Maritime decarbonisation is not solely about technological advancements or operational strategies; it’s also about the crucial human element that bridges the gap between ships as assets and the operational aspects of the business. This article delves into the role of people in the maritime industry’s digital transformation journey and the transition towards decarbonisation. Seafarers, who play a vital role in this industry, have chosen a unique career path that extends beyond the ordinary nine-to-five routine. As the industry strives for greater efficiency, it’s essential to retain the essence that makes it special for its workforce.
Best in class maritime energy transition strategies will apply solutions to both the operational elements of their business, and ships as assets. But the connection between them is people and therefore it is the human element that makes up the third and final transition domain.
Without people who are empowered with the knowledge to manage change through digitally-enabled data-driven inquiry and action, and bought into the why as well as the how of decarbonisation, technologies designed to improve assets and operations will be seriously hindered, if not negated altogether.
Seafarers have chosen a career that goes beyond a nine-to-five routine. Shipping must become leaner and more efficient, but retaining what makes it unique and special to its workforce has to be important. Thetius and Inmarsat covered this topic in detail in a 2022 report titled Seafarers in the Digital Age. In it, our research uncovered some of the best ideas of the day for prioritising the human element in the face of rising digital transformation. The content remains just as relevant today and some of those themes are explored below.
The tools of a human-led decarbonisation strategy
Discussing the role that humans play in maritime digitalisation and decarbonisation, Karin Staal, Founder and Director of Staal Maritime, told Thetius that part of the philosophy behind her company is to promote more dialogue between seagoing and shore-based staff. She said, “What I see most often are new technologies, policies, procedures, and ideas being generated on shore, without consultation with seafarers.”
This top-down, administrative approach to change fails to recognise an important symbiosis between technology and a highly skilled, experienced, and creative workforce. Staal noted, “Technology is a vital part of the picture, but the people who are expected to operate it must know why they are using it. I think that all too often, they don’t. The purpose of the technology is lost on them and they aren’t bought into the reason for it. It’s people who are equipped with purpose and understanding which will make the most of new technology and that takes more than a standing order or an SOP; it requires you to make them believers.”
Staal describes a resistance to technology-driven change from some parts of the maritime community, but hints that there are likely to be hidden drivers for it. Some resistance may exist among crew who feel that the industry is at risk of losing its unique appeal. Staal suggests that shipping companies try to “Help people change their behaviours by first understanding their behaviours. It is a vital step in making ships cleaner and more efficient.”
She describes three principal causes of resistance to change. The first is a reaction to the source or methods of influencing a change in behaviour. If it is too authoritarian and inflexible, it may be less well received. The second is scepticism, either directed at the proposed change, or triggered by self-doubt. The third is inertia, which Staal describes as existing when “the intention is there, but action is lacking. Reasons might be that companies are expecting change from staff who are tired, who have other priorities, or who are focussed on other things without sufficient headspace to tackle change. Planning the timing of change and priming key staff members ahead of time is vital to a successful change program.”
For owners and operators looking to bring their staff with them on their journey toward net zero, finding a balance between tradition and innovation could be useful. While it is important to embrace new technologies and sustainability measures quickly, it is also important to allay any hint that the industry is losing some of its appeal as an occupation.
Building Skilled Decarbonising Teams
The IMO formally acknowledged the link between training and ship safety in 1993, when Resolution A.772 (18) recognised the role of fatigue factors in manning and safety. Since then, through the Seafarer Training and Certification for Watchkeepers (STCW) regulations, they have developed a recognised pathway to competence through training, skills development, and experience.
In particular, the rapid development of digital connective technologies offshore raises the profile of cybersecurity in the maritime domain. According to recent research by Thetius, seven of the world’s top ten container carriers have publicly acknowledged being victims of cyber attacks in recent years. As part of that research, data from maritime security provider CyberOwl suggested that 95% of the cyber incidents they detected on ships during 2021 could be traced back to an “unintentional insider”.
Training crews to use digital technology safely is a vital first step in maximising the utility of systems on board. This begins with building a resilient system which is safe by design, augmenting this with formal training for those with significant access, control, or responsibility over digital and connected systems on board.
The maritime industry faces a critical need to embrace technology and sustainability without sacrificing the unique appeal of seafaring careers. Recognising the harmony between technology and a skilled workforce is vital for successful digitalisation and decarbonisation initiatives. Resistance to change may stem from various factors, but finding the right balance between tradition and innovation is key. Training and skill development are essential not only for efficiency but also for ensuring safety and security in the digital maritime realm. The human element remains indispensable as the industry charts its course towards a greener and technologically advanced future.