It’s about more than maritime. Harald Solberg, CEO of the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association, sees a world of opportunity from his office overlooking Oslo. Here he talks markets, innovation, ocean developments, and even rubbish. Norway, he believes, has a leading role to play.
Solberg is 42, but looks younger. Hearing him outline a career that has so far taken in politics, media, the Norwegian Royal Palace, and, of course, shipping, is a little surreal. For a moment one wonders who he’s talking about – his boss, a mentor, his dad perhaps – until that reverie is broken by his determined tone, authoritative presence and sharp industry insights.
No, here, right at the top of the imposing Norwegian Shipowners’ Association (NSA) building in central Oslo, Solberg seems very much at home.
The relatively new CEO of the NSA is the embodiment of a transition taking place in Norwegian shipping and, arguably, the industry as a whole.
In what was once regarded as the traditional stomping ground of slightly more ‘mature’ individuals, Solberg and other leading figures – such as NSA president and CEO of Klaveness Lasse Kristoffersen and Wilhelmsen CEO Thomas Wilhelmsen – are putting a fresh face on the business. In fact four of the 10 NSA boardmembers are under the age of 50, with one still in their 30s.
But it’s not simply a matter of youth; it’s more about attitude, as Solberg is keen to stress: “Shipping is evolving and we have to evolve with it,” he states. “Once this was an analogue industry, transporting cargo from A to B. Now it is an integrated part of supply chains, with increasing digitalization empowering better decision making, unlocking new value and presenting opportunities beyond traditional business practices. This is an incredibly exciting time to be involved in shipping and we, in Norway, are determined to secure our place at the leading edge of developments.”
Solberg took up the position as NSA CEO on January 1, after close to two years at the royal palace as chief of the royal secretariat. Prior to that he’d enjoyed almost five years at the NSA, rising from the role of director to that of deputy CEO.
As his first year in his new position draws to a close he’s more focused on looking forwards, rather than astern, but takes time to assess 2018 as “a challenging year” for NSA members.
“Norway has the second largest offshore fleet in the world,” he notes, “so the low rates and demand in that segment impacts more upon us than other key shipping nations. Tankers and chemical tankers also face challenges, but there’s more favourable conditions for dry bulk, while our short sea members are more positive. It is, to say the least, a mixed market.”
Mention of 2019 doesn’t prompt a surge of optimism, with talk of Trump, trade wars and increasingly protectionist attitudes, but mid-term signs and long-term prospects see Solberg’s smile, and that word ‘evolution’, return.
“Norwegian shipping has always evolved to embrace new opportunities,” he says. “From discovery, to trade, transport and then into offshore. Now, for example, that offshore expertise is being transferred to renewables, with a new breed of service and construction vessels tailored for the wind industry, and into aquaculture and fish farming. The future holds immense opportunities for mining and mineral extraction, where we can bring our strong subsea pedigree into play, and there’s real excitement around the development of the expedition cruise segment.”
Here Solberg sees possibilities for Norway to establish a mantle as a leader in specialized vessels, such as the Hurtigruten ships currently being built by Norway’s Kleven Verft, with frontier operational areas (e.g. the Arctic) and an emphasis on quality rather than volume.
“I genuinely think this segment could be a star performer for Norwegian shipping,” he stresses. “In a way it sums up what defines us; high quality, ambition and a desire to explore. These are values intrinsic to our success as a small nation, with a large industry impact.”
Solberg’s talk of tourism, deep sea mining, aquaculture and renewable energy is indicative of the aforementioned ‘attitude’ emerging in Norwegian shipping. The industry, as demonstrated by Nor-Shipping’s recent ‘ocean solutions’ repositioning, is keen to strengthen maritime by engaging in emerging ocean industry activities.
The NSA CEO is happy to confirm the trend. “It’s natural,” he comments. “Norway has a world leading maritime cluster and, as we all know, commercial activity within the ocean space is expected to boom. Why not leverage that expertise to take advantage of the opportunity? If we don’t do it someone else will, but I firmly believe we’re one step ahead.”
Solberg is keen to position Norway and its 25,148 km long coastline as a ‘laboratory’ for new ideas and technology, as exemplified by the opening of the world’s first autonomous shipping test-bed in Trondheimsfjord in September 2016, the current growth of battery powered ferries, and the first development of a hydro-electric ferry, to be launched in Rogaland in 2021.
He believes that new technology can be conceived, tested and made ready market here – for both the maritime and ocean industries – before being scaled up for global release.
“With the strength of our cluster we can pioneer new ways forward,” he enthuses, adding, “and that is crucially important with regards to the greatest challenge facing us, and society in general, right now – that of sustainability.”
Here, again, we see that new age, approach and energy in effect.
Solberg doesn’t just want the NSA to serve and support its members – he wants the organisation, its members and the whole industry to help tackle universal issues. Ocean pollution and climate change are top of the agenda.
To this effect the NSA has been pivotal in the launch of two recent, and startlingly ambitious, projects – Circular Cleanup and mapping marine plastics and pollution.
Circular Cleanup is a six-month innovation initiative that draws together partners from maritime, waste management, environmental organisations and the public sector to investigate the possibility of creating a value chain with regards to ocean waste.
“8m tonnes of plastic reach the ocean every year,” Solberg states. “At present rates there may be more plastic than fish in the sea by the year 2050. If there’s no value to that garbage there’s limited incentive to tackle it. But if we could give it a value, propose a system whereby people get paid for cleaning up, we could transform the problem into an opportunity. We could help devise a new commercial practice with the potential to create positive global impact.”
Sensing the enormity of the issue, he smiles: “Yes, we know it’s ambitious. But it’s high time for action!”
That sentiment is equally applicable to the next NSA initiative, a public-private partnership with the Institute of Marine Research, Torvald Klaveness and Kongsberg to develop and fit sensors onto vessels capable of analysing both the type of plastic found in various marine areas, and its composition and origin. The NSA is leading the project, Kongsberg is developing sensors for installation on five Klaveness vessels, and the institute will analyse the data collected. It’s a pilot project that, Solberg says, demonstrates how society can benefit from the industry’s unique position on the ocean waves.
“We spoke before about challenges, but within challenges are opportunities,” he notes. “Here we see an opportunity for shipping to play a pivotal role in finding solutions to one of the most pressing environmental problems of our time. If we understand more about this issue we can understand how to tackle it. We have a clear role to play here, and I’m delighted the NSA and our partners are taking positive steps forward.”
Progress from both projects will be released before the next Nor-Shipping, taking place at a series of venues in Oslo and Lillestrøm from June 4 to 7 next year. Here, as a partner and keynote speaker, Solberg will no doubt be looking to communicate the role Norway and his members can play in the evolving ocean space.
“Nor-Shipping is a crucially important event for us and our members,” he imparts. “It is both a meeting place, a global showcase and an important access point for fresh business opportunities. With its focus on ‘ocean solutions’, and our desire to leverage existing expertise in new areas, that’s never been more relevant than it is now.
“The shipping world looks to Norway during Nor-Shipping,” he concludes. “Here at the NSA we want to retain that focus on our national sector at all times, helping us maximise our commercial and environmental impact. The industry is changing and we’re committed to helping it steer a course that is efficient, responsible and sustainable, benefiting all of society.”
A new age, it seems, may just be dawning.