A better understanding of what matters to whom… from the Court to the Cloud!

The emergence of the expansion mindset

Port managing bodies and the cities located near or around them often have long, common histories of joint economic and social development. For a number of ports, this has been extensively documented by researchers in economic and social history. Often, port development, through mostly outward expansion projects has led, especially during the second half of the 20thcentury, to great sacrifices by surrounding local communities under the form of either expropriation of their land (e.g. losing the agricultural use, their heritage), sometimes accompanied by outright relocation. In general, these decisions were taken ‘top-down’ by committees of civil servants and politicians, mostly at a national state level, under the umbrella of the general economic interest. The periods of quasi-unchallenged port growth since the 1950’s (except the 1970’s oil crisis and a few other minor shocks) indeed installed an ‘expansion’ mindset or even ‘culture’, fuelled and justified by the use of the local employment and welfare growth creation argument.


Constructing walls between stakeholders in court

Since the end of the 1980s, and continued until today, other arguments, in particular against port development and operations near or around densely populated areas, have gained significant momentum. Environmental and broader social considerations have rightly gained substantial traction, supported by stringent and general legislation in the domain, to which port management bodies and port business ecosystem stakeholders should adhere. Consequently, many port development projects are or have been delayed or shelved outright on environmental considerations.  Mostly, this has happened due to a lack of inclusion of these elements in feasibility studies as well as the inclusion of stakeholders supporting these criteria in planning and decision-making processes. Often, shelving happens after protracted litigation opposing local community interest groups (even individual citizens) against the port managing body or even the city government when it comes to permitting delivery or adoption of spatial plans. This further worsened the relationships between stakeholders and created a ‘wall’ between them. Sometimes, within a culture of ‘compensation/mitigation’ even literally as physical barriers were created between port and local community residential areas.


Historical legacies are not sufficient, on the contrary…

Interestingly enough, and despite compensation/mitigation schemes as well as many and structural efforts for more inclusive planning by port managing bodies, this remains the case today in exactly those cities, regions, and even nations which have historically built their fortunes based on port and maritime infrastructure. Prolific examples include Panama, where the Panama Canal Authority is faced with fierce local opposition (see panamasos.com) against port development projects along the canal; in Antwerp (Belgium) where the Doel 2020 movement continues to legally challenge the spatial planning; in Vancouver (Canada) where the APE interest group continues to oppose further port expansion. While the port of Antwerp is undoubtedly perceived as a leader in sustainable transformation, and has been internationally recognized through awards for its GRI-certified sustainability report, based on data contributions of more than 40(!) stakeholders, Vancouver as well is considered as a best practice in terms of achieving cohabitation within a dense, populated and multifunctional environment, and likewise sports an impressive and transparent sustainability report. For Panama, the canal is basically the ‘raison d’être’ of the country… Therefore, many port and city developers remain clueless, unable to deconstruct the wall and build the ‘bridge’ towards local communities.


Using the same resources?

As a result, we believe there is still substantial scope to better understand and better include local community stakeholders in port management and development decisions. Failure to achieve this will inevitably lead to the shelving of important future transformation projects increasing port and urban sustainability such as circular economy projects, CCS and CCU projects, clean energy projects,…). The key element towards achieving increased quality of community relations is therefore that cities and ports commonly use exactly the same resources that stakeholders such as interest groups and local community groups use to give weight to their voices: information and communication technology (ICT). ICT, with social media as one of the elements, has allowed local community groups to organize themselves more efficiently, to increase their reach, to increase their political influence and to source inspiration, support and knowledge across the world, at minimal costs. Even governments have joined the bandwagon, and are supporting worldwide networks of research and knowledge exchange between local environmental action groups against all kinds of contested projects worldwide (see for example the Environmental Justice Atlas, supported through the EU Research Programs: https://ejatlas.org/). A growing part of city governments have actively embraced new technology in shaping their policies through the use of platforms such as Citizenlab.co.

Therefore, we believe a more sophisticated and jointly managed approach towards the monitoring of local community (or even more broadly stakeholder) perception might provide additional answers on the question why most port managing bodies continue to experience difficulties to stabilize their social license to operate (or broadly speaking the support from community stakeholders). A number of leading ports, inter alia Antwerp, have taken concrete but limited steps and now yearly monitors and publishes the evolution of stakeholder perceptions in its biannual and public Sustainability Report, based on a survey of about 1.000 people.


From the Court to the Cloud

However, we believe more can and should be done, including the development of tools allowing more permanent monitoring and dialogue with stakeholders, based on jointly defined and stakeholder-approved performance indicators and underlying processes. Just like ‘no man is an island’, ‘no local community interest group is an island’ (see the example of the Environmental Justice Atlas); the logical conclusion is therefore that ‘no port city is an island’. The further consequence inevitably, to ensure further harmonized port-city development, should be increased collaboration on a global level to develop the cost-efficient cloud technology supported tools and the information and knowledge exchange environment to better understand, small and large ports and cities alike, what matters to whom in the complex ‘port-city-community-citizen’ relationship. We strongly believe that only by moving to the Cloud, one can avoid the Courts!


Source: Port economics