“Every journey starts with a single step”: talking smart and green technology with NIRAS’ Adam Sharp
Founded in 1956, NIRAS is a multi-disciplinary engineering consultancy with a focus on sustainability. Providing its clientele with expert advice on how to achieve their sustainable development goals, NIRAS has also forged partnerships with those businesses that can help to realise them – of which Midstream is proud to be one.
Having worked together on numerous projects in the Ports & Marine sector, we sat down with Adam Sharp – Smart and Green Ports Lead – to find out more about NIRAS, its work, and the issues shaping smart and sustainable development in the maritime industry.
Adam, to start, can you tell me a little about NIRAS?
Of course. We’re headquartered in Copenhagen – the company was founded in Denmark – but we have around 2,500 people around the world. We’re mainly focused on engineering, and specifically the area of sustainability. Social responsibility has been an integral part of NIRAS since the very beginning. Therefore it was also natural to make sustainability a core part of the business many years ago and you can really feel that when you talk to anyone here.
Ownership of the company is actually split between our staff and a charitable foundation, the NIRAS ALECTIA Foundation. We don’t have any external shareholders, which definitely gives us more freedom in terms of what we do and how we do it.
How about your role specifically? Where do you sit within the organisation?
I’m an Associate in the UK Maritime team, but our maritime teams are distributed around the world and work as one. The reason I am talking to you now is that I’m the Smart and Green Ports Lead, but really that’s one of many roles. I’m also the Lead Port Master Planner for instance, so I cover lots of ground. But, generally, I act as technical lead and / or project manager on international port development projects.
In total, we have around 300 people working on port-related projects around the world, covering Europe, Africa, and Asia. We assist with everything from initial layout planning and concept design, through to construction supervision, operational consultancy and asset management. Whatever our clients need, we can help them at every step of the way.
How does the “smart and green” element fit into that?
Well, as you can imagine, we’re seeing huge growth in the amount of green and smart technology that’s being bought into ports, particularly those that are part of large international chains. Many of our clients tend to be from locally-owned or individual terminals, who are looking at all of this advanced technology and thinking “that’s too difficult to implement, there’s no way I can achieve that”.
Our message back to them, of course, is that green and smart tech isn’t a “have or have not”. There’s a lot of technology out there, and that means that there are lots of ways for ports to begin their transformation. Perspective is key: you can’t look at this as a 100-storey tower block and then try and jump to the top floor on day one. It’s all about small steps.
What is a smart port to you? Is it a concept that your clients can quickly grasp?
That’s one of the fundamental questions, really. If you take a step back and look at the concept of a smart port, it isn’t easy to define. As I say, it’s not “have or have not”. You could have a highly developed container terminal with top of the range tech, 5G wireless, and smart sensors everywhere, but without any kind of automation. That omission doesn’t mean that it’s not a smart port, of course.
Because there’s no real definition as to what a smart port is, there’s also no standard design to work to. You can’t just replicate what someone has done elsewhere, because it might not be right for that location or operating model. So what we do is look at what the greatest needs are. Our proposals are all built around developing the right approach to smart and green tech for that specific port.
So, yes clients can quickly grasp the concept, but “smart” or “green” can also mean very different things to different ports.
What about the benefits of those technologies? Are they clear, or do ports need convincing?
There’s definitely awareness in the market that this is the right way to go, though the commercial benefits are probably a little clearer when it comes to being “smart” over “green”. The good thing there, though, is that being smart also tends to come with the added benefit of being green by proxy, because smart tech usually helps to improve efficiency – which can reduce emissions, too.
Either way, yes, I think ports understand the benefits. Ultimately, this kind of technology helps them reduce their operating costs, because it enables them to deliver their services more efficiently. That then gives them the ability to reduce their fees to their customers, or at least keep them flat, which has obvious positive implications in terms of service.
Generally, I think that the way the world is at the moment, ports know that they can’t afford to stay as they are. The world is becoming more digital, it’s getting smarter, and there’s a real risk that you’ll get left behind if you don’t keep up.
NIRAS obviously has a global perspective on things, so do you see any differences in terms of smart and green tech maturity between markets?
Yes, though I’d describe it as a difference in approach rather than maturity.
Look at something like automation. Fundamentally, it’s a smarter way of doing things, but that doesn’t make it right for every country or region. In the Netherlands, where you have a pool of highly skilled, but also highly expensive talent, automation makes sense. In another country, where you might have high availability of low-skilled labour, it’s probably not going to be as effective. Context is critical.
A lot of the activity we’re seeing around green ports right now is coming from South East Asia, where you have pressure on the shipping industry as a result of events like COP 27. Those companies are equally responsible for their “at port” emissions as they are at sea, so they’re putting a lot of pressure on ports to decarbonise their operations too.
The same is true in Europe, but mainly as a result of European Union and local regulations. Things are moving in Africa too, albeit a little bit more slowly.
Now, we’re talking about green and smart technology almost interchangeably, which makes sense with your role covering both – but are they now the same thing to your clients?
In a lot of ways, I think they are. There’s a difference between the two, but they’re so heavily interlinked now that I think it’s becoming harder to see. Whenever you adopt a piece of smart technology today, there’s inevitably a green element to it – even if that’s just being more efficient, and reducing emissions as a result.
The same doesn’t always apply in reverse, but green tech does often come with smart benefits too. So yes, they’re different, but there’s also a very good reason that we talk about them in the same breath, and that’s because green and smart technologies tend to compliment and drive one another very well.
How comfortable do you think that ports are with those technologies now? You mentioned that you’re seeing huge growth, but that a lot of that is from bigger ports; what about those who are a bit further back on their journey?
I think it’s fair to say that ports are quite conservative by nature. It’s an industry in which immediacy is an inherent part of day-to-day life. There’s a lot to focus on in the next 24 hours, let alone over the next five years, particularly for general operations staff.
Lighting is actually a really great example of that dynamic at play. All around the world, we see ports with old fashioned lighting and bulbs that don’t last very long, and they’re spending eyewatering amounts on maintenance and repairs. They could invest into LED technology and solve that problem very quickly, but it can be difficult for them to find the time to step away from the now and make that decision.
There’s some definite evolution needed around planning, too. Part of our work involves the preparation of port masterplans, which are strategic documents that help to shape the long term development of a port. Time and again, we’ve seen that ports have those plans in place, but then have separate smart and green strategies. Those things need to be one and the same.
Speaking of planning, you mentioned the importance of the “right approach” for different ports. What does that mean in practice?
It’s about moving from a solutions-centric mindset to an outcomes-focused one. Quite often, we hear from ports that want to introduce a specific service or piece of technology, without necessarily understanding why. A better way to think about that is “what do you want to achieve here?”. A big part of our role is helping our clients find the best products for the problems they’re facing.
That’s where our partners – Midstream included – come in. We want to do the best possible job for every client across a wide range of fields, and no one company is capable of doing that in isolation. That means being able to bring the best partners to the table for our clients’ needs, whatever they happen to be.
NIRAS does of course have services and solutions of its own as well. How do they come into play in this area?
We do, and a good example is Digital Asset Management which is one of our flagship services. Ports are obviously heavily industrialised areas, with lots of equipment and structures that need managing. Again, that’s something that can easily get neglected because of the focus on the short term needs and keeping things running. So, asset management can end up being quite reactive.
Digital Asset Management digitalises a lot of those management processes, and it has a lot of possible applications. We have geographic information system (GIS) platforms that take all kinds of data on a port and present it in a way that’s similar to something like Google Earth. The advantage is that you can add almost anything to that system.
Take laser scanning, for instance. You can laser scan quayside structures such as quay walls and breakwaters and that provides a huge amount of accuracy over something like diver photography. When you combine it with Digital Asset Management, you end up with an easily managed, long term record of the structural integrity of that part of the port and the progression of any issues contained within it.
You can do that with everything from topographical surveys, bathymetric surveys, condition surveys, 360° cameras and more, and build up a complete digital record of a port. You can create full digital twins, or assign maintenance tasks to staff based on the GPS position of their phone. Really, the sky’s the limit, and it takes away a lot of the manual burden of asset management that ports face. The real key with that though, is that you don’t have to do it all at once. You can start small, with a system that is simply a collection of the port’s existing data and build from there as and when the port gets used to the system and budgets allow.
You also have the NIRAS Green Tech Hub, of course. Tell me about that.
The Green Tech Hub is essentially an incubator for greentech start-ups. For a nominal fee, we provide them with space in which they can collaborate with other start-up companies, create promo videos, test out technology, conduct product modelling, and so on. Of course, they also get access to the engineering expertise of around 1,000 of our head office staff.
The Green Tech Hub is also partly funded by the NIRAS ALECTIA Foundation. We’ve made a commitment over the next 10 years to invest 13% of our profits into the green energy transition, which we call the GREENsition.. I think that’s is a very strong indication of just how passionate we are as a company and a culture about that issue.
We’re already hosting some amazing companies, looking at everything from vertical farming and drone-based condition surveys for ships, to ones focusing on the recycling of all plastic and the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere using geothermal energy. There are just an amazing number of great ideas in development, many of which I’m sure our ports clients will someday benefit from.
Amazing – well, we’ll look forward to seeing what’s coming down the track. Adam, that’s been brilliant, thank you again for your time.
And, for more about Midstream’s work at ports around the world, check out our dedicated maritime hub.