Column René de Vries: about horse manure and digitisation

02 July 2019
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When it comes to digitisation, I’m always reminded of the story of the British journalist who wrote about the ‘Great Horse Manure Crisis’ for The Times in 1894. At the time, virtually everything was transported by horse, and he predicted that if the population and activity in the city were to continue growing in the same way, in fifty years every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure.

René de Vries
René de Vries

Well, ‘it’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future’. I believe that statement is attributed to Danish physicist Niels Bohr. At any rate, there’s one thing I know for certain. The megatrend of digitisation is irreversible. The insight and transparency offered by digitisation mean so many more processes that are more efficient that economic theory teaches us that it must be the future. That is something we can get behind.

We have projects at various stages. For example, the Harbour Master Management Information System has been working as a digital network for some time now. With the Port Call Optimisation Pronto initiative, the results achieved are promising and yes, we are already preparing to welcome smarter vessels that use sensors to allow them to operate with increasing autonomy. Since our foundation, we have been focused on getting the most out of the port of Rotterdam. We are therefore grabbing the opportunities offered by digitisation with both hands, and, needless to say, security is absolutely paramount.

However, in practice, thing are not that easy. The key to the success of digitisation is sharing: connecting information flows to one another. So the first challenge is to get systems talking to each other, to make them compatible. Setting up connections between systems within our own organisation has already proved to be a major technical challenge, let alone trying to do the same between systems of other organisations and companies.

However, this challenge is nothing compared to the second challenge, which involves the question of how to persuade organisations to actually share the information they have with others in the chain. On the one hand, their reluctance is based on cold feet and concerns about rivalry. On the other hand, there are organisations that are afraid the transparency offered by digitisation will make them redundant. I think that fear is justified, by the way. But even these organisations need to realise that they do not form an insurmountable obstacle in the greater process. Whatever the case may be, interests are divided.

This is the playing field in which the security aspect also plays an important role. We've already come a long way in that respect. It wasn't so long ago that we used to stick post-its with passwords to our computer screens. Those times are gone. Cyber security is a crucial element in building confidence in the system. We are fully aware of that, so we got straight to the heart of the matter. Digitisation means that while you are working on the technical challenges, you also have to address the mind shift of the organisations involved, in addition to making sure the system is secure and robust. If we may quote Paul McCartney, that is a ‘long and winding road’. Nevertheless, it’s the only road that will lead us to the future.

Whitepaper: 'Move forward: data as fuel for the digital port'

What is the primary purpose of data sharing and how do you handle it correctly? How do you involve the port community in this development, and how do you guarantee the reliability of the data you work with? Which other technical, economical and legal aspects play a part? You can read all about it in our white paper ‘Move forward: data as fuel for the digital port.’