A navigational record set this month by a Russian tanker taking the Arctic route portends a shipping future that will be characterised by more options than are now available. The ship took liquefied natural gas from Norway to South Korea in 30 per cent less time than required by the usual route via the Suez Canal. Speed matters, but other factors are critical too, like cost. Vessels will need reinforced hulls to cope with frozen conditions and, during wintry periods, the assistance of specialised ice-breaking vessels will be essential.
Hence, experts believe trans-Arctic shipping will remain expensive for the next 20-odd years.
Even so, a maritime nation like Singapore must keep an eye on its development, as well as on the potential opening of other regional trade routes - whether based on an artificial waterway to link seas or on better rail connections to the interior.
While a port's success will continue to hinge on location, costs and efficiency, the evolution of new channels of trade, shipping alliances, economic zones and modes of distribution will call for fresh strategic approaches. Indeed, it has been suggested that being the biggest hub port might not be as important in the future as being a vital part of an interconnected port network.
To help secure the future of Singapore's port, which has been central to the city-state's development over the past 200 years, the Next Generation Port initiative was launched two years ago.
A major component of this is the development of the Tuas Terminal, which is to ultimately become the largest single mega container terminal in the world. The scale of the vision is warranted as competition from regional hub ports is intensifying, some bent on attracting mega shipping alliances. Singapore can retain its importance by staying on top of container transshipment, as ultra-large container ships grow in numbers and advanced technologies are deployed for port operations, planning and optimisation.
Top-notch infrastructure, like automated gantry cranes and driverless automated guided vehicles, are necessary but not sufficient. A core of skilled Singapore workers will also be needed to ensure high-tech port operations are reliable, efficient, safe, secure and constantly updated.
This sector offers opportunities in a range of fields. Data analytics and artificial intelligence will be essential as data sets balloon and become impossible to manage manually. Augmented reality platforms could be used for equipment maintenance, and unmanned aerial vehicles for high-altitude inspections. Digital technology will strike a chord among many but there are other areas which are also stimulating, like the vertical development of port spaces for wider uses. Keener competition in container shipment will bring a host of challenges but it will also offer scope for the next generation of port workers to think out of the box.