What can the maritime industry learn from the brain?

5 min read
21 Oct 2020
Maria Stambler

A recent study suggests that global liner shipping networks and the brain might have many features in common. How can this research benefit the maritime industry? 

A study by researchers in Germany and China has revealed new insights into global shipping networks by using advanced mathematical tools derived from brain network analysis. The researchers say that brain networks and liner shipping networks show surprising similarities since they are both spatially embedded networks that utilise nodes. The new research could have important implications for improving efficiency in the container shipping industry.

Making connections

Dr. Carlo Vittorio Cannistraci, one of the study’s two initiators, hadn’t previously researched the maritime industry, but says the sea is in his blood. Cannistraci, head of the Biomedical Cybernetics Group at the Biotechnology Center (TU Dresden, Germany) and head of the Center for Complex Network Intelligence at the Tsinghua Laboratory of Brain and intelligence (Tsinghua University, China), comes from a long line of Sicilian seafarers and fishermen. He spent his childhood listening to their stories about their visits to various continents, seas, and harbours. Around three years ago, Cannistraci was at a scientific conference where he came across the poster of a Chinese colleague, Dr. Mengqiao Xu, who was analysing connectivity in global liner shipping networks (GLSN). 

Xu, now Associate Professor in the School of Economics and Management at China’s Dalian University of Technology, got the initial idea some 10 years ago during her time as a graduate student at Dalian Maritime University. She has since been focusing her research on global liner shipping networks together with advanced network science tools.

Cannistraci says that the poster brought back memories from his childhood.

“My research deals with network science applied to biological systems and neuroscience, and with brain-inspired computing,” Cannistraci says. “However, when I saw that poster, I had an intuition and a flashback. I recovered the stories and explanations of my seafaring relatives and then I advanced the hypothesis that maritime network structure displays a trade-off between high transportation efficiency and low-wiring cost, similarly to the one we know is present in brain networks, which is influenced by the modular organisation that partition the brain and its connectivity in separated brain areas supported by a structural core.” 

Shared rules for organisation and functionality

Many complex systems – including the brain and the shipping industry – share basic rules of self-organisation and economical functionality that involve segregation in peripheral areas and integration in a central core. In their study, Cannistraci, Xu, and their colleagues set out to quantify the tendency of networks to display this peculiar modular organisation. Xu explains that studies of brain networks have found that brain hubs (i.e., specific cortical brain regions that have the largest number of neural connections to other regions) play an important role in enabling efficient neural communication in the brain. This study of GLSN finds that the efficiency of global liner shipping cargo transportation relies on a few gateway-hub ports (i.e. those ports that serve as the major points that connect their host regions with the outside world).

Cannistraci says that the researchers did not set out to do a comparative study of the types of nodes in a brain network and a global liner shipping network.

“However, since many tools and principles adopted in our study were developed in order to analyse brain networks, a natural consequence is that they share many similarities in organisation,” Cannistraci says. “Many parts of the tools and the intuition of the study come from fundamental concepts developed in brain networks.”

To put it more simply, “the authors attempt to use mathematical methods to describe the structure of the GLSN, and some of these methods have been developed for brain research,” explains Markus Mannevaara, Director, Software Development at Wärtsilä. 

Increasing efficiency through science

Maritime transport is by far the most cost-effective way to move goods and raw materials across the globe: around 80% of global trade by volume and over 70% of global trade by value are carried by sea and are handled by ports all over the world. Therefore, making the infrastructure as efficient as possible is vital for international trade and sustainable economic development. Studying the modular structure of brain networks could provide insight into how to adjust the structure of shipping networks to increase efficiency.

“In particular, from the perspective of the maritime transportation sector, the finding that a few ports form a cohesive structural core and support long-distance maritime transportation worldwide has several practical implications,” Cannistraci says.

First, the study may help individual liner shipping companies better design their service networks through their selection of locations for hub ports. 

“Specifically, our study helps to quantitatively understand how the selected hub nodes can serve as trans-shipment and switching points to improve the overall efficiency and economy of cargo transportation in the entire network. Indeed, the hub-and-spoke network configuration has been widely adopted by shipping companies in the design of liner shipping service networks, and one of the most crucial issues in designing such network configurations is to strategically select hub nodes,” Xu explains.

Secondly, well-positioned ports enabled by frequent and regular liner shipping services are key to countries’ access to global markets. Cannistraci, Xu and their colleagues suggest that ports with the largest gateway-ness values form a structural core that is positioned at the centre of the GLSN, and thus the proposed measures of gateway-ness and gateway-hub structural core can have policy relevance to quantitative monitoring of the position of ports in the GLSN.

More work to be done

That said, the researchers admit that it is still too early to answer what specific insights maritime shipping can glean from brain network science, because the two systems may have evolved under different constraints and researchers have yet to carefully analyse such issues.   

“We demonstrated that analytical methodology and concepts of brain network organization can impact maritime industry data analysis. Future studies might consider investigating whether the innovative tools developed in this maritime study might find applications back in brain science,” says Cannistraci. 

Although the research findings don’t actually state whether any of the key values bear similarities to networks found in the brain, Mannevaara believes there is something the industry can learn from it. 

“The work first establishes whether or not the mathematical methods actually can describe features of global maritime shipping, and the methods do unveil a structure describing global players and regional clustering,” Mannevaara says. “Perhaps most interesting is that they were able to identify which ports globally play a significant role in contributing to a country’s international trade value, which are almost the same as which ports have the highest trade volume, but not exactly the same.”

“That information could at least in principle be used by nations to decide on infrastructure investment or trade policy to foster development that favours a country’s position in international trade."

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