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Managing port innovation: the experience of the Port of Barcelona

Innovation is part of the sector's DNA. Ports are the cornerstone of an ecosystem of companies and port communities used to network and share information in a digitalised way. To speak of port innovation is to speak of open and collaborative innovation.

Posted on 07.21.2022

Carles Rúa is the Strategic Projects and Innovation Manager at Port de Barcelona and Director of the Master’s degree in Executive in Supply Chain Management at the UPC.

Estefania Sanles is Project Innovation Leader at the Port of Barcelona.

The Port's Innovation Plan defines it as the conversion of new ideas into value for the port community, its customers and society. (GettyImages/PierNext)

Currently, we are experiencing the evolution of the business. Innovation is no longer a concept linked only to technology companies; it has become an imperative need in any economic sector.

Moreover, the pandemic has also made resilience a requirement that is irremediably linked to the survival of companies. And of the ports. 

Thus, in order to provide a solution to the disruptions and changes in the environment, we must systematise the improvement of our products and services, of our processes, of our strategies, of our business models... In short, we must innovate.

Innovation, strategic for the Port of Barcelona

The port sector finds itself in this situation. Despite being a very traditional sector with difficulties in establishing a change of mentality, ports can no longer compete solely on infrastructure, as the margin for differentiation on this point is scarce. 

Infrastructure is increasingly becoming a commodity. To  be different and competitive, it is necessary to build a layer of services, a layer of innovation, a layer of added value.

The Port of Barcelona, as set out in its IV Strategic Plan, although based on previous work, took the decision to position itself as an innovative port. For some years now it has been working through different initiatives in the search for this differentiation, creating added value not only for the port community and its clients, but for society as a whole.

In its recently published Innovation Plan, the Port defines innovation as the conversion of new ideas into value for the port community, its customers and society.

Based on its own innovation model defined on the basis of the Smart Port concept, the Port of Barcelona's Innovation Plan 2021-2024 sets out the lines of action that will be its roadmap for the coming years:

  1. Creating appropriate innovation management structures
  2. Establishing agreements and alliances with its innovative environment
  3. To create an innovative ecosystem focused on the blue economy
  4. Disseminate innovation

Through these 4 actions, the Port of Barcelona aims to:

  • Strengthen its role as an engine for economic recovery 
  • Promote innovation and digitalisation of the port-logistics ecosystem
  • Promote synergies with the city.

Managing innovation

At the beginning of 2021, the Port of Barcelona changed its internal management structure to emphasise the strategic and cross-cutting nature of innovation. The Innovation and Business Strategy sub-directorate was created, reporting to both the President's Office and Management, as well as the Innovation Department.

Participatory structures have also been defined, both within the port authority itself and at the level of the entire port community with the following tools:

  • A Digital Committee 
  • An internal R+D+i technical committee
  • The Strategy and Innovation Working Group of the Port Community Governing Board at external level.

However, innovation requires agility, something that is not easy to achieve in a public administration such as the port authority. For this reason, the Port of Barcelona is in the process of creating the BCN Port Innovation Foundation, a private foundation whose aim is to accelerate innovation processes in the port community.

"The creation of the BCN Port Innovation Foundation will facilitate the management of innovative initiatives and the acceleration of digitalisation, environmental and energy transition projects that will make the transformation of Barcelona and its port possible."
- Emma Cobos, Director of Innovation and Strategy of the Port of Barcelona

Innovative partners

With the creation of this foundation, the Port aims to accelerate digitalisation, environmental and energy transition projects that will enable the transformation not only of the Port itself, but also of the entire city of Barcelona. Initially, the foundation will have the participation of the companies Ackcent and Aggity  as founding trustees and will be open to the entry of new partners.

Agreements and partnerships with innovative agents

As highlighted at the beginning, ports have the initial advantage of having an ecosystem formed by a consolidated port community. The Port of Barcelona, moreover, is located in a city that is a reference in many respects, but particularly as a technological capital at European level and a centre for the creation of start-ups

This is a competitive attribute that must be exploited to the maximum through the search for strategic alliances with close agents, many of whom have already been working on innovation for years.

Acció, Barcelona City Council, Barcelona Activa, Tech Barcelona, Consorci de la Zona Franca de Barcelona, Mobile World Capital and Fira de Barcelona are some of the examples of agents with whom we are already working to achieve open and sustainable innovation through winning synergies.

And one cannot speak of open innovation without seeking the collaboration of universities, research centres and business schools; an area in which the Catalan capital also enjoys great prestige with, among others, 2 of the world's leading business schools (IESE and ESADE), renowned universities (UPC, UPF, UB, UAB, UOC,...) and leading research centres linked to logistics and the marine environment (CENIT-CIMNE, ICM,...).

The ecosystem of the Port of Barcelona. (Port de Barcelona/PierNext)

Talent, a driver of innovation

The creation of talent is key to the innovation strategy. In the port area, it is necessary to adapt the existing training offer to respond to the real needs of the sector and even to promote new qualifications and specific top-level training programmes. 

The existing training centres in the port area (Facultat de Náutica de Barcelona, Escola Europea-Intermodal Transport, Instituto de Náutica de Barcelona) have recently been joined by the  Instituto de Logística de Barcelona and ICIL, and the , World Ocean Council, the global blue economy investment and business organisation, will attract congresses and activities in the sector to Barcelona.

Without collaboration, there is no innovation

But in addition to innovation agents and training centres, collaboration with other ports is also key to the development of open innovation, through initiatives such as c chainPort, Smart Ports, MEDports or WPCAP, in which the Port of Barcelona plays an essential role.

Stimulating sectoral innovation: generating the ecosystem

The Port of Barcelona, in its Innovation Plan, has taken on the role of bringing together the entire surrounding ecosystem, promoting innovation focused on the blue economy. In addition to working on the agreements and alliances described above, the Port is immersed in the creation of an innovation district linked to the blue economy. 

This technological district includes the development of a network of innovation centres, including Pier01 and the future BlueTechPort. Thus, the Port of Barcelona is positioning itself as a testing area for prototypes and new developments and is consolidating its position as a space for training and talent creation.

Blue Tech Port will be a unique space that will be located in the current Sant Bertrán ‘tinglados’ or warehouses. It will host innovation companies, research centres, corporations from the logistics-port community that want to set up in an innovative and highly technological environment, and an accelerator. It will also have common spaces for the exchange of experiences and knowledge will be the headquarters of the new BCN Port Innovation Foundation and the Barcelona Logistics Institute.

Blue Tech Port will be, among other things, the new headquarters of the new BCN Port Innovation Foundation and the Barcelona Logistics Institute (Port de Barcelona).

Financing innovation

Another of the tools available to the Port of Barcelona to stimulate sectoral innovation is OpenPort, which should be understood as a space for relations between start-ups and the Barcelona port-logistics community. The Port organises challenges, hackathons, sectoral meetings, conferences, exchanges of experiences, events, etc.

One example of these events is the recent Tech Tour Maritime, Trade & Logistics 2022, the first international meeting of the sector in which some thirty start-ups from all over the world met with some twenty investment funds, which led to several rounds of financing.

Because we cannot forget the tools for financing innovation. In this regard, the Port of Barcelona already offers advice and facilitation for the Ports 4.0 Fund and has been participating for years in projects subsidised with European funds (Connecting Europe Facility, Horizon Europe, Interreg, etc.).

Dissemination of innovative activity

And following the approach to open innovation, as mentioned above, the dissemination of all initiatives and activities is key. To this end, the Port has, on the one hand, a platform that allows the different stakeholders to interact and share in the different advances: PierNext, the innovation blog led by the Port Authority, which is already a knowledge hub in the sector. 

At the same time, the Port is involved in various initiatives to disseminate innovation, such as the Smart Ports: Piers of the Future event, which has established itself as a meeting point and an example of inter-port collaboration in innovation and the blue economy.

Moreover, the transfer to Barcelona of the headquarters of the World Ocean Council will make the city a destination for entrepreneurs and investors from all over the world at the  Sustainable Ocean Summit and the Global Blue Finance Summit

These are just a few examples of initiatives that the Port of Barcelona is working on. Others will soon come to light, with the objective of consolidating the enclave and the entire city as a hub of innovation in the blue economy.

For more information, you can download the ebook 'Innovation by Port of Barcelona', available for free for subscribers of the PierNext's newsletter.