Technology breakthroughs are just the beginning. Extending them across entire industries makes them disruptive.
(Article originally published in Sept/Oct 2021 edition.)
Across industries and markets the label “disruptive” has been appropriated by seemingly countless products and services. The maritime sector is no different, appearing at times to be heavy with revolutionary novelties and light on meaningful solutions.
Among this crowded field of claimants to the title, however, true maritime disruptors continue to challenge industry paradigms. Not content with the vogue, these innovators instead leverage new technologies to nurture value-added relationships in the pursuit of holistic, visionary change.
Disruption theory was introduced in 1995 by Clayton M. Christensen in the pages of the Harvard Business Review. As outlined in his original presentation of the theory, Christensen aligns the act of disruption with processes typically championed by small, risk-taking organizations that successfully challenge the industry juggernauts.
As these large, risk-averse providers focus their resources on more profitable market segments, the smaller start-ups and entrepreneurs create disruptions via unique offerings – technologically advanced but simpler, more affordable solutions for smaller clients left behind. Despite having fewer resources available to them, these rogues rise up in support of marginalized markets, thereby capturing critical industry space.
Applying technology for its own sake, however, often creates limited results. Even combined with keen market insights, tech innovations are never guaranteed to be successful, much less disruptive. It’s the ability to address the needs of specific clients and recognize the benefits across sectors and industries that creates the greatest opportunities. By extending this effort, smaller organizations frequently find success as disruptors beyond simply using emerging technologies to create bespoke products and services that cater to the demands of their customers.
Houston-based OneStep Power Solutions is an example. With the offshore energy sector moving into more demanding environments, reliability of increasingly complex systems is critical. Recognizing that existing standards didn’t adequately address the rigorous needs of the energy industry, OneStep completely reimagined the validation of vessel power system reliability, developing tailored solutions by working with onshore industry testing protocols.
An innovative approach, for sure, but Founding Director Sarah Whiteford attributes more of the company’s success to “striving to understand how we can add value, interrupting the status quo by supporting clients within the remit of their existing operations.” This perspective is shared by many potential disruptors who believe a return to more personalized tools and services is necessary to deal with new challenges.
“Shipboard systems and remote management technologies are evolving, challenging existing standards,” says Mat Bateman, owner of Keelson Marine Assurance. “With better data management and improved understanding of competency development, these same challenges create opportunities to foster proficiency across subjects while simultaneously tailored to our client’s individual needs.” As a marine consultancy, Keelson’s services include customized virtual reality training and Web-based professional development programs.
Though professional development of the workforce is traditionally not an area in which the marine industry has excelled, colleges and training centers are applying innovative technologies toward creating accessible avenues of education on a larger scale. Orange Coast College (OCC) in Newport Beach, California recently opened a new facility equipped with a state-of-art Wartsila Voyage simulator.
Sarah Hirsch, Director of OCC’s Waterfront Campus, sees the technology as a game-changer for West Coast businesses: “Disruptive technology allows OCC to train personnel alongside industry partners supporting projects in research, training and renewable energy.” Such tech is attractive to a variety of stakeholders, creating what OCC instructor Karen Prioleau calls “organic opportunities at growth through diversity.” Students and seasoned professionals leverage technology to enhance the learning process while simultaneously improving the industry.
Since 1995, the definition of disruptor has evolved beyond a descriptor for companies to products and services that are more accessible than existing alternatives. Consequently, industry incumbents play a significant role in championing innovation and disruption, which typically begin in new markets. And as the world continues to reel from COVID-19 and other upheavals, new markets are emerging everywhere.
While the big incumbents remain less likely to originate disruptive innovation, organizations regardless of size are considering how they must adapt to support the changing needs of individual clients and shifting industries. Some choose to launch or otherwise support – through financial and other resources – smaller, independent entities. In this manner, they can diversify their portfolios by supporting innovation (and potentially attracting new clients) while retaining the strength of their core business. Should these new initiatives succeed, the incumbents benefit from innovation that may have otherwise disrupted their core business.
Others choose to face the challenges head-on. Mark Darley, Marine and Offshore Director of class society and consultancy Lloyd’s Register (LR), says his organization “continues to stand as a ready and trusted partner, navigating through the last three industrial revolutions and actively supporting our customers and partners through this fourth one.” LR embraces new technology and has continued to develop a number of its digital twin technologies, offering predictive maintenance solutions and more efficient operations throughout a vessel’s lifecycle.
Throughout the pandemic – itself a disruptive force – LR leaned heavily on innovations already in development. “Our existing digital class services made it easier for clients to achieve compliance by leveraging digital technologies to classify their assets, delivering safety compliance in a more cost-efficient manner,” Darley notes. LR is a leader among large organizations progressively advancing services to ensure that vessels and companies maintain compliance with regulations and standards in an increasingly digital age.
Disruption doesn’t have to be technical innovation. It can be something that changes the way business is conducted with impacts on individual mariners, the industry and the global community. Take, for example, the mounting importance placed on Environmental, Social and Governance issues, or ESG, where it’s not the technologies being developed that are disruptive but rather the objectives to which such innovations are applied that’s disruptive.
While many industry players are trending toward alternative fuel usage, ReSynth International is pragmatically focused on the spaces between hydrocarbon fuels and their alternatives, recognizing that a commitment to alternatives without a transition is not practical. “Many clean energy alternatives are limited by immense cost and support infrastructure,” says COO Antonio Colon. “Our role is to educate the market and extend the life of existing liquid fuels by increasing efficiency and reducing their carbon footprint.”
Pioneering maritime start-ups like ReSynth understand the reality of the transition to clean energy. Instead of being intimidated by its challenges, they welcome the potential held by innovation for incremental improvement. Disruptive innovations do not immediately catch on in the mainstream but must be proven in the market over time. More importantly, the benefit of the technology cannot be recognized without being inclusive of the human element as implied in Christensen’s original theory.
Women Offshore is one such entity focused on shifting paradigms. As an organization that supports women in the maritime sector, it utilizes social media and other platforms to promote opportunities for this growing segment of the workforce. Founder Ally Cedeno doesn’t necessarily believe the technology by itself is disruptive, but when used to create a more level playing field it can certainly result in “good trouble.”
“Women have long been invisible in the maritime industry,” she explains, “but through social media and the Women Offshore platforms we’re able to shine a light on professional women across the industry. It allows us to stand proudly as examples to others considering maritime careers.”
Much like the advantages touted by Keelson and OCC, Cedeno credits the increasing connectedness and visibility that technology provides as the actual disruptor in the industry.
Champions of Positive Change
Particularly in the realm of ESG and crew training, disruptors are rarely techno-anarchists bent on wreaking havoc. ReSynth’s Colon describes true innovators as “champions of positive change, asking the difficult questions, challenging the norms and creating unique opportunities.”
More often, they’re patient idealists who use innovation to inspire progress. The objectives could be defined as disruptive by some, but like the marginalized market segments discussed earlier, critical new opportunities can be created for those whose concerns have historically lacked the attention of the industry.
Ultimately, disruption is defined not by the label but by the actions of the pioneers who seek meaningful, proactive solutions and partnerships that span industry boundaries for the benefit of a broad range of stakeholders.
Marine engineer and consultant Chad Fuhrmann writes regularly for the magazine.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.