June 07, 2021

The Contribution of Research and Innovation in the Oceans Economy

In an upcoming webinar, the South African International Maritime Institute (SAIMI) will be examining the strategies for the growth of the Oceans Economy beyond the first phase of Operation Phakisa. This article, the final in a series of three in preparation for the webinar, examines the value of Research and Innovation in the Oceans Economy. The cross-cutting areas of Skills Development and Capacity Building as well as Research for the six Operation Phakisa focus areas, lie close to the Institute’s purpose, as theoretical knowledge gained through education, experience built through practical application, and the ability to generate new ideas for the sector, are narrowly linked.

In 2014, the South African government launched Operation Phakisa for the Oceans Economy, a national initiative for fast-tracking maritime sector development. With Operation Phakisa reaching the end of its first phase of implementation in 2019, strategies and plans are needed to build upon the progress made and continue the drive towards sustainable long-term growth in the sector.

In an upcoming webinar, the South African International Maritime Institute (SAIMI) will be examining the strategies for the growth of the Oceans Economy beyond the first phase of Operation Phakisa. This article, the final in a series of three in preparation for the webinar, examines the value of Research and Innovation in the Oceans Economy. The cross-cutting areas of Skills Development and Capacity Building  as well as Research for the six Operation Phakisa focus areas, lie close to the Institute’s purpose, as theoretical knowledge gained through education, experience built through practical application, and the ability to generate new ideas for the sector, are narrowly linked.

While entirely new ideas are rare, creative and expansive thinking on Oceans Economy participation is taking hold widely. African examples include the launch of Nigeria’s first locally built warship, NNS Andoni, in 2012, the production of biofuel from invasive water hyacinth by residents of Kisumu, Kenya, as reported by the World Wildlife Fund Kenya in 2017, and Egypt’s leadership in African fish-farming and ranking as the 8th largest producer in the world, as reported by the Egypt Independent in 2019. Egypt has furthermore become a significant investor in seawater desalination and launched a feasibility study into desalination powered by renewable energy in 2020.

However, Europe provides the clearest example to illustrate the value of the link between research, innovation and the ocean-related industries. In particular, European shipbuilding has largely survived in recent years on new thinking, approaches, and constant innovation. The industry was globally dominant until the 1950s, however increasing competition from Asia resulted in a precipitous decline. As pointed out in the book Shipping and Globalization in the Post-War Era (2019), only eight of the world’s leading 100 shipyards were European by 2008, with the largest in 38th position. The continent’s shipbuilding industry, and others that depended upon it, responded by shifting their focus to high-value industry services, such as vessel design and process development. They further concentrated production on specialised vessels, such as dredgers and ferries, and on luxury market segments, such as cruise ships and motor yachts. According to the European Commission, shipbuilding on the continent held 6% of the global market share for vessels, and 35% for marine equipment, prior to the Coronavirus Pandemic. The industry further employed 120 000 people, a moderate improvement on 115 000 in 2011, suggesting that a degree of stability had been achieved. Trademap data indicates that the European Union (EU) exported Ships, Boats and Floating Structures to a value of approximately R1.68 trillion in 2020, a significant figure despite a decline from R1.75 trillion in 2019.

To retain competitiveness in high value products and services, the EU places a priority on research and innovation, with €79 billion (R1.3 trillion) invested in various projects over seven years under the EU’s recently completed Horizon 2020 Funding Programme. Initiatives for the Oceans Economy among the member states are guided by the Blue Growth Strategy, adopted in 2012, which recognises seven sectors, including research and innovation. The EU’s approach emphasises capacity-building, integration across research disciplines, and synergies between the member states. Projects mentioned in the 2021 EU Blue Economy Report include those dealing with carbon neutral fuels for ships and related infrastructure, renewable energy, such as floating offshore wind, marine biotechnology, sustainable seafood, and robotics, including research on underwater and maritime airborne drones.

Similar to Europe, China has also recently reached the end of a strategic planning period for support to technological development. As described in a 2014 report by the Innovation Centre Denmark on Chinese maritime research and development, the landscape for overall innovation in the country was guided at a high level until 2020 by the National Outline for Medium- and Long-Term Science and Technology Development, which commenced in 2006. Several projects for the Oceans Economy were included in the National Outline within programmes for industry and research support. Examples included development of automated container dock equipment (2009), Dynamic Positioning Systems for ships (2011), integrated monitoring and control systems (2011), radar technology (2012), and key techniques, processes and equipment for ship hull design (2014). As examples of the investments involved, the Innovation Centre Demark quoted budgets of ¥120 million (R323 million in 2021 rands) for the integrated monitoring and control system project, and ¥30 million (R74 million) for the ship hull design project. 

Aside from the European and Chinese examples referred to above, an overview of international research initiatives within sectors corresponding to those of Operation Phakisa reveals the following notable trends and projects:

Aquaculture: Innovasea Systems, a company specialising in novel aquaculture projects, identifies environmental regulation and open sea aquaculture as areas for development. The company notes that submerged offshore systems have reached maturity, while investors are showing increased interest in the sector since the Covid-19 Pandemic due to increased awareness surrounding food security.

Coastal and Marine Tourism: Tourism is the largest Ocean Economy sector in Europe and the 2021 EU Blue Economy Report accordingly places strong emphasis on the environmental effects of the related industries. The report further notes an initiative to engage cruise operators, including those offering river cruises, as well as ports and other coastal tourism stakeholders to identify synergies in innovation, competitiveness and sustainability strategies.

Marine Protection and Ocean Governance: The 2021 EU Blue Economy Report mentions four programmes relating to control of ocean domains. These focus on a technological demonstrator for situational awareness in naval environments, underwater control solutions to protect against deep water mines, autonomous mobile systems and sub-surface threats, as well as space based systems, coastal radars and sensors on manned and unmanned platforms for littoral, high seas, harbour and infrastructure protection.

Marine Transport and Manufacturing: An article on the website Splash247 identifies tools for vessel monitoring and those that can assist in finding multiple minor cost savings, in areas such as procurement, automation of routine tasks, routing, emissions control and fuel saving, as technology priorities for 2021. Other fields of interest mentioned were operational and cloud-based data analysis, the use of drone technology, improved connectivity between vessels and shore centres, digitalised documentation, and expanded use of additive manufacturing. While the article stated that no major innovations were expected in propulsion in the short term, with only dual fuel engines receiving industry attention in the current climate of regulatory and technology uncertainty, the 2021 EU Blue Economy Report mentions projects for the use of methanol and green ammonia in ships. 

Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration: Developmental preferences are clearly against oil and gas developments, with the plans of the EU calling for zero-emission vessels to be on the market by 2030 and for most categories of cars and heavy vehicles to be zero-emission compliant by 2050. The direction is rather in favour of offshore oil and gas to be replaced by offshore energy generation. Despite the negative projections for the future of the industry, natural gas prices exhibited a rising trend between June 2020 and May 2021. In respect of emerging technology trends for the sector, a January 2021 article for Oilman Magazine identifies data science and Internet of Things applications as areas for development. Data science is expected to offer multiple industry applications for artificial intelligence in areas such as automation of drilling operations to counter manpower shortages. The Internet of Things is foreseen to offer advantages in supply chain route optimisation, asset tracking, pipeline maintenance, and other support services associated with the industry.

Small Harbour Development: As reported in the 2021 EU Blue Economy Report, the EU supported a “Smart Marina” programme in the Scandinavian countries and Estonia during the year, focusing on physical and digital infrastructure, environmental management, improved customer experience, energy efficiency and integrated marketing.

The levels of commitment shown by other countries and regions, such as China and Europe, in attaining and sustaining their footholds in the global Oceans Economy serve to highlight the importance of Research and Innovation as competitive factors. Although South Africa or the African continent may not be able to sustain similar financial investments in the near term, it is foreseeable that certain steps can be taken to maximise the efficiency with which the available research and innovation resources are applied to support effective African projects. Such steps may include: 

• Creation of industry-wide networks for co-ordinated effort, involving government, industry and research institutions. 

• Development of a framework that allows for rapid progress from concept development to concept validation, product/ process development, and commercialisation.

While the immediate period after 2014 saw SAIMI primarily concerned with establishing critical partnerships and institutional relationships, the Institute has now seen several years in which it has been able to focus on its core business. Aside from programmes for education, skills development, and Oceans Economy inclusion across communities, SAIMI has also been involved in several projects involving Research and Innovation for the Oceans Economy. These have included the following:

• Supporting the development of a national Incident Management System (IMS) for emergency response to maritime incidents, such as oil spills. This work was carried out in cooperation with the Operation Phakisa Oil and Gas Working Group.

• Abalobi, a project that represents an innovative collaboration between scientists, environmental protection officials, and fishing communities, to transform small-scale fisheries through Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Abalobi notably involves both a business incubation programme and mobile phone platform that combines recording of catches, and monitoring of fish stocks and fishers’ business performance, with market access functionality that allows consumers to place orders for fresh fish directly. 

• Development of a Marine Robotics Centre at Nelson Mandela University.

The Institute’s research programme is guided by its Research Strategy as well as the Maritime Research, Knowledge Management and Innovation Roadmap, launched in 2017. Other institutional enablers that have been established for research and innovation activities include a Community of Practice for the Oil and Gas.

In addition, the Institute has supported the reorganisation of the Nelson Mandela Maritime Cluster and development of a Business Case for the organisation.

Medium-term planning to 2024 further calls for:

• Support to 15 Research, Development and Innovation (RD&I) projects, with 5 targeted for 2021.

• Support for the establishment of a Research Chair in Naval Architecture and Design and a Community of Practice for Aquaculture.

• Development of Marine Robotics Centres at the University of Cape Town and Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

• Establishment of a dedicated research office within SAIMI.

• Establishment of an Oceans Economy Think Tank.

As may be apparent from the international trends in Research and Innovation outlined in this article, new African and South African capabilities, products, and services will be essential if the continent and the country are to be competitive in the Oceans Economy at the global level. The strategies, methods, institutional structures and priorities through which Research and Innovation should be advanced will therefore be a major focus of the webinar to be presented by SAIMI.


Tuesday 8th June 2021


A thriving oceans sector and economic growth in the country and the continent: Discussing Strategy, Opportunities and Skills

Focussing on:

- The contribution of the Oceans Economy to the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan

- Skills for the future, innovation and development for Africa

- African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) opportunities for local and continental growth

Please join us -  https://zoom.us/j/96461874296?pwd=eGd6Zy80MjZuZkhXT0NhWUwyVGhJdz09

Find out more at https://www.facebook.com/events/1926330470857413?active_tab=about

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