Fragmented supply chains create bottlenecks. Assembling disengaged players along logistical chains onto a single digital platform to provide end-to-end freight forwarding, customs brokerage, cargo insurance, and supply chain financing is a fresh frontier.

Operational productivity—especially the interface among ships, ports, and hinterlands—is core to value creation in the container-shipping industry. Ports bring together sellers, freight forwarders, carriers, consignees, and port authorities. But this fragmentation lends itself easily to the perpetual production of stagnant silos of data.

Before long, multiple layers of value-destroying cycles of overcapacity and consolidation will disrupt freight forwarding. The emergent will resemble a handful of prime container-shipping companies collaborating with fleets of unmanned autonomous surface ships. These nascent freight forwarding companies may be either digitally enabled independents with a robust customer orientation and innovative commercial practice, or small subsidiaries of present tech giants seamlessly blending the digital and physical realms. Digitalization can change both supply and demand.

Freight forwarding will encompass everything from clickwrap contracts, robots in fulfilment centres, smart stowage, and maritime autonomous surface ships, to harbours that unload freight directly into hydrogen-powered autonomous trains for drone-enabled lastmile deliveries.  The needs of clients will vary: some will require freight forwarders to be fully integrated into their supply chains, and they will pay a premium for that service. Short-haul intraregional traffic will increase as manufacturing footprints disperse into networks of campuses and plants that are themselves assemblages of linked work packages spread over a geographic area.

This will allow weaker economies to catch up with stronger ones as an economic mechanism for harmonious development and socio-economic cohesion in trade blocks and customs unions. Economic convergence or the process by which relatively poorer countries or regions grow faster than relatively richer ones will accelerate. This will allow the former to catch up with the latter. In fact, this is already an explicit objective of the EU, as formulated in Article 130a of the Single European Act (1986).

This article constitutes the legal basis for the establishment of European Structural Funds and EU Cohesion Policy. In the EU milieu, convergence remains the fundamental economic apparatus and precondition for realising socio-economic cohesion. Both Structural Funds and Cohesion Policy aim to disrupt regional disparities, by devising redistributive measures and by equipping poorer regions with the tools to improve their potential growth and productivity. Despite inevitable divergences and differences, joint administrative cabinet meetings work towards achieving the goals of the Cohesion Policy.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has already developed a working definition of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). The IMO has also started to consider regulatory standards for the possibility of no on-board crew, insurers standards, costs, cybersecurity, and the retraining of existing crew. The winners emerging from these shifts will offer fully digitized customer interactions and operating systems, and they will be meticulously coupled to data ecosystems and harbours that are nothing less than “Data Ports” themselves, having dissolved the old freight forwarding data silos.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) recently completed a Regulatory Scoping Exercise (RSE) on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). The RSE was designed to assess existing IMO instruments to establish how they might apply to maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS). The RSE for safety treaties was finalized at the 103 Session of the MSC in May 2021, and for treaties under the purview of the Legal Committee, in July 2021.  The MSC 105 Session in April 2022 initiated work on a goal-based instrument regulating the operation of MASS and approved a road map and a work plan for the development of IMO instruments for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships. The road map envisions the development of a non-mandatory Code, with a view to adoption in the second half of 2024. The expectation is that a mandatory MASS Code will be settled and will enter into force on 1 January 2028.

It is already routine that state-of-the-art aircraft generate up to a terabyte of data per flight. Autonomous ships may be connected to satellite internet constellations. On 18 October 2022, SpaceX launched its aviation-specific Starlink satellite internet service as a direct challenge to Gogo which is the dominant inflight internet provider. SpaceX is seeking Federal Aviation Administration certificates for private jets. That will offer Starlink aviation customers speeds up to 350 Megabits per second giving them streaming-capable inflight internet access.

On 23 October, 2022, India launched 36 internet satellites into orbit for UK-based satellite company — OneWeb. By 2023, OneWeb will own a constellation of 648 satellites arranged in 12 rings with 49 satellites in each plane.  OneWeb and Starlink are putting the cogs and the evolving digital gears and wheels encircling the earth that will use algorithms, AI and data visualization tools to intertwine freight forwarding, using aircraft, autonomous trains, last-mile drones and maritime autonomous surface ships.

Breaking the supply lines and economies of scale that make possible an interconnected world will impact everyone. But the unravelling will not be uniform and it will affect everyone differently and at different speeds. The world is not the limit for humanity. Multiple future scenarios are conceivable. But each one is dependent on adoption rates of technologies and the substitution of flows from one model to another.