Unpicking the IMO's call to action on digitalisation

Unpicking the IMO’s call to action on digitalisation

On June 5th, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) issued a Call to Action to its Member States, the UN, and associated organizations. The letter urgently appeals to all levels of government and industry stakeholders for collaborative action hastening the digitization of the maritime industry and its logistics.

A world in the throes of a viral pandemic has amplified the need for utilizing technology to reduce human to human contact and optimization. The maritime supply chain is long and comprised of tens of thousands of individual stakeholders. As an essential cog of global trade, it not only moves the world’s food and energy but also plays a critical part in the transportation of medicine, PPE, and medical equipment. Interruptions to the fluidity of operations could have severe ramifications across the globe.

In the shadow of a global crisis, the industry leaders behind the statement recognize the world will face a new “normal”. The often conservative maritime industry must use the pandemic as a catalyst propelling modern innovation and efficiency. The implementation of automation and a globally standardized digital data platform will be crucial to maintaining uninterrupted maritime commerce in the post-COVID era.

As the IMO continues to postpone meetings, the industry has lacked critical guidance on coping with the long-term implications of the pandemic. Recognizing the need for direction and leadership, ten major global industry organizations with consultative status approached the IMO in a joint statement. The Call to Action directly refers to the “fourth industrial revolution,” referencing port communities that have embraced smart technology and autonomous cargo systems have weathered the fallout far better than those that have clung onto the outdated person to person, paper-laden processes.

The letter elaborates on the two elements of port interactions: the physical aspect of cargo movement and ship services, in conjunction with the exchange of data in the forms of logistical, clearance, and customs paperwork. Identifying maritime ports as fertile ground to embrace the safety and efficiency created through automation, AI, and big-data fluidity. 

The statement was published just weeks after the IMO’s Facilitation Committee (FAL) was scheduled for its 44th session, but was indefinitely postponed due to the pandemic. In the FAL’s previous meeting, guidelines had been set for the Member States to establish modern technological systems for the electronic exchange of information. A Port Community System would enable the interoperable exchange of data such as arrival, stay and departure of ships, persons, and cargo through a Single Window system.

The technology would eliminate the need for repetitive paperwork exchange and allow all parties to access necessary data for logistics, clearance, and customs on a single platform, thereby reducing the need for contact between personnel. FAL had set requirements for governing bodies to implement the systems and make them mandatory within their respective industry. The cancelled session effectively halted further oversight addressing progress. The letter notes that to date, only 28% of IMO Member States have Port Community Systems.

The global industry associations which wrote the statement consists of BIMCO, the International Port Community Systems Association (IPCSA) and its affiliate PROTECT Group, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH), International Cargo Handling Coordination Association (ICHCA), the International Harbour Masters’ Association (IHMA), the International Maritime Pilots Association (IMPA), the International Ship Suppliers’ Association (ISSA), and the Federation of National Associations of Ship Brokers and Agents (FONASBA). 

The ambitious yet crucial statement lists the following nine priorities, which should be the immediate focus to all parties involved in maritime trade and logistics across the world.

1. To assess the state of implementation and find ways to enforce the already mandatory requirements defined in the International Maritime Organizations Facilitation (IMO FAL) Convention to support transmission, receipt, and response of information required for the arrival, stay, and departure of ships, persons, and cargo, including notifications and declarations for customs, immigration, port and security authorities, via electronic data exchange, making the transition to full-fledged single windows. 

2. To ensure harmonization of data standards beyond the IMO FAL Convention to facilitate sharing of port and berth-related master data for just-in-time operation of ships and optimum resource deployment by vessel services and suppliers, logistics providers, cargo handling and clearance, thereby saving energy, improving safety as well as cutting costs and emissions. This can be achieved through use of the supply chain standards of the International Standards Organization, the standards of the International Hydrographic Organization as well as the IMO Compendium on Facilitation and Electronic Business.

3. To strive for the introduction of Port Community Systems and secure data exchange platforms in the main ports of all Member States represented in the International Maritime Organization. 

4. To review existing IMO guidance on Maritime Cyber Risk Management on its ability to address cyber risks in ports, developing additional guidance where needed.

5. To raise awareness, avoid misconceptions, promote best practices and standardization on how port communities can apply emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, advanced analytics, internet of things, digital twins, robotics process automation, autonomous systems, blockchain, virtual reality and augmented reality. 

6. To facilitate the implementation of such emerging technologies and other innovative tools to increase health security in port environments, allowing port and marine employees, contractors, and the vessel crew to work and interact in the safest possible circumstances.

7. To develop a framework and roadmap to facilitate the implementation and operationalization of digital port platforms where authorized port community service providers and users can share data under secure data sharing protocols enabling these platforms to connect with hinterland supply chains as well.

8. To establish a coalition of willing stakeholders to improve transparency of the supply chain through collaboration and standardization, starting with the long overdue introduction of the electronic bill of lading.

9. To set up a capacity building framework to support smaller, less developed, and understaffed port communities, not only with technical facilities but also with training of personnel. Quality data exchange requires a trained workforce with mid- and long-term perspectives to build, implement, support, and sometimes override technology. 

Circular Letter No.4204/Add.20

Though the statement is in no way binding, the Call to Action exemplifies the necessity for rapid adaptation of systems that will transform the sector. If governments and stakeholders heed the call, the maritime industry will be propelled into the future as a model for the world, applying standardization of blockchain, big-data analytics, autonomous systems, and AI. If there was ever a time to embrace the change of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it’s now.