Brexit the ‘gruffalo’ in the room at London International Shipping Week

Now that the carousel of London International Shipping Week 2017 has come to a stop, how to sum up the 160-plus events on the official programme that took place in a week where Brexit loomed ever large?

Filling a conference room can be a daunting enough task on occasions, but especially so when there are as many as 15 others events taking place the same morning or afternoon, as the chairman of one organiser pointed.

The week also really delivered on its ‘International’ tag with a strong presence from overseas maritime centres such as China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, Cyprus, Greece, Norway and the US.

Events on China - as at the Baltic Exchange and with Maritime London’s Belt and Road conference – proved particularly so, attendees including a delegation led by the Hong Kong Secretary for Transport, while the 10th Annual Capital Link conference in London claimed the largest participation by shipowners, many drawn from the New York Greek and London Greek communities.

Global trading links were always going to feature heavily at LISW17, overshadowed as it was by the coming Brexit. But rather than being the “elephant” in the room - as the cover of one magazine would have it – it was really more the “gruffalo” of children’s fiction fame: everyone name-checked it but no-one knew what it would actually mean.

The Brit mood was a show of defiance, as symbolised by the Red Ensign flying over Tower Bridge all week as a special favour for LISW.

But in many cases the underlying reality was rather less than met the eye, as was the case with the challenge laid down at the week’s opening by the UK Minister for Shipping’s for the UK Shipping Register to double its fleet from 16m gt to 30m gt – actually a target set by UKSR Advisory panel two years ago but with the 2020 target now removed, to take account of the extra time needed to effect any post-Brexit rule changes.  

Autonomous shipping was another subject on everyone’s lips, with the Minister challenging the UK to become leader in the field; Lloyd’s Register also published a new report examining the future of autonomous maritime systems.

But IACS chairman Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen , also DNV GL – Maritime ceo, commented that with the exception of a few niche applications, autonomous in the sense of fully unmanned shipping might prove a “blind alley.”

Even Mikael Mäkinen, president – Marine of Rolls-Royce, a leading advocate of autonomous shipping, admitted in one of the closing presentations of the main LISW conference that automation represented a set of tools “that help the crew, not replace the crew”, requiring new skill sets but by no means rendering the human element obsolete.

Posted 18 September 2017

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Bob Jaques

Editor of Seatrade Maritime Review

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