An outsider to succeed in maritime innovation

Mads Friis Sørensen
The race for autonomous ship solutions, intelligent ship systems and energy efficiency operation is on. Major players in the marine industry are already heavily engaged and investing into R&D trying to be the first in the market. So far the majority of innovation is found in the smaller start-ups, where innovation and the ability to break with legacy thinking reside.

Having worked with innovation for some of the major maritime system manufacturers, I have experienced, how difficult it is to create a culture, where thinking out of the box is possible, where old norms and habits can be challenged and where maritime regulation is not a constraint but simply a guideline. Leading creative teams, I experienced, how ideas could be killed right at the birth, because they did not fit the general opinion of, how things are normally done, or they conflicted with key stakeholders’ perception of the company.

When innovating and creating new and ground breaking solution, my experience has taught me to seek inspiration outside the industry or from the start-ups, where the game rules of maritime industry do not rule. It is essential to step out and view the company and the products/services from the outside disconnecting with one’s own perception of the company’s value proposition and position in the market. One has to identify with the customer and start collecting inspiration from the end users and the safety and operational managers. It is important to see the ship as a whole and not a collection of systems. By having a holistic approach, it is possible to see synergies and opportunities in data and resource sharing. It enables the ability to combine systems in new ways as were they LEGO blocks.

My learnings have been that it is close to impossible to create a creative and innovative culture, which is able to break with legacy thinking, if the team consist of people with a long history in the company and the maritime industry. When I worked for a Finnish maritime system manufacturer, I proposed to sponsor a competition amongst universities and academia to design the future ship. The purpose was to have unbiased young people to rethink the ship design, use of materials, use of technology, etc.. Young people not burdened with the limitations accomplished through a long career in the maritime industry being unable to break from the performance standards, STCW and classification rules. By challenging the youth across multiple disciplines, the industry could be inspired and maybe even shocked to see, how ships can be designed, equipped and operated in new and better ways.

This is why I believe, it often takes an outsider to succeed in ground breaking innovation. An unspoiled mind ready to challenge establishment! Unfortunately these outsiders seldom survive for long in the maritime industry, and this could be one of many reasons, why the maritime industry does not make big leaps in innovation. Maybe it is time for the industry to appreciate the outsiders.

This is a guest blog by Mads Friis Sørensen, M/S MARTA – Maritime Technology Advising.
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