Putting people first - 4iR moves into maritime

In its report – The Ocean Economy in 2030 – the OECD identifies that the maritime industry is poised to undergo a profound transition and create the potential to double its contribution to global value creation.


Underpinning the sector’s ability to realise this potential is how well it exploits the value of a new spread of emerging and disruptive technologies. These are fusing the physical, digital and natural worlds, often grouped together under the label ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (4iR).

There is no doubt that for maritime organisations 4iR will have a significant impact on future skills, workforce, growth and prosperity. Harnessing the value of this ever-widening range of innovation for maritime is challenging because rapid development is largely being driven outside highly-regulated markets. The scale of the benefit is such that businesses are eager to exploit 4iR technologies so they are already being adopted in some commercial environments without an in-depth understanding of how they affect everything from workforce safety to economic stability. The mismatch between the time required to realise their potential and the time required to develop the breadth of understanding necessary to safely dock them into existing systems and processes, leads to vulnerabilities that can never be acceptable in the high-criticality situations often present in maritime. 

Against this backdrop there is a critical need to establish a way of rapidly and accurately converting the theory of 4iR into practical, deployable capabilities that can be safely integrated into the existing maritime ecosystem for maximum benefit at the lowest risk.

It will therefore be important to recognise that 4iR provokes fundamental changes in more than just the technology we use, but also in the way that we use it, transforming the relationship between people and tech. Understanding this and putting it at the heart of 4iR deployment strategies will be imperative to the successful translation of 4iR concepts into safe and effective operational capabilities.

At QinetiQ we believe the changes in user interaction with technology will fall into three broad categories:

  1. The nature of maritime work changes

    4iR will have a profound impact on the nature of maritime work. It will revolutionise what work is done, by whom, where, and how. It not yet clear how specific roles will evolve but there are some pointers indicating the direction of travel. Importantly, future seafarers may not actually go to sea. When we look at future skills, we see a greater emphasis on digital and technical skills; new ways of working collaboratively with autonomous systems; and remote working as the norm. We anticipate that these will continue to change and evolve as the technologies develop and working with machines becomes considerably more commonplace in maritime environments.

  2. Integration of people and technology increases

    Whilst the use of artificial intelligence is expected to grow significantly within maritime, the evidence indicates that very few roles will actually be replaced entirely by technology. Much of the automation will be at a task-level where machines can do things better than we can but a person will still be required to oversee, intervene as required, and hold accountability. In a maritime context, a useful example is the introduction of complex algorithms that can automatically optimise route designs or the operating conditions of a ship. The operation of the ship itself still needs people at the centre but those individuals may have fewer tactical tasks and more strategic oversight. The upshot is that future roles will be a blend of people and machines and the seafarers of the future will need to be highly skilled and highly trained in both traditional maritime tasks and 4iR technology operation.

  3. Human-centric design becomes vital

If we want the impact of 4iR to be positive we need to design 4iR technology to be deployable. Both of the points above suggest we need to design it with people in mind from the outset and test and evaluate their suitability for human interaction. The world of technology can be quite insular. There is a tendency to think about technology first and then the economic/business benefits. People who have to work with the technology become an afterthought. This leads to systems that are technically superior but frustrating, difficult to use, and sometimes even dangerous.

Considerable time is usually spent integrating novel technical systems with one another but rarely is the same time (or in fact any time) taken to integrate them with the way people work. Making 4iR a deployable reality hinges on our ability to shift our mind set and acknowledge that however complex and advanced the technology we implement, people will be a critical presence for the foreseeable future.

We also need to underpin the activation of 4iR capabilities in maritime with a more agile test and evaluation process – one that can match the pace of technical development and adapt to accommodate the unpredictable direction of innovation. Only by generating accurate insight on integrating new 4iR technologies safely and successfully into the workforce across maritime environments can we maximise their potential. With a rapid and more flexible way to guide human/machine interaction, the sector can accelerate the process of introducing emerging technologies into new maritime strategies. So when converting conceptual ideas into real deployable 4iR capability, designing applications with users in mind from the outset is vital.

There is no doubt that the pace of change has accelerated dramatically, driven by a shortage of skilled seafarers; a continuous pressure to drive down operating costs; and the emergence of new technologies that can help address both of these challenges. The outcome will be a crop of new market entrants boasting new business models that will challenge the status quo. They will exploit artificial intelligence, data, connectivity, autonomous systems, simulation technologies and market opportunity to disrupt the maritime industry. Established giants who can’t or won’t adapt will struggle. It’s the vibrant new enterprises making 4iR technologies a real route to competitive advantage that will attract the strongest investment, the largest customers, and the most talented people. But to get there they will need to appreciate how to build the technology with people as operators in mind from the outset. Enhancing the ability of existing workforces to realise their potential by embracing the principles of human-centric design is at the heart of any successful 4iR deployment strategy.