happening within ports and terminals of all sizes who are seeking to understand what they can achieve from technology.

The industry is slowly opening up to experience from other sectors with senior leadership roles such as CEO and COO being filled by professionals experienced in, for example, smart cities or smart infrastructure.  Some ports are also creating CIO roles for the first time.

Another driver comes from the funding bodies who are starting to require the consideration around the inclusion of technology and data management in port development as part of the criteria for receiving funding. 

This latter initiative seems to be particularly focussed on energy and sustainability opportunities from smart ports.  With these various drivers, as well as the growing expectation of being able to access all aspects of your business (and life!) through your smartphone, I expect to see major growth in smart port initiatives during 2020.

PTI: What major smart port projects are Royal HaskoningDHV currently working on?

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NC: Royal HaskoningDHV is working on a range of Smart Port projects from integrating technology into the master planning of a major new port in Bangladesh, and studying how technology can improve connectivity and operations between smaller isolated ports in the South Pacific, to conducting multiple Smart Port Health Checks to help ports benchmark their current status with respect to technology.

We are currently seeing a strong demand for Smart Ports linked to Green Ports where technology can help ports understand and manage emissions sources to improve air quality and the port/city environment.

PTI: What would you say are the main challenges to developing smart ports? How can ports overcome them?

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NC: The biggest challenge to developing a smart port is deciding where to start and gaining the necessary internal support and budget approval. For many ports, the concept of smart ports remains an undefined and overwhelming concept that also challenges the status quo. 

The decision to investigate what smart ports could mean should be taken at, or strongly supported by, the port’s C-Suite or Senior Leadership Team as fundamentally it is about identifying and understanding opportunities to improve the port business. 

At Royal HaskoningDHV we have designed the Health Check process as an easy, cost-effective way to understand the potential for Smart Ports within a port business with the output including a clear road map to help the port understand the route to becoming smarter.  


Nicola Clay is Smart Ports & Business Development Director at Royal HaskoningDHV leading the development of digital services to enhance the efficiency and productivity of ports for our maritime clients. She is also responsible for providing strategic knowledge and direction about market sectors and clients for our UK business as well as acting as Project Director or Technical Director on port and maritime projects.

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