From archaic natural to biomimetic smart ports of the future

Danilo and Claudio Flores. Credit: Kybernesia

The first ports weren’t man-made – they were naturally occurring, something future port planning should take into account, argue Danilo and Claudio Flores, founders of Kybernesia

The famed Port of Piraeus, Greece, enabled Athens to become a seafaring city state. However, before the erection of artificial port facilities, ships anchored in the nearby Phaleron Bay. The local water-land interface provided ships with ample space for harbourage and protected them from currents and winds.

Shipbuilding, however, is one of mankind’s greatest inventions. Nature, thankfully, has provided environmental configurations to help nautical technology scale. The existence of port-like coastal areas allowed the first generation of deliberately designed vessels to safely lie in the roads. Ships outsizing canoes would not have been possible otherwise, not to speak of the sheltering of entire fleets.

Stripped down to its essence, a port is a confluence of geographical and hydrological features that facilitate ship traffic. Natural ports have been instrumental to humanity becoming seaborne. Today, with digitisation turning ports into interconnected smart hubs, nature might yet again have a helping hand in the evolution of naval technologies.
Back to basics

For example, swarm behaviour studied by biologists could become a design principle for co-ordinating the staggeringly complex interactions between humans brought on by global commerce. In the bird’s eye view of modern vessel-tracking software, the busy shipping lanes of the Seven Seas have become alive. The after-images of past voyages crystallise into a network of connections between major maritime hubs such as Rotterdam, Fujairah, and Singapore.

No man is an island, as the saying goes. Just like humans, ports also thrive on connectivity. However, being part of a bigger picture can come at a hefty price. Sometimes, the mistakes of others might have crippling effects on your own undertakings.

The devastating explosions in Tianjin harbour in China in 2015 scrambled delivery schedules and halted just-in-time supply chains throughout the entire shipping world. This system’s shock to global trade had a massive legal fallout. A tsunami of indemnity claims for delayed shipments kept maritime law boutiques busy for months and years to come. Affected carriers invoked force majeure clauses to fend off claims for compensation by their customers. But is the collapse of a human supply network akin to a natural disaster?

We leave this tricky question to be answered by the legal guild. At Kybernesia, we are interested in how to make complex systems more resilient. Our consultancy applies design fiction and knowledge engineering to find bio-inspired solutions to complexity problems.

In our view, the vulnerability of global trade to single points of failure can be remedied by turning to social co-ordination recipes from nature. There is a growing body of scientific literature on how to tackle logistical optimisation problems with algorithms mimicking natural modes of self-organisation. For example, the term stigmergy refers to decentralised co-ordination in ant colonies.

Without any central authority, the colony manages to build supply lines to food sources. Re-organisation of disrupted supply chains might be left to the workings of such biomimetic algorithms. Instead of a panicking herd, you get a self-stabilising swarm. Ports, in this sense, become re-naturalised.