Is it all Uber?

Paris last week. Scorching hot. Mad taxi drivers blockading the city and turning over any cars they thought were Uber taxis. The smartphone app is disrupting the established taxi business everywhere, and the simplicity of its model, putting drivers with cars together with people who need a ride, means it won’t be going away.

While outside the taxi drivers were fighting digitalisation, I was in a cool hotel conference room listening to presentations on digitalisation in shipping. My biggest client has decided they will go digital, although they have not yet worked out what that means. So we heard from a jolly man from BIMCO about e-navigation and a jolly consultant from Cap Gemini who knows about digitalisation, and they both talked about how digitalisation transforms industries. They even showed us a patronising and silly little video paid for by an EU research project into this very topic.

It was after lunch, it was a good lunch and it was a long day, but what I understood was that they think digitalisation will change shipping but they don’t know how yet. They expect e-navigation to become the norm but are not sure what it is or what benefits it might bring. There was a lot of talk about the importance of information and connectivity.

As I listened I thought back twenty-five years to when I was a journalist, and I remembered listening to the very same presentation. There was a lot of talk then about paperless commerce and how information would change world trade. I remembered writing up an interview with a logistics business leader who said his firm would become an information highway.

I thought it was boloney then, and it is still boloney today. Ships already e-navigate, if you mean relying excessively on GPS and radar and not looking out of the window. Not much will change there. And the fundamental business of shipping means that information is not that important. Because ships are slow and the world is big information usually has time to get there first before the goods it refers to even if you stencil it onto a goatskin papyrus and send it by snail mail.

If you have a tonne of iron ore on a dock in Brazil and you need to use that ore in China then there is no alternative to picking it up, putting it into a ship, driving the ship half way round the world to China and then unloading it. Smart phones can’t do that, nor can information flows.

Uber can replace one aggressive rip-off taxi driver with a town hall badge with another aggressive taxi driver moonlighting in his mum’s car, but it does not herald a technology which will disrupt shipping in the same way. We still need ships, and we always will. It’s not Uber yet.

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