ECOPRODIGI was delighted and honoured to take part in the Baltic Sea States Sub-regional Cooperation (BSSSC) Annual Conference 2019 which was organised in Klaipeda, Lithuania on 18-20 September. This year, the overarching theme of the conference was “Sustainable Maritime Economy – BSSSC regions shaping the future of the Blue economy in the Baltic Sea Region”. The term ‘blue economy‘ covers a wide range of interlinked sectors and generally refers to activities connected to oceans, seas and coastal areas. It is often used in conjunction with another term, ‘blue growth‘, which describes strategies that support sustainable growth in marine and maritime sectors. Klaipeda, which is the home to the EU‘s most northerly ice-free port and has strong traditions and talent in the maritime sector, was a fitting location for the conference which gathered participants from all around the Baltic Sea region to discuss the theme of blue economy from various perspectives. The opening speeches of the conference focused on the need to develop and maintain sustainable maritime economy in order to facilitate clean and healthy oceans and seas. Intensive and genuine transnational collaboration, efficient implementation of strategies, public-private partnerships, common standards, and disruptive technologies such as digitalisation were brought up as increasingly important measures to support sustainable and competitive development in the Baltic Sea region. With this in mind, the role of the over 20 Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme projects dealing with maritime issues and the 63 million euros allocated for these initiatives were highlighted as extremely important for the region’s future.

As one of the Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme projects focusing on maritime issues, ECOPRODIGI was invited to organise its own session during the BSSSC conference. The session,“Shaping the future of shipping. What is needed to support the Baltic Sea region maritime industry to take the digital leap?” aimed to bring together policy makers and industry representatives from maritime sector to discuss issues such as the current state of digitalisation in maritime industry, the needs of industry end-users for successful digitalisation of processes, and policy measures required to support prosperous and sustainable development in maritime industry. The session was kicked off by an introduction to the project and its objectives by ECOPRODIGI’s project manager Milla Harju (Pan-European Institute at the University of Turku) and a presentation of one of the project’s industry cases Solving eco-inefficiency bottlenecks in shipyard processes by Justas Kavaliauskas (Western Baltic Engineering).

The presentations were followed by a panel discussion chaired by Andrius Sutnikas (Klaipeda Science and Technology Park). The panellists Eglė Vyšniauskaitė (Water and Railway Transport Policy Group, Ministry of Transport and Communication of the Republic of Lithuania),  Justas Kavaliauskas (Western Baltic Engineering), Isabelle-Louise Aabel (GCE NODE, Interreg North Sea Region PERISCOPE project), Eero Naaber (Estonian Maritime Administration) and Ignas Aničas (Baltic Tech Park) were invited on stage to discuss digitalisation of maritime industry from both the public and private sector point of view.

When asked by Mr. Sutnikas to identify some of the biggest challenges for digitalisation, the panellists were quick to list the traditional and global nature of maritime industry and heavy regulations as the main issues hindering the development. From a business point of view, Ms. Aabel pointed out that the current digitalisation ecosystem favours the bigger companies who are able to dominate the markets with the systems they have developed and to which others need to adapt. Smaller companies with less access and resources are often left with very little leverage in the global setting of the industry. This problem was also recognised by other panellists who called for open innovation processes to break the siloed system and to improve cooperation between smaller and larger industry players. But are larger companies willing to share and open up their processes if the benefits of doing so are not clear, asked Mr. Sutnikas. Most of the panellists admitted that without demonstrable benefits, bigger companies are not likely to go along with open innovation. Integrated value chains with SMEs and start-ups included were nevertheless seen as necessary for more balanced and inclusive development.

From a policy-side point of view, Mr. Sutnikas noted that as one of the regions with very strict environmental standards, the Baltic Sea region is a fitting testing ground for environmentally-friendly shipping technologies. However, there are still challenges in ensuring compliance with the standards and a level playing-field for all. According to Ms. Vyšniauskaitė, regulations and other policy measures can indeed facilitate the development and implementation of digital solutions that make shipping less damaging for the environment. However, one of the main policy level challenges is that digitalisation is still seen mainly as a tool and not as a process that should be regulated. In addition, regulations should be timely but because the regulatory processes take place mainly at an international level, they tend to be rather slow. This view was echoed by Mr. Naaber who pointed out that the challenges in digitalisation are much more connected to regulatory processes than to difficulties with available technological solutions. Ms. Vyšniauskaitė agreed and added that policy-makers are always somewhat behind the development, and that while policies are definitely needed to set targets and limits, the real development question is mainly down to market forces. However, in order to ensure a level playing field for all, collaboration with the EU, IMO and national regulators is very much needed. Mr. Naaber noted that in many cases public-private cooperation should also be tapped into to make sure that regulations are met. For example, data that is received from ships can be used by regulatory authorities to monitor compliance with policies and standards. In this sense, public and private sector partnerships are very beneficial for facilitating sustainable shipping.

The need for transnational and transregional networks, both at public and private level, was also highlighted as crucial for digitalisation by other panellists. Such networks were perceived as valuable as they can facilitate industry-wide development, stretching from smarter vessels to smarter ports and to smarter logistics chains in general. According to Mr. Kavaliauskas, it is also important to keep in mind that digitalisation can be increasingly utilised in ship manufacturing phases and that especially in this kind of development many things can be learnt from other sectors, such as the automotive industry. This view was supported by Mr. Naaber, who reminded the audience that digitalisation in itself is not that important but it is important to be more efficient and digital tools can provide help with efficiency. Maritime industry is not the only sector trying to take the digital leap and the challenges faced by the industry can be similar to those faced by other sectors. Learning from and collaborating with others can thus help to overcome the obstacles.

The need to collaborate was, incidentally, also the point most of the discussions and speeches at the BSSSC conference seemed to emphasise: cooperation is key when working towards a shared goal and a better future for all. As the conference drew to close, it was truly inspiring to reflect on how many people and organisations are actually doing exactly this – working together for the better of the Baltic Sea region. And, as pointed out (tongue-in-cheek) by one of the conference moderators Tom O. Kleppestø (Shipping & Offshore Network), the Baltic Sea may be a “boring” sea but also a very important sea in connecting the region and providing livelihoods for many. It is worth preserving and protecting because of its fragile ecosystem as well as for its cultural heritage and regional assets that are in many ways unique.