Blue Hubs: Beta-i and Fórum Oceano Work Together on the Atlantic Action Plan

Can Atlantic Smart Ports be the future of the Blue Economy?

The first of the three panel discussions of The Ireland Portugal Business Network's Blue Economy Conference on World Maritime Day began with Atlantic smart ports, moderated by Raquel Abecasis, Executive Director of Invest Lisboa, in which co-founder and CEO of Beta-i, Pedro Rocha Vieira, and Secretary General of Fórum Oceano, Ruben Eiras joined in a conversation on the topics of the Atlantic Action Plan 2.0, Atlantic Strategy Committee, and more.

Eiras discussed the four pillars of the Atlantic Action plan: ports as blue economy hubs. He said, "Ports are not only key for moving goods and services, but also can play an important role in catalyzing new blue businesses that can operate in the sea. When we look at businesses that need access to the sea, the natural place for them to be installed is ports." While Eiras noted that small and medium-sized ports can not compete with larger ports, he stressed that they can diversify their revenue mix by turning themselves to attract startups and other companies to install themselves there, thereby bringing an innovation dynamic and ecosystem that can work toward the greening of said ports. Eiras said, “ASPBAN (The Atlantic Smart Ports Blue Acceleration Network) brings new opportunities for the ports to strategically position themselves. So the Atlantic Action plan opens that perspective…of cooperation in the EU. It’s not only focused on the regional cooperation between the member states…but on inter-regional cooperation outside the EU and in the transatlantic dimension, and this is very powerful for creating a dynamic ESG blue economy using ports as blue economy hubs.”  

Pedro Rocha Vieira went on to say that effective collaborative innovation is paramount in the blue economy as it relates to smart ports and beyond, a space in which he believes Portugal can make a positive impact. The Blue Tech accelerator initiative connected ports and maritime transportation companies with startups in the field. “Ports are a key interface in terms of a focal point to develop the new blue hubs for the future.” The vision of ASPBAN was to create a network of key players like Beta-i, investors, and the Blue Ocean Council among others, to leverage the ports, clustering small and medium-sized ports into areas of specialization (like off-shore energy, marine robotics, or other) and innovation for the ocean, to build a common agenda and create an acceleration approach with mentorship, and to create a platform for investors to identify common challenges and overcome them as one. This would involve changing the culture of the ports, creating synergies, and emphasizing the need for change and collaboration. On the investment side, Vieira says there is a lot of funding coming, so ASPBAN intends to validate the real needs, sets specific objectives, and communicated to the investors and policymakers where the investment should be made in order to speed up the process. 

Eiras said, “We have now 80% of the ports that support AspBan directly…90% of the 43 ports in the survey made pointed as the first proirity for the next five to ten years to become blue economy hubs of the emergent sectors of the economy. This is quite a big change that is evolving in the ports’ mentality…The pandemic has contributed to that change of mentality and perspective…Another key element is the gaps that exist within the accelerator community…who do not have the competencies to reach out on how the ports need to engage.” He continued, “The third result…is getting the innovative challenges from the ports…20 of those 43 ports already shared their five main innovation challenges.” Eiras underlined ASPBAN as a concrete opportunity to “find common challenges and effectively cooperate in doing business in a cooperative and sustainable way.” After all, the mantra of ASPBAN is to legitimize, decarbonize, and circularize, which is why the accelerator’s open call for 2021 applications is still open, set to close off its first round on October 14 and ready to implement 30 pilots into 30 ports, with 30 concrete solutions to be invested in by private investors. 

Raquel Abecasis asked the speakers whether they thought that ASPBAN would help to change the vision of politicians and prove that the blue economy is truly the future. Vieira said that the project is currently strengthening international relationships on a very specific agenda, a model that is being used as a template for other countries to strengthen their own ecosystems. At the political level, ASPBAN is contributing to many initiatives to leverage resources and help create policies toward a concrete agenda. Eiras added that in terms of foreign policy, there is a growing interest in the impact of oceanic policy. He hopes that the 2022 Ocean Conference in Lisbon will be the arena in which the EU can build a path toward a blue economy investment fund. 

When asked how the program intends to ensure the ports take action, Vieira said, “To observe, organize, and influence that these common challenges start to emerge is very important because, until that, you cannot create synergies or collaborate in an effective way. A lot of things are starting to emerge and to make sense…ASPBAn is a very short term, ambitious two-year program…but one of the expectations is that being fast can highlight exactly what the directions can be…and inspire new policy and programs that can explore [new] directions…it’s a soft game that we can all dance together.” Eiras seconded that sentiment by saying “We are running a marathon and at a certain point we have to speed up, but we need to make sure we are running in the right way.”