By Keith Norbury

Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association will celebrate its 70th anniversary in style with a full-fledged conference in Toronto this October. The theme of the gathering, which takes place Oct. 16 and 17 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, is Global Supply Chains in a Digital Future: innovation and inspiration. “It’s very much dealing about e-commerce, last-mile deliveries, drones, automated vehicles, transparency, freight forwarders’ systems, and how do you provide visibility to your customers,” said Ruth Snowden, CIFFA’s Executive Director.

The conference will feature about 35 speakers. They include Craig Fuller, Managing Director of the Blockchain in Transport Alliance; Nora Young, host of CBC Radio’s Spark and the author of The Virtual Self; and closing speaker Dr. Nick Bontis, a McMasters University professor and the Director of the Institute for Intellectual Capital Research.

450 attendees expected

Ms. Snowden expects the conference to attract about 450 attendees. Each of them will also receive access to two trade shows — Multimodal Americas 2018 and TIACA’s Air Cargo Forum and Exhibition 2018 — also happening at the convention centre.

“I’m excited about it,” said Stephen McDermott, CIFFA’s Director of Education and Marketing, who is helping with sponsorships, ticket sales and setting up CIFFA’s trade-show pavilion. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of event that we’re putting on. We’re pulling out all the stops for it. We’re making sure that we’ve got great sponsorship, great support, and a really amazing group of people working towards putting on what I think would be the industry’s showcase platform.”

The conference is the first of its kind that CIFFA itself has organized. The association celebrated its 65th anniversary in 2013 at the Roads, Rails and Runways conference in Edmonton. But that event was organized by Edmonton International Airport. Just shy of 300 people attended.

“We do not do annual conferences,” Ms. Snowden said. “We don’t do regional conferences. We don’t do local conferences. We’re the only association in the world, I think, that does not do conferences.”

CIFFA does hold an annual general meeting and three gala dinners and golf tournaments each year — in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. The AGM usually attracts about 50 attendees.

Trade shows upstairs

For the Toronto conference, Ms. Snowden expects each of the 260 member freight forwarding companies and 160 associate members to send at least one delegate, with larger companies sending as many as four or five. Some non-members are also expected “because our content is really good,” Ms. Snowden said. “But it’s being designed for freight forwarding companies or for third-party logistics providers.”

While CIFFA hosts its conference downstairs at the convention centre, about 4,000 people will gather upstairs at the two trade shows, which continue for an extra day, until Oct. 18. CIFFA will have an 800 square foot pavilion between the two shows, which CIFFA delegates can access by wearing the lanyards they will receive with their conference registration.

“They have subcontracted space underneath in the convention area for us to host our conference,” Ms. Snowdon said. “So our conference is self-enclosed. It’s our speakers. It’s our delegates. They’re going to wear our lanyards. We have our own sponsors. But all of 450 delegates will be coming upstairs onto the trade-show floor for our evening reception, for example, on Day 1, and for a networking break on Day 2.”

Joint plenary panel

The evening before the conference, CIFFA hosts an invitation-only reception and dinner for directors, sponsors, and speakers.

The conference opens with a joint plenary panel session co-hosted with the two trade shows. Titled “Digital Transformation — Brave New World or New Normal?,” it goes from 9:30 to 11 a.m. on Tuesday. Panelists include Dheeraj Kohli of Unisys, Robert Bigler of eBay Canada, and Yuree Hong, founder of S/HE Blockchainers.

The CIFFA conference itself has its grand opening at 11:30 a.m. with an executive update and fireside chat featuring a panel of industry leaders such as Philip Pouildis of BlackBerry Radar, Jonathan Wahba of Canadian Pacific Railway, and Grace Liang, President of OOCL Canada Inc. During the CIFFA luncheon on Tuesday, Oct. 16, CBC’s Nora Young will deliver her keynote speech on the topic of “Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Surviving and Thriving in the Coming Data Boom.”

Blockchain discussed

At 2:20 p.m. on Tuesday, another panel convenes on the theme of emerging and “disruptive” technologies such as blockchain. Among the panelists will be Toronto lawyer Rui Fernandes, who specializes in transportation and insurance issues. “I intend to talk in my slot about the legal issues that arise from the use of blockchain,” Mr. Fernandes told Canadian Sailings. “Because it’s a distributed ledger, a distributed network, who do you sue if something goes wrong?” He will also examine what happens if a blockchain is hacked, which courts would have jurisdiction over it, and “how some of legal issues may become absolute obstacles to it being implemented.” Mr. Fernandes said his presentation will also touch on artificial intelligence and how it might be used in combination with blockchain and what legal issues might arise from that. The best known applications of blockchain are bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Also on the panel will be Craig Fuller, Managing Director of the Blockchain in Transport Alliance. According to its website, the alliance has a membership that includes such transportation heavyweights as Panalpina, Navistar, J.B. Hunt, FedEx, Irving Transportation and Logistics, UPS, BNSF Railway, and UberFreight.

Potential for hacking

The chains of bitcoin have become so long that they’re now almost impervious to hacking, although there have been reports of bitcoin having been hacked. Mr. Fernandes doubts the veracity of those reports, noting that a hacker would have to compromise about half the servers involved. Bitcoin now uses such massive numbers of servers that it would likely take a supercomputer under the control of a government to hack it, he said.

This January, shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk announced a joint venture with IBM to develop blockchain applications for global trade. And in May, it revealed it was using Insurwave, a blockchain platform for marine insurance, according to reports in the trade press. Mr. Fernandes said that, initially at least, such blockchains would have few customers. Even 2,000 customers would require a small blockchain platform, he said. “So in that case, that might be easier to hack into,” Mr. Fernandes said.

He suspects that, initially, blockchains will represent an expense to corporations. However, eventually cost-savings will occur because blockchains will avoid the need to produce physical documentation at every interchange of cargo shipments. “The people using the blockchain would have to agree that the documents are the documents,” Mr. Fernandes said. “So one of the issues I’m going to talk about is: can you then argue that, no, those documents don’t represent what actually happened?”

Potential benefits

A blockchain would incorporate electronic bills of lading, which already exist, as well as insurance policies and notices of any damage claims. “If during the transport, one of the documents shows the discrepancy of carriage, then it would provide automatic notices to insurers and designated investigators and surveyors,” he said, “So it just saves on people time.”

By adding in artificial intelligence, all of that can be monitored by a computer program, “which brings all sorts of other interesting things in,” Mr. Fernandes said.

For example, it would conceivably coordinate the different electronic platforms in an organization into one, which would be accessible by insurers, shippers, trucking companies, and others. “So everybody knows exactly where the goods are at every minute,” Mr. Fernandes said. That would also mean needing fewer people in the process.

“It might remove a lot of intermediaries,” he said. “Right now in transportation, you might have a freight forwarder who interacts between the shipper and the carrier in arranging the carriage. Well, with blockchain you could theoretically get rid of that.”

Drones discussion

Highlights of Day 2 include a breakout panel session on drones, at 9 a.m., and a closing plenary with a keynote address by Dr. Bontis, at 3:15 p.m. Panelists on the drone session include Heather Devine, a Hamilton, Ont. transportation lawyer. “I think that drones are actually going to be a tool of the future,” Ms. Devine told Canadian Sailings. “When I first started talking about drones, even two, three years ago, people were amazed by them.”

One amazing way drones are already used is to pick products in warehouses. “It’s an excellent tool where you can replace a person in a very economical sense and not only is it economical, but you can expand the horizon using a fairly simple and safe technology,” she said.

Where she doesn’t expect to see drones, though, is whirring through her residential neighbourhood to deliver packages as Amazon has proposed. Instead, she envisions an aerial highway where massive drones carry cargo in 40-foot containers to drone airports where surface transportation takes care of the last-mile delivery. “To replace surface transportation with air transportation might be very economical and feasible,” Ms. Devine said. “That is what I would see for drones to become more of a disruptive technology, rather than seeing them as fleets for delivering beer.”

While drones have the potential to eliminate some jobs in the supply chain, Ms. Devine doubts they will put brokers or freight forwarders out of business. That’s because shippers will still need someone to help them move their goods. “What I really expect at the CIFFA conference, particularly with its focus on looking at new technologies, is we’re going to be looking at ways that freight forwarders and brokers can extend their areas of business to take advantage of technology,” Ms. Devine said.

Digital disruption

The last words of wisdom at the conference are scheduled to come from intellectual capital expert Dr. Nick Bontis, a professor of strategic management McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton. Among the bullet points he’ll cover are how to cope with digital disruption, better manage change, improve productivity and efficiency, and speed up innovation through collaboration. In discussing digital disruption, he’ll touch on two areas: information bombardment, and disruptive technologies.

“Information bombardment is this idea that we’re basically getting bombarded and hosed with two much data and information — email, tweets, messages, text messages,” said Dr. Bontis, who authored a 2011 book titled Information Bombardment: Rising Above the Digital Onslaught. To deal with that, he offers such prescriptions as using advanced email features to create folders for assigned projects or creating simple code words to identify projects in email subject lines.

“Generally speaking the average person in Canada receives 84 emails per day,” Dr. Bontis said. “And out of those 84, only eight, or 10 per cent, are critical for you and your stakeholders in terms of making an impact on the business.”

On the technology side, he’ll point to famous disruptors in other industries — such Airbnb and Uber —and ask, “What are some of the technological advances that could impact transportation?” That might include RFID tags that are GPS-enabled on the cargo side, as well as companies like Tesla that are pioneering autonomous driving, he said.

He owns a Tesla vehicle and has experienced its disruptive power in another way — through email alerts. But, he says, “the real magic” of the Internet of Things will come when the things communicate with each other, such as when his Samsung smart watch shares vital signs data with information that his Japanese-made Toto smart toilet collects about his digestive tract. “So I’m going to talk a lot about those types of examples of how this new world of information bombardment is not the traditional world of people coming after you,” Mr. Bontis said. “It’s about these inanimate objects.”

Learning and unlearning

He will also touch on drone technology, such as how it can be used to scan the roof of your house for damage to shingles and tiles before they lead to costly leaks. “And I’ll be using those types of examples to talk about this idea of how inanimate objects with the use of sensors, nanosensors, RFID technology, and GPS technology — that are all IT enabled — can meet up to make your job significantly easier and definitely less expensive in the long run.”

Under the bullet point of managing change, he’ll focus on the tension between learning and unlearning. The latter refers to a company recognizing a costly blunder and deciding to state emphatically in its strategic plan that it’s not going to repeat the mistake. “I think that’s a very, very important feature in your ability to manage change,” he said. “You need to know specifically what you can and, more importantly, what you cannot do.”

Though Dr. Bontis admits that he has limited experience in freight forwarding, he has spoken to other transportation organizations, including a recent session for customs brokers and border officials. “But, full disclosure: I’m a strategy professor, and transportation is not my expertise,” he said. As the conference’s closing speaker, one of his roles is ensure all the attendees leave with smiles on their faces and feeling a little more energetic as they return to work. “That’s really the task that I hope to achieve,” Dr. Bontis said.