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The commercialisation of port call optimisation

Emma Mark from Intelligent Cargo Systems describes her version of shipping utopia.

I have something to confess. I am, and have been for some time, obsessed with port call optimisation. It was the simplicity of it all that attracted me, the idea that if we all shared our data and worked together, we could achieve great things for the benefit of an entire community.

Of late, that beautiful paragon appears to have all but dissipated and we’re left with a slew of companies each proclaiming to have the answer to all of our port call problems. I’ll admit we fit into that category too, but more on that later. Has the commercialisation of port call optimisation steered us away from its original path or was the scope of the problem too great, with commodification being the only clear way to tackle it?

Almost fifteen years ago to the day, the International Harbour Masters Association embarked upon a quest that would spark the imagination of the entire maritime industry, creating a maelstrom of ideas, strategies and concepts ensuring the sustainability of commercial shipping. If we go back to the very beginning, the four key deliverables were to bring about lower costs, a cleaner environment, increased reliability and better safety for ports, terminals and shipping lines service providers. Or in other words, shipping utopia.

Firstly, there was the question of master data sharing, enhancing the safety of arrival and departure from port in relation to vessel and berth compatibility, and secondly, sharing of information relating specifically to the port call itself, including cargo operations completion timings. Put together, these two data streams, which arise from numerous different sources at all times of the day and night in any given port worldwide, should theoretically allow vessels to undertake each port call in a timely fashion. This would lead to reduced fuel consumption and emissions as well as keeping the fleet on schedule.

The International Taskforce for Port Call Optimisation was established but, from the very start of the project, there was a commercial aspect at play, with one very large group taking the helm and indeed responsibility for a port’s rendez-vous of nautical and terminal operations. It’s no secret that originally Pronto, an initiative born from the Avanti project and using IMO FAL standards, was developed as a non-commercialised entity; an idea of best practice if you will. But, as well as being industry partners of the International Taskforce for Port Call Optimisation, the Port of Rotterdam, were commercial visionaries and one of the first businesses to capitalise on port call optimisation with Pronto.

Did that action set a new course for the journey of port call optimisation and could it be argued that in doing so, the very data we set out to share has become even more siloed, wrapped up in mysterious fortresses of products and services all competing with each other? The Taskforce states itself that “ports tend to develop projects for one port only, as they might be in competition with other ports”, and this is precisely what has happened. Ports and terminals that are now far advanced in digitalisation have been able to work directly with solution providers to create bespoke services that meet their specific needs. The future cannot be predicted but one can imagine the challenge ahead for those ports that are not early adopters.

On the other hand, there is the continued and valued efforts of a committed group of individuals, who together and individually have researched white papers, articles and a whole host of other documentation for the sole purpose of advocating and progressing the port call optimisation initiative. The recent UNCTAD paper stressing the importance of the digitalisation of port calls has been shared and quoted numerous times over the past year. Furthermore, a team of authors led by Mikael Lind have written two academic books focusing on maritime informatics as an ‘emerging discipline for a digitally connected efficient, sustainable and resilient industry’. This blueprint and the many supporting papers and articles that relate to it and port call optimisation as a discipline are proof that the requirement for structure and guidance is still very much a continuing work.

It is clear that there are individuals and organisations that are unbiased and will promote the core themes of port call optimisation; collaboration being one of the most prominent, but possibly the most neglected. In 2019, Intelligent Cargo Systems delivered the first of its Guides to Port Call Optimisation and within it, a selection of innovative companies operating in that space were featured. There weren’t, and still aren’t, any partnerships or promotional quid pro quo arrangements in place with any of the companies; it was all done on the basis of working together for a common goal. So, whilst we are very much in the business of providing our own solutions to port call optimisation, we are still very much mindful of the reasons why we’re doing it, which is to work together towards sustainability for our industry and the world we live in.

Perhaps a lack of outward guidance from the IMO has enabled port call optimisation to be commercialised? Without definitive direction, the industry and its key players must make their own decisions and this eliminates the opportunity for cohesion. The IMHA has presented nine stages to its development plan of port call optimisation, the final stage being to connect to IMO and IHO programs. According to their website, only the first three have been completed.

This is not to say that the IMO have been inert regarding port call optimisation initiatives. The IMO-GloMEEP Global Industry Alliance has tested and demonstrated the benefits of port call optimisation in a series of tabletop exercises, under a voluntary public-private cooperation.

History demonstrates that implementing new policies and procedures within the shipping industry is a slow process and one that requires careful consideration and compliance from all stakeholders, but surely this has already been achieved? The IMO’s mandate of a 50% reduction in GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions from 2008 levels by 2050 falls directly in line with one of the primary objectives of port call optimisation; to reduce emissions and create a cleaner environment. With shipping companies and ports onboard, it is not unreasonable to expect a more direct approach in regards to the implementation and standardisation of port call optimisation from the IMO.

Ultimately, somewhere between those heady days in 2006 and today, the very premise of port call optimisation, so elegantly epitomised by the IHMA seems to have been lost at sea: “Shipping (companies), their agents and ports are sitting down together to work on a solution that can work for every trade, for every port, from port to port and end to end”. As the race to reduce emissions and improve our sustainability with smarter and cleaner shipping becomes increasingly critical, we have to remember that this race is one that cannot be won alone.


  1. Maybe you should have given a short introduction about Intelligent Cargo Systems and what it was intended to do as well as who it is funded by. Then there might be more context to this article.

  2. Shipping companies, their agents should work for every trade, for every port, from port to port and end to end”. As the race to reduce emissions and improve our sustainability with smarter and cleaner shipping becomes increasingly critical, we have to remember that this race is one that cannot be won alone.

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