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Painting ourselves into a corner

What are the consequences of the industry's quest for digitalisation and data transparency?

All workspaces claim to be working towards efficiency. The superyacht industry is no different. But at what point do we stop and say, hang on, things are great, why change? As we strive for efficiency and the owner’s bottom line demands equivalency to shoreside operations, we may be painting ourselves into a corner, albeit with the best intentions. 

I was part of a fascinating discussion at one of the breakaway sessions, sponsored by headline partner RINA, at The Superyacht Forum Live 2021, that posed a challenging question; should a vessel own its own data? As the data streams keep flowing and the connectivity of a superyacht approaches ubiquity, the digital clone is on the horizon. There are many analogue choke points along the way, some traditional, like the arguably redundant watchkeepers log book. Others are strategic, like the IP of the designer or the accrued knowledge of the chief engineer. But if we achieve the lionised, streamlined total digital uptake, whose jobs may be at risk? 

We all want data. By we, I mean literally everyone it seems. But there are vast swathes of our industry that exist solely as gatekeepers to subsects of these data and who guard its dissemination as if their jobs depend upon it - because they do. 

The discussion around automation and digitalisation often highlights the crew as being the first sacrificial lamb on the altar of efficiency, which is misconceived.  AI for navigation will save fuel by keeping a yacht rigidly on the best course and running the engines at peak performance, but the crew will need to be there on a superyacht. An AI that can anticipate the whims of a challenging charter guest and know when to push the boundaries of local regulation to pull off a trip, I would venture, is so far away that it is beyond the discussion. When AI is operating on a level that can handle the complexities of a dynamic charter, we, as a species, will have far more on our plates than manning considerations. 

The more pressing threat to employment from the digitalisation and automation revolution is shoreside. The looming threat of AI and digitalisation has been covered ad nauseum. Even conservative predictions have a sword hanging over many traditional jobs (not least the copy and paste merchants masquerading as journalists). Of course, the counterargument is that the job market will pivot to roles that support data that drives the digital revolution, and the superyacht industry will no doubt follow suit.   

The loss in accrued knowledge when crew move between yachts or a vessel changes management company is often highlighted as a sticking point in a vessels operations. Likewise, a vessel changing flag state or entering a shipyard period after a new build at a non-partnered refit facility can lead to the much-maligned mountains of paperwork. My conjecture is that, at present, our industry lives and revels in the details and inefficiencies. 

A digital and potentially open-sourced flow of data is the river we may be sailing down, but we should take stock of what that may mean. A slim and efficient industry may be a little lighter in the shoreside personnel that have got the industry to the high bar it has achieved. I hope that the digital uptake will lift us even higher. However, we are a bespoke industry that thrives on originality, and often that necessitates a level of inefficiency, data hoarding, back-of-a-napkin calculations and late-night revelations. And, maybe, we should be thankful for our imperfections as we watch slip them into the past.

 

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