COMMENT: What drives the competitiveness of ports? Is it sufficient draft to accommodate ever larger vessels, productivity, high quality hinterland infrastructure or well-functioning port community systems, asks Peter de Langen.
These factors are clearly relevant, but may not be sources of lasting competitive advantage. In this respect, the quality of the innovation ecosystem is too often downplayed.
Ports can be regarded as clusters of hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of firms. Rotterdam’s port complex consists of more than 2,000 companies – or to be precise ‘establishments’, as most are owned by multinational companies. Private investment is vital for the continued existence of this complex. Taking Rotterdam as an example again, investment below €1.5bn per year would leave its port complex wanting.
In many ports, especially in mature economies, achieving such an investment level is a huge challenge. And in that challenge, innovation ecosystems may play a crucial role. After all, innovations are required for increasing productivity, new business development and start-ups. Various ‘megatrends’ increase the relevance of innovations: the transition towards sustainability transport, the transition of energy sources, increased safety requirements, and the larger availability of data all create ‘opportunity spaces’; innovation is required to fill these.
Different elements make up an innovation ecosystem, including an entrepreneurial culture, the availability of venture capital, education institutions, incubators and regulation that encourages innovation.
In how many ports do all the actors involved purposefully invest in the quality of the innovation regime? A search through annual reports of port authorities – often treated as the organisation responsible for the competitiveness of the port – reveals that innovation is mentioned, but structural investments in the innovation ecosystem are often limited.
Singapore stands out as an example, with the port authority having set up a €90m maritime innovation fund. It may be relevant for other ports to explore how they can create value through investments in the port innovation ecosystem.