By Wendy Zatylny

Ports are one of the oldest sectors in Canada’s economy, but they are also among the most forward-looking. Innovation will bring transformational change to the cities that have ports.

A half century ago, an apparently simple idea revolutionized transportation: put the things you want to ship into a box – a container – and move the container onto whatever mode makes the most sense.

The container revolution sparked innovations across the logistics system. Terminals moved quickly to build the cranes and other infrastructure needed to unload containers and do it quickly.

The trucking industry boomed, loading containers onto rigs and delivering them near and far. Railways responded by adapting their own systems to lower their costs and deliver on time. They increased the height of their bridges and tunnels so they could handle double-stack containers.

The marine industry built ever larger ships. Before long, ships that could handle 8,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) and more, looked for ports that could handle their loads – requiring 2,000 truck moves, and 140 acres of terminal. Today, ships up to 22,000 TEUs are being built; destined for the Europe-Asia trade with ports and cranes ready to serve them.

For years, Canada’s ports sought innovative ways to meet the demand for larger ships. With this growth, most ports had reached their container-handling capacity. New urban development limited their ability to expand, so they looked for new ways to increase their efficiency and reduce container dwell time. To grow in the face of these constraints, further innovations increased trucking efficiency, brought rail sidings along the wharfs, and created “inshore terminals” so that, once unloaded, a container would move quickly to places like Kamloops, Edmonton or Regina for inspection and forwarding.

As the ships got bigger, the challenges grew in clearing below bridge spans and above shoals – a complex problem especially in tidal waters. GPS and tide gauges made clearing the bridges more reliable, and today microwave range finders measure the gap in real time. Innovation above water is also found underwater with draft clearance systems ensuring that vessels to pass safely over sandbars, taking the guesswork out of loading a ship. The end result is that more cargo can be loaded onto a ship without risk of it running aground.

Clearing bridges and avoiding shoals have traditionally been the responsibility of a ship master and crew. Using sensors, cameras, and navigation tools directed from an operation centre on shore, some ships will soon operate autonomously. This is more than simply a response to the perennial challenge of scarce labour. Autonomous ships reduce human error that accounts for most marine casualties. Some estimates predict autonomous ships will reduce costs by 44%, while not forsaking safety.

In the 21st century, security and safety of the system has become a top concern, and technologies have been applied to increase surveillance and connect more effectively with law enforcement. More than 350 video cameras controlled by a mobile command post oversee the Port of Montreal. In Prince Rupert, a shore-based radar system provides information to ship masters, the port authority, the RCMP and Coast Guard.

Another technology innovation involves new ways to solve the age-old problem of tracking ownership and delivery. In early colonial times, merchants who shipped products back and forth across the Atlantic – or their agents – had to accompany their goods. There was no other way to be sure they were delivered to the right destination. One of the great innovations of centuries past was to send ahead a bill of lading, but today it remains cumbersome, inefficient and open to fraud. Today, blockchain technology holds the potential to vastly streamline this process and make it more impervious to fraudulent use.

Many innovations derive from advances in information and communications technologies, and the pace of change will no doubt accelerate. By 2020, according to Forbes, some 26 billion devices will be connected to the internet and will be interoperable. Combining these advances with other technological innovations in such fields as robotics and artificial intelligence and ports enter a new era of the internet of things.

Already some ports are using technology to significantly streamline their operations. But perhaps the biggest impact will be the delivery of vast resources of Big Data by all these interoperable devices. This data can be used to understand and fix bottlenecks and reduce dwell time.

Around the world, port authorities are racing to find ways to turn their facilities into a smart port, where the data related to both the goods and the port operations is integrated. This adds another must-have to the growing list of infrastructure improvements: not just longer wharves, faster cranes, video surveillance. Add to all of that, increased Wifi bandwidth and faster, comparable data management capability.

It all adds up to a transformative change in the way logistics are managed. A harbour master’s workspace used to be consist of ledgers, clipboards and a pair of binoculars to keep track of ships. Today it looks more like the command deck of a starship.

But some far-reaching innovations don’t involve direct application of new technology; those involve human interactions – and how we make decisions.

In the 1990s, senior executives from railroads, airports, terminal operators, unions and the port authority came together to create the Vancouver Gateway Council. They all had a stake in attracting more Asian traffic and were willing to work together to do it.

In 2006, governments joined in to create the Asia Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative. Within five years, it had announced some 47 strategic transportation infrastructure projects across all four Western provinces. The collaboration was replicated with the Atlantic Gateway and Trade Corridor and the Ontario-Quebec Continental Gateway.

Around the world, this is seen as highly innovative. “Boy, you guys really have it figured out in Canada,” one Washington insider told the Association of Canadian Port Authorities. In Southeast Asia, another expert observed, “You Canadians have done a great job.”

Perhaps there is something in the Canadian psyche that makes such collaboration easier here. Perhaps, as a trading nation spread out over a land of vast distances, we are pushed to find innovative ways to work together. Perhaps the invention of the shipping container and the advent of intermodal transportation stimulated our creativity in a quest to make transportation seamless.

In the years ahead, that ability to work together will be applied to new challenges, such as building port clusters. The goal is to help port cities attract knowledge workers and research and development centres. As transportation becomes more driven by technology and innovation, a new generation of logistics workers and managers, technicians and engineers, researchers and experimenters will continue to push the frontiers of how we move goods. The transportation system that helped shape Canada’s past has a bright future.