Technological change in UK maritime is ‘accelerating’

Sarah Kenny, chair of Maritime UK, addressed members of industry body Mersey Maritime and told them the pandemic had led to an acceleration in the pace of technological change. Tony McDonough reports

Sarah Kenny
Sarah Kenny, chair of Maritime UK. Picture by Tony McDonough


Collaboration and courage are key to the future growth of the maritime sector as the pace of change in technology and sustainability accelerates.

That was the message delivered to members of Mersey Maritime during the organisation’s latest Face-2-Face monthly networking event by Sarah Kenny, chair of Maritime UK and chief executive of maritime engineering consultancy BMT.

This latest event was a hybrid one. As has become the norm over the past 12 months, dozens of people took part on Zoom. However, as part of the easing of lockdown, a small number of members actually attended in person. Mersey Maritime chief executive Chris Shirling-Rooke said the aim was to return to normal in-person events by July.

Sarah began by praising the work of the maritime sector in the Liverpool city region, saying: “The work done here on regional growth really shines. And with the Maritime Knowledge Hub still to come I look forward to more great progress.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, work on the Government’s maritime 2050 strategy, which has both technological change and sustainability at its core, was already under way. However, said Sarah, the pandemic had been a catalyst for change and suggested the transformation of the maritime sector would now be more rapid and radical than originally envisaged.

“We are now looking to return to normal but a return to the previous normal is unlikely,” she said. “We have seen how essential goods have continued to flow during the pandemic and we owe our seafarers a great deal of gratitude.

“Two positive outcomes from the past 12 months have been an increased awareness of what the maritime sector does in bringing in 95% of essential goods into the country by sea and a demonstration of how quickly it can change.”

She referred to the Government’s ‘Build Back Better’ strategy and how that would put the marine and maritime sector at the heart of the UK’s recovery from the pandemic. The sector would be heavily involved in the defence and industrial strategy with a new commitment to shipbuilding. She added: “We will see a significant renaissance in maritime.

“The maritime and marine sector had already embarked on a period of change prior to the pandemic and I think this is now accelerating in terms of rapidly emerging technologies and changing relationships on trade. We are adopting new and different ways of working and different business models.

“We have to adapt to new ways of working using more digital and automation. Those things are here to stay.”

Sarah said that at the start of the pandemic, BMT sent its 1,500-strong global workforce  home with their laptops. Today, around two-thirds of its staff are still working from home and she added that 50% of people in the business now wanted more flexibility in how they work.

“There will be cost savings, of course, in the way we use our physical space and we will also see better employee engagement,” she said. This will be better for those who have caring responsibilities.”

She also said the global narrative in terms of sustainability, and particularly in decarbonisation, had shifted. She referred to how Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said shipping emissions would be included in overall targets.

Port of Liverpool and Liverpool2
Autonomous vessels could soon be ferrying goods between British ports

“Investors are now demanding to see plans for sustainability from the companies they are investing in,” she explained. “They may withdraw their money from those that don’t have a plan. There will need to be a shift in tangibility and pace to avoid accusations of just ‘green washing’.

“If we can see something positive from the pandemic it is that it has accelerated the pace of change… as a sector we have to innovate much more and use emerging technologies to collaborate more – within our own sector and with other sectors. We need to build a culture of collaboration.”

Sarah talked about the MarRI-UK initiative which is described as “a collaborative innovation vehicle for UK industry and academia to jointly tackle innovation and technology challenges”.

One MarRI-UK project, she said, involved a plan to create a new ‘coastal highway’ that would see safe, zero-carbon autonomous vessels reduce the need for land-based haulage. It would reduce the volume of haulage traffic on UK roads by 25%.

“This level of ambition tells me that the maritime sector is already recognising that we don’t want to stand still,” she added. “We need to be courageous and move towards a different future. Rapid technological advances will drive us to constantly adapt.

“And we will need to be more agile and adaptable. Our changing workforce will have more digital skills and will look for more flexibility. We will need to be more flexible as employers than how we are today.

“We have to do more than just respond to change – we have to be global leaders. We need to recognise that we have a unique opportunity to transform our sector. Technology will play a pivotal role and we will need to collaborate with each other.”

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