The BCN Port Innovation Foundation: open, transversal and cross-sectoral

In today’s fast-paced world, the need for sustainable practices and efficient logistics in port operations is more critical than ever. That’s where the BCN Port Innovation Foundation comes into play. This visionary organization was founded with a clear mission – to finance and empower innovative models that prioritize sustainability, efficiency, and optimization within port processes.

But the foundation knows that true transformation cannot happen in isolation. To achieve its ambitious goals, it seeks to create a thriving ecosystem that fosters knowledge-sharing and collaboration among industry players. By bringing together experts, businesses, and thought leaders, the foundation aims to accelerate the adoption of cutting-edge solutions that will shape the future of port operations.

In this interview, we’ll speak with Miguel de la Mano* – the technical director of the Foundation – to take a closer look at the BCN Port Innovation Foundation’s goals, initiatives, and its role in driving positive change in the port industry.

The private entity, promoted by the Port of Barcelona, Ackcent and Aggity, seeks to attract talent to transform the maritime-port sector into a benchmark smart hub.

The Foundation has been named BCN Port Innovation. What are we talking about when we talk about innovation?

It is a word with a very broad meaning. From my point of view, it is exploring another way of doing things and with a clear objective. More than technology, which ultimately is just a tool, innovation is more related to transforming the status quo or certain processes that are traditionally done in a specific way to make them more efficient, sustainable and to optimise resources better.

And how does the BCN Port Innovation Foundation apply it?

The role of the Foundation is, through public-private collaboration, to articulate initiatives, technologies and process changes that are more complex to lead from the public sector because, for the Administration, the degree of uncertainty must be very low. 

The Foundation must be the actor and the tool that validates models and technologies with agile execution and based on trial and error that will allow processes to be transformed. The logistics-port sector must approach the degree of maturity of other sectors that believe that errors can produce victories.

One objective is to meet the goals of the 2030 Agenda. What should ports do?

These six months that I have been in office have allowed me to learn, on the one hand, about the diversification of the Port of Barcelona’s business model and about other port models of a very diverse nature, some of which are more industrial or more focused on petrochemicals.

In Barcelona, the key word is electrification, and from various angles. On the one hand, we have to take advantage of the fact that, at the regulatory level, the deployment of photovoltaics is simpler and quicker to implement, and there is a greater return on investment. In addition to its deployment, it is interesting to have the infrastructure that allows the electricity generated to be stored for consumption during the most expensive periods. 

You mentioned that you have had the opportunity to learn about other port models.  What have you learned from other port authorities?

In the framework of the ChainPORT network, we met in Antwerp with colleagues from the ports of Shanghai, Busan, Singapore, Tangier, Montreal, Antwerp-Bruges, Rotterdam and Hamburg. Getting to know other models and realities was very interesting and there are specific things that could be replicable in terms of  intelligent infrastructure, energy transition, sustainable mobility or hubs and innovation models.

On the last day we made an analysis, conclusions were drawn and several initiatives began to be generated, in my case, with the ports of Tangier and Hamburg, which we are already beginning to structure. 

An example? It was very interesting to learn how they manage and store different substances and fuels to create optimised and circular energy flows that reuse both temperature and waste. It was a great learning experience.

“Innovation is more related to transforming the status quo or certain processes that are traditionally done in a particular way to make them more efficient, sustainable and optimise resources better”

Another objective of the BCN Port Innovation Foundation is to generate an ecosystem that promotes this innovation. Is it intended to be formed by local agents?

I believe that, on the one hand, knowledge must come from academia or from start-ups that are just starting out. This means lower levels of maturity and more uncertainty, but it is necessary. Another scenario is robust solutions proven in other sectors, as is the case with AllRead.

If the regulation, the sector and the technology are mature enough, the players could be local. If any of these three fail, we will have to broaden the scope.

We started talking about port community, but now we refer to ecosystem because we do not want to limit ourselves to the port sector. The intention is to integrate other perspectives and change the narrative. We have ambitious goals and to achieve them we need as many stakeholders as possible. This will accelerate the implementation of more efficient and sustainable consumption and management models.

How do you select projects?

On the one hand, we have the Executive Committee, which is made up of the Barcelona Port Authority and Ackcent and Aggity, which contribute with their technological expertise. One of its functions is to escalate to the Board of Trustees, which is the body that approves both the budget and those projects that meet the funding requirements.

Last year, a budget of 480,000 euros was approved for the two projects I have already mentioned and also for one project in each of these areas: logistics, mobility, environment and 5G. 

The Executive Committee will work on these projects and when we have a series of concrete proposals we will present them to the Board of Trustees.

Do they have to meet several criteria?

On 8 June 2023 we organised what we call the leading partners forum, a working session formed into three groups (logistics, mobility and environment) with those partners who have placed their trust in the BCN Port Innovation Foundation by signing a letter of commitment with the Foundation and have consolidated their contribution or have invested more than 25,000 euros. 

These partners have the capacity to define which challenges and needs and which value-added and technological responses will be worked on for the rest of this year.

Is the application of the Smart concept the most effective tool for ports to overcome challenges and achieve their goals?

Sometimes we use words from a marketing angle and they become a trend. I believe that in order to change things, you have to change people’s mentality. We used to talk about Living Labs and now we talk about ‘regulatory sandbox’ and in the end, they are often arguments or tools that are used to transform mentalities. We relate it to technology and there are many transformations that do not need technology, or very little.

The origin of the term comes from Smart Cities, but I believe more in smart citizens who have the capacity to improve their environment. What we at the Foundation want is to boost and validate these innovation models to improve the processes and competitiveness of the different actors that form part of this value chain.

The BCN Port Innovation Foundation aims to promote innovation in port processes, but can you tell us more about the role of simulators in this endeavour? How do you see simulators contributing to the transformation and optimization of logistics and port operations?

Innovation proposes different ways to address specific situations, and in this trial-and-error process, the role of simulators or digital twins is and will be crucial. This type of solution allows us to test and validate different hypotheses for specific scenarios without the need of large investments and, perhaps more important, maintaining the operation of critical procedures. To transform and optimize a logistical process, the chosen solution should be robust and resilient, while also having the validation of all stakeholders in the value chain. Simulators are the ideal tool to carry out this process.

*Miquel de la Mano is an Electronics Engineer by UPC (2012). Currently he is the technical director of BCN Port Innovation, a non-profit private foundation focused on accelerating the adoption of innovative solutions by Barcelona’s Port Community. He has a decade of experience researching and leading projects in areas such as mobility, energy and technology transfer at a national and international level. His main mission is to help ports meet the objectives of the 2030 Sustainable Development Strategy by selecting, financing and promoting innovative solutions.

This interview originally appeared on the PierNext website, part of the Port of Barcelona’s innovation blog. You can read it here:

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