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Nature: a surprising source of inspiration for maritime supply chains and port calls

by Léon Gommans

Ever seen how nature creates and manages complex, efficient and sustainable ecosystems? It is fascinating. The maritime supply chain, including port calls, is also a very complex, competitive and collaborative system, with a great variety of stakeholders, each with its own interests. These are the valuable insights that the maritime industry can learn from nature in order to reduce waste and create a sustainable industry.

How can the maritime industry learn and benefit from the mechanism of shared awareness? And how are other essential cornerstones of self-organisation met in today’s world? Nature has got the answers.

I already hear the concerns: the maritime industry is way too conservative and will “always want to share” but actually “never will share” information. Or they state that the dynamics in the maritime world are way too complex to be able to predict and plan.

Nevertheless, goods are being moved successfully around the world in enormous volumes and at acceptable cost and speed. There lies a massive challenge in front of us to make this industry CO2 neutral and sustainable. So let’s take the deep dive and learn how nature deals with these topics and how we could, with the help of data and technology, address the industry challenges.

Let’s connect the dots and provide better insights to reduce the waste and create a sustainable industry.

Guiding Principles of Self-Organization in Nature

In nature, sustainable systems emerge and are not fully designed and predefined upfront. This process is referred to as self-organization. In literature the following five key principles have been identified for self-organizing systems:

  • Shared Real-time View
  • Provide and Use Feedback
  • Plan and Adapt
  • Decide Local
  • Keep it Simple
Principle 1: Shared Real-time View

The shared real-time view enables nature to have information to make the best-informed decision. Information is available and up-to-date, so the decisions made are based on the best inputs possible and available, resulting in sound, sustainable and robust eco-systems. This way nature evolves and remains capable of creating options.

Principle 2: Provide and Use Feedback

Feedback is of essence to ecosystems in nature. It gives information on the quality of the environment and the interaction. Without feedback, the system runs the risk of missing out on essential information to stay sound and relevant. Relevant feedback is needed as much as possible. In nature when an ant finds food, it will leave a trace of pheromones on his way home. This is how the ant provides feedback, which is used by the ant colony who now know where food is. 

Principle 3: Plan and Adapt

In nature the goal is clear: the acorn must become an oak tree. The roadmap is in the DNA; it is like the plan on how things should evolve. However, in reality many of the plans do not turn out as expected. The place might be shady, sunny or crowded. The plan is continuously adjusted, everything aligned to reach the goal: becoming an oak. That is why each oak tree looks different; the plan is continuously adjusted. 

Principle 4: Decide Local

Nature shows that in decision-making it is of utmost importance to have correct and relevant information. A school of fish makes decisions based on the individual decisions of each fish. The school of fish trusts the system to use local decisions and decides as a school what will be the correct response. Centralized decision-making would not work in this context, because the processing of the result would take too long.

Principle 5: Keep it Simple

Looking in detail at the magnificent flora and fauna in nature reveals the simple building blocks that resulted in the emergence of this beauty. Sticking to simplicity proves to be the best way of creating self-sustaining and self-managed ecosystems.

What can Self-Organization bring to the Maritime Industry

Let’s take the guiding principles from nature for self-organization and reflect on those in the light of the challenges in the maritime industry. 

Shared Real-Time View

With the abundance of technology and many data sources publicly available, it has become possible to create a shared real-time view of the maritime supply chain, including the port call. Whether data is shared by the stakeholders or not.

The data required to create this real-time view is publicly available and industry initiatives like PortCDM and the International Task Force Port Call Optimization create awareness and standards. Relevant public data sources are: AIS information, vessel information, port infrastructure, sailing routes, Port Community Systems, hydro & meteo information and of course the usance and contracts used in the industry. Technologies like AI and ML are at the core of mapping and translating this data in relevant insights. These real-time insights support operations and enable better decision-making within the highly collaborative operational processes of the port call.

The shared real-time view can also be used to further digitalize port call processes. Administrative tasks that require user input can be fully automated by retrieving information from the shared real-time view.

Provide and Use Feedback

In highly collaborative processes like the supply chain and the port call feedback is essential. With the current state of technology and the connectivity it is feasible to provide this feedback often; the risk of creating too much noise can be dimmed by filtering.

APIs are at the core of building sustainable and more efficient solutions. Processes of the stakeholder are more and more connected, and feedback can be provided and used more easily. It can be provided by users or by the IOT that is being implemented throughout the processes and equipment.

Plan and Adapt

The goal in shipping is clear: moving from A to B. Schedules are created and just like in nature, things do not always turn out the  way we expect. Weather can be bad, strikes might occur in a certain port or a vessel might get stuck in the Suez channel. When an event occurs, it is key to have all the information available and adjust the plan accordingly.

The shared real-time view enables the maritime industry to continuously monitor port call processes. This allows you to be proactive and in control of operations and shift towards managing by exception, rather than being reactive. More importantly, the real-time view will enable the industry to continuously plan, adapt and implement mechanisms like JIT that will help the industry to reduce CO2 emissions.

Decide Local

In operations in the shipping industry most of the decisions must be made locally. With the technology providing detailed real-time visibility it will be key to honour the lessons learned from nature and base decisions only on correct and relevant information. It is essential not to be seduced to centralize all decision making and run the risk of making the decision more complex than needed. So always aim to decide local.

AI and ML technologies will assist the decision-makers in processing more and more data points to a level that is beyond the processing power of humans. Modelling the business and supporting the users localized decision support will allow the industry to reduce waste.

Keep it Simple

Mankind has created unprecedented systems. With the ongoing globalization and the technology available it is tempting to develop overarching centralized systems that theoretically are able to reach the optimal. However, with the dynamics in the industry and the high interconnectedness the optimum will never be reached, as the world just moves on. We should resist the temptation to think we can fully control everything from one central point with the help of brains and technology.

Connecting the Dots for you

In the last 7 years Teqplay has developed a platform that provides shared real-time awareness for the maritime industry. Teqplay invested (and still is investing) in deeply understanding the industry. We have connected the dots and are able to provide the insights required for better decision-making. We provide reporting services that continuously inform stakeholders on what is happening now and in the future. We have developed control towers that give you the insights and overview of the maritime process.

Inspired by nature, we connect the dots … Better Insights, Less Waste!

Let’s keep the conversation going! Visit us on LinkedIn and let us know how you think nature can help us create a sustainable maritime industry.


Jacks in the sun” by “Henry Jager“, is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Formica cf. rufibarbis” by “Fractality“, is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Acorns” by “Colin“, is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0