Futurist K D Adamson’s predictions for the maritime industry are being discussed at the IMO. She says the future isn't somewhere we go; it is something we create. For shipping, this means its position "at the heart of the value and supply chain" might not be a given for much longer.
K D Adamson originally comes from advertising and strategic brand development, but her increasing work with technology and scenario planning led naturally towards futurism. Her special interest in the blue domain, maritime, and shipping industry is, in part, due to her familiarity with that world – her father was an officer in the Royal Navy, her husband is a naval architect by training and has run several maritime technology companies – and because she saw a big problem on the industry's horizon.
"Shipping sits at the heart of multiple value and supply chains, but several years ago there was a huge gap between what maritime and shipping was doing when it came to digital transformation and what other industries were doing. Shipping wasn't moving fast enough," she says.
For a long time, there have been no real competitors to shipping. But now, among other examples, China is investing in railways and the new Silk Road, while the race is on to build the first Elon Musk-inspired Hyperloop. Competition is on its way and shipping is falling behind.
Those might sound like harsh words, but Adamson loves the maritime industry. "I've worked across every industry you can name, but I always have great fun with shipping people, they're very straightforward and I kinda like that."
Yet the maritime industry didn't unanimously love her back when she began spelling out what digital disruption was going to look like for shipping, via the Futurenautics Maritime quarterly journal four years ago, described as 'Wired for shipping'.
But it came as no surprise to Adamson - in fact it meant she was doing her job. "If you give people ideas, you give them the permission to think differently," she says.
So while her ideas were once called ‘ludicrous’, her predictions for the maritime industry are now being discussed by the IMO.
"Take autonomous ships, a key topic in our first issue. The industry said it was ludicrous. If you mentioned crew-less ships, everyone threw rotten tomatoes at you," she says with a heartfelt and dry laugh. "But here we are three years later and it's basically mainstream and the IMO have said 'Yeah we're gonna do this'."
Adamson noticed a change in attitude in the third quarter of 2016. Shipping has always been a cyclical industry, but this downturn was proving so long that the maritime industry was worried.
"I noticed subtle changes from boardrooms in the maritime industry last year. It was partly driven by letting go of the idea that 'We just need to hold on, this is a cyclical downturn but it's OK, because we always come out the other side'. And then last year the mood shifted, when people started to really feel and fear that they weren't seeing any light at the end of the tunnel," she says.
Therefore, she argues, it's essential that shipping learns the lessons of other industries which have been hit by digital disruption, but failed to keep up. For example, the publishing industry made the mistake of focussing on the struggle between e-books and physical books, and missed the boat. "Then Amazon came along and created a platform that connected the creators of content with the consumers of content and basically ate the publisher's lunch," she says.
There are countless other examples proving that consumers themselves will use digital services before companies do. While record companies were busy viewing the internet with scepticism, listeners started sharing or stealing, music online. The same happened to the film industry. Crucially, digital developments made this all possible.
"It's wrong to focus on the book or the ship or even the CD, it's actually about business models," Adamson says.
She is not only aware of shipping's digital potential, but recognises shipping's many challenges. In a recent article titled ‘Regvolution’ she tackles the issue of regulation - often cited by ship operators as their biggest problem.
"The first thing to realise is that regulation isn't going to be the remit of regulators any longer," she wrote. "Digital products, services and assets are different. The legacy paradigm of one all-powerful regulator can't cope. What are required are new ownership ecosystems. Around vessels these are going to include owners, third-party managers, lenders, insurers, charterers, equipment manufacturers, connectivity suppliers, service providers, flag, class, and port state control. In some cases, those ecosystems will also include the end-consumer."
Adamson has made it her mission to identify how the future will impact the lives and expectations of people and businesses, whilst equipping them with the information, insight, and appetite to fully participate in its creation. As she says, "The future isn't somewhere we go, it's something we create," but to do so requires some context for the huge changes we face.
As a result she likens our times to the Renaissance. "There's an awful lot of parallels between that period and what we are seeing now, with global mega trends, changes in mind-sets, technological developments, and the focus on the individual," she says. "This time round it's being accelerated by the exponential growth of information-enabled technologies, which is why I refer to it as the 'e-naissance', the second Renaissance and the birth of the exponential age."
A writer and novelist, Adamson is also a sci-fi fan and has been since childhood. "Take Back to the Future Part II. Like all the other teenagers at that time I thought 'Wow, I want a hover board!' Everyone wanted a hover board. It's taken 30 years, but now we've got them. Sci-fi movies spread ideas, they implant alternative scenarios of what's possible in people's minds, they drive people forward."
Back to the Future, however, is easy-to-digest popular culture. There are bleaker films that have made an impression on Adamson, not least Blade Runner.
"That film introduces the kind of ethical questions we're going to have to deal with as a society very soon, because the androids have feelings too," she says, embarking on a ten-minute conversation about favourite scenes from the film. Finally, she notes that the most problematic thing about Blade Runner's vision of the future is that it's so depressing.
"That's a problem, I think, because sci-fi films are increasingly painting the future as a choice between dystopia or utopia. The truth is that the future will most likely be a bit of both."