What will the future of global trade look like and what does that mean for shipping and ports? When thinking of the future, we often suffer from a technology bias. We think that cars will fly, that ships will be autonomous and that big data will change everything. The future of global trade could indeed be shaped by technological change and shifting global economic patterns, but might even more forcefully be determined by something highly etheric: our values.
The idea of global trade is not very popular these days; much less appealing than Trump and Bernie, it seems. Global trade stands for outsourcing and job losses; global trade needs a wall. Yet, the intellectual demise of globalisation is not only the work of the disenchanted, but also of those without disappointment: the urban hipsters, the idealists, the millennials; an emerging amount of which in emerging economies. It is this coalition of unlikely bedfellows that might bring down global trade.
The disenchanted wants work, the hipster quality of life. He might live in a former port warehouse, he does not want its pollution. He is opposed to the port as node of globalisation, unless it becomes much cleaner or simply goes away: ports are occupying prime waterfront space anyway.
The idealist wants cleaner energy, more local food and a fairer and greener transport chain. Cleaner energy, so: less fossil fuels, less coal plants, more renewables. More local food, so less food from elsewhere. And of course a fairer and greener transport chain: the sea is not a waste bin, nor a place for modern slavery. After the fair trade certifications of products, time to integrate fair and green transport in it.
Shifting values are also driven by demographic change. There is a generation that will never own a car, because there is no need. Shared cars emerge everywhere; owning a car will soon be very has-been.
So what does this suggest? We might be heading for a future with less maritime trade in coal, oil, cars, food and possibly consumer goods; a future in which sustaining port activity is not self-evident and maritime transport likely more expensive.
For ports this means three things.
- Communicate. Explain what a port is; why it is important and listen, so that you can propose solutions. Missing this opportunity might mean the end of your port.
- Prepare for other cargo. This could be biomass; it could be blades of wind turbines. Nobody knows exactly, so it is foremost an exercise in flexibility and grasping opportunities when they appear.
- Prepare for other functions. Port are often also industrial areas. Refineries and coal plants might become redundant, so there is room for something new.