I very much enjoyed taking part in a stimulating panel discussion at the brilliant Smart Maritime Network’s Singapore conference yesterday afternoon. The ‘Creating value for technology users‘ panel was vibrantly led by Kris Kosmala, with Patrik Desanti-Fettkenheuer, Peter Schellenberger and Steen Lund making up the experienced and insightful cohort.

One of the fundamental questions raised was if the term ‘value’ itself was overused within the marine and maritime domain. The answer from the panel was both swift robust – if anything, the key maritime industry players thought that it was actually under-used.

The maritime sector is no different to every other industry pushing towards greater digitalisation – how do you navigate the huge amount of new product offers to pick the best? While you can obviously look positively at the exciting range of technology coming to Blue Economy and related markets, there is also an argument that there is almost too much.

Decision-makers tell us regularly that they tire a little of flashy PowerPoint presentations that focus far too prominently on the technology capabilities rather than the value it will deliver. Also – with new opportunities appearing so swiftly – there is the constant worry amongst commissioners that if they invest in one product on a multi-year contract, another – perhaps better – one will come along before the ink is dry on the deal.

Starting points

The gently circling theme in all of this related to the genesis of new products and services – do they start with the technological capability or the user need? There is a huge graveyard of dead ocean technology projects out there that came to life because they were technically feasible but not, in the end, commercially attractive as they did not manage to nail the value that they could provide.

Well-worn sales methodology tells you to understand the economic buyer, the user buyer and the technical buyer. In many ways, the economic buyer can be the easiest to satisfy, if you have the right evidence, of course. Potential bottom line return on investment is pretty black and white, though the point was made that evidence underpinning promises can be opaque.

Proper conversations with user buyers in the maritime environment can rarely be anything other than illuminating – unless you don’t want to listen to what they have to say.

I was reminded by the unfortunate case of one of the fall-outs of India’s Cyclone Ockhiincident in 2017 – where, sadly, at least 300 local fishermen lost their lives – was a powerful reminder of not overlooking the importance of satisfying the end user. Kerala’s Fisheries minister stated that her department had provided fishermen with satellite-enabled safety technology previously, in the form of emergency search and rescue beacons that tapped into Low Earth Observation satellites to broadcast their location to emergency services when activated. However, the Minister continued, it became apparent that many fishermen didn’t actually take the devices with them, preferring to rely on ‘natural warnings’ instead. To add insult to injury, it was eventually discovered that the devices were often left at home as playthings for the fishermen’s children. Not only did this mean that they were not protecting themselves when out at sea, but the trigger-happy children playing with the devices were also reported to have created a number of false alarms that wasted the time of the Navy and Coast Guard. Don’t get the users on board, the thing won’t get used.

That leaves the technical buyer, whose mind is often pulled in several directions with thoughts of integration with existing systems, potential new pressures on data management infrastructure and additional exposure to cyber security issues. And that’s before you even start to think about broader culture change issues that may need to be addressed across multi-disciplinary staff teams.

Open minds

That’s not to say that good product value can’t be developed when you start with the tech – as long as you go into development with an open mind and are willing and able to flex. Take autonomous vessels. They can offer so many things to so many people but the more you engage with industry users, the more nuanced picture of value will be developed. One major offshore manager told us, for instance, that he understood the basic capabilities of emerging autonomous data-collection platforms, but what really attracted him wasn’t necessarily what it could do once in the water, rather the potential for reducing the time spent on planning the logistics of seabed surveys (which, he said, took up 90% of his team’s associated effort). The quick launch and recovery possibilities of autonomous systems offered the most exciting value for that one particular user, despite the sales team not leading with that.

Speaking regularly and openly to those on both sides of the Blue Economy seller-customer fence, these relationships run the risk of being counter-productive if not managed sensitively. We have often heard sellers criticise their potential customer based for being too conservative, risk averse, slow to make decisions and ‘unsophisticated’ when it comes to tech: “They don’t get it”, we hear (as if that’s the customer’s fault!).

On the other side of the coin, sellers can quickly fall back on complaints of ‘hard sell’, engage potential tech providers when they haven’t really thought through their own strategy or what it is that they need (though dialogue can be useful to hone that). Perhaps most damaging is the tendency not to give honest feedback on the tech solution being offered – giving open, constructive feedback, even if it focuses on what isn’t attractive, can help drive towards better focus and articulations of value.

It’s good to talk

So yes, good product development relies on strong, open-minded dialogue. The more industry can engage in industrial research with tech partners, or support funded proofs of concept where honest feedback can be delivered, the greater the possibility for good product development that points in the right direction. On the seller side, perhaps more start-ups can build their business plans on a sounder understanding of just how long it can take to prove concepts and get customers on board. Those jaunty business plans that optimistically jump directly from product development to sales growth are the ones that most often end up in the valley of death.

Within that context, I also highlighted the importance of grant and innovation funding. Feedback from one of the excellent earlier panel sessions rightly praised the amount of innovation funding available in Singapore, but bemoaned the fact that many startups ‘didn’t have the bandwidth’ to access it. This may betray a lack of understanding of the value of such funds. It’s so easy just to look at them as a dollar sign, when in fact their greater value is in helping embed some deeper thinking of value. The better ones push you to define your market, articulate your user value and engage with industry to test and validate your ideas – all things that any successful business will do anyway, so why not flow some money into them, and utilise the funder’s industry networks to help you progress?

At NLA International we’re fortunate enough to be constantly reminded of the value of such exercises. We’re currently working, for example, on a market development project with the brilliantly innovative UK company FrontM, in a project kindly supported by Innovate UK. FrontM excel in using Edge AI to provide connectivity in remote environments and are extending their offer into the fisheries market. The project has enabled them to conduct detailed market research to help focus energies and to undertake highly collaborative user research across a range of stakeholders (regulators, fishermen, Fisheries Producer Organisations, traders and NGOs). It is hugely encouraging that each stakeholder group has been extremely generous with their time, thoughts and support. This has already helped FrontM to focus in on the most useful functionality, which will then be tested / validated in full industry workshops in the new year – which again has been welcomed by industry stakeholders in a number of countries.

More engagement equals more focus equals more value – everyone wins! From the willingness I sensed from fellow panellists, I’m sure much more of this is to come in the maritime industry and across the broader Blue Economy.

Thanks again to the amazing Cathy Hodge and her team at the Smart Maritime Network for once more providing the platform for such conversations to flourish in an industry pushing hard to find productive ways forward; and to my fellow panellists for such a stimulating session.

Andy Hamflett
Director, NLA International

PS Similar themes are explored in much more detail across several Blue Economy sectors in our book Technology and the Blue Economy, recently published by Kogan Page. Exploration of over 200 case studies and initiatives from the past 18 months illustrate the wide range of innovative technologies coming to market, and the themes that reach across all related industries.