Managing risk or facing crisis

Introducing new technologies into any sector is a big challenge, in shipping it may be made more difficult by the structure of the industry. Various players are involved in creating the complete ‘transport delivery system’; designers, naval architects, marine engineers, ship builders, ship owners, operators, charterers, brokers and cargo owners. No one entity has responsibility for driving change, consequently each looks to the other to lead. If leaders don’t emerge it often falls to academics and other ‘experts’ to make the case or assess the risks which in turn leads to an information overload creating further inertia.

Back in the day when we didn’t have access to the powerful computing technology that enables complex scenario planning we had to “go with our guts” much more, but did it make things any easier? Leaders still had to take risks and did so to progress their enterprises. Increasingly we’re all about managing risk.

In our globally interconnected and increasingly transparent world there are unknown quantities of slightly suspect data and half-understood theories sloshing about making it possible to justify pretty much any (in)decision you care (not) to make. There’s also a whole worldwide web of connected media streams to underline very publically when leaders get it wrong. Making bold decisions on emission abatement technology is newsworthy and the solutions tend to be quite visible making them an easy target for the hungry media streams. Eye-candy visuals created by project developers attract attention and represent a big, fat statement of intent. Failure would be very public and consequently probably just a bit too scary. Shipowners do take market risks, often resulting in ordering too many ships, yet find visible risk-taking such as embracing a novel solution, even on a trial basis, more difficult to accept.

Is anyone measuring inertia created by complexity? We’ve become so used to propulsion being sourced via ‘one-size-fits-all’ cheap liquid fossil fuels that, as we move towards the multiplicity of solutions for a heterogeneous shipping fleet impacted by a variety of previously unknown global forces, we become overwhelmed the complexity and fail to take decisive action and hand decisions to ‘risk experts’. This kicking the can down the road simply brings the industry closer to crisis. The question is would we rather be measuring risk or managing crises.