Charting the Course: Digitizing an Ancient Industry and Building the Port of the Future


When we talk about digitizing shipping, we are talking about transforming a millennia-old trade. A thousand years ago, daring captains took to the seas in search of fame and fortune. Every port they visited was different. The captains learned the peculiarities and customs of each port, and over time, this knowledge flowed from one captain to the next. But shipping now depends on modernization and standardization to ensure it is sustainable for the next millennia.

The Port of Rotterdam is an ancient port that today is the largest seaport in Europe and among the largest in the world. The Port of Rotterdam Authority is a public company held jointly between the Municipality of Rotterdam and the Dutch government. This arrangement gives the port a high degree of control and the freedom to establish a long-term strategy. 

The port is vast, spanning 40 kilometers, and it’s all owned by the Port Authority, which leases out land, builds and maintains port infrastructure, and is responsible for the safe and efficient handling of ships in the port. Of the port’s 1,270 employees, about 350 work to guide vessels day and night. Our vessel traffic center is similar to air traffic control—although ships move slower than planes! From a distance, it might all look easy, but conditions are ever-changing, including the ebbs and flows of the river, so it’s a very dynamic business. 

                                  Waalhaven Dockworks, © Eric Bakker 

Working Together to Digitize Port Infrastructure

Ports worldwide boast different geographic considerations, regulations, measurements, and ownership structures, and local shipping agents liaise with ship captains to share that information. The shipping industry has grown so accustomed to these local differences that captains no longer consider it an issue. But digitization depends on standardization, and these differences are a massive obstacle to digitizing ports and the wider industry.

Digitization depends on standardization, and small differences can be a massive obstacle to digitizing the shipping industry.


I have been with the Port of Rotterdam for about 25 years, starting as a networking engineer. Since then, I’ve held various roles and was part of the effort to build the base IT strategy, infrastructure, and IT department for SOHAR port in Oman—a Port of Rotterdam project. Today I’m an enterprise architect, part of the digital strategy team for the Port of Rotterdam.

About a decade ago, I met with a captain from Shell Shipping, a shipping agent from the commercial element of Port Authority, a cargo owner, and a ship owner. We met to discuss ways to reformulate and standardize various elements to resolve the issues that continue to crop up in transportation. While chatting, I realized we’d never had a conversation with all these parties around the same table. It’s funny—we aren’t used to talking to one another in this way, but collaborating and finding common ground is critical to move shipping in a new direction.  

Logistics is very fluid, dynamic, and good at solving issues arising from parts of the system that haven’t been digitized.

Another piece of the puzzle is finding the parallels between transportation and logistics. Transportation infrastructure exists to facilitate logistics, which has been highly digitized over the years. Logistics is very fluid, dynamic, and good at solving issues arising from parts of the system that haven’t been digitized—namely, transportation. We are gaining smarter, better-connected ships, and logistics details are increasingly shared digitally, but we still operate port infrastructure from 100 years ago.

Of course, this infrastructure was not designed with a digital-first approach. Having the right infrastructure creates value for transportation, and transportation creates value for logistics. Ports lower the costs to bridge countries, so there is a lot of value still to be unlocked in digitizing port infrastructure.

The right infrastructure opens the door for transportation to create value, but information about that infrastructure is just as valuable as the infrastructure itself. When you use Google Maps, you don’t just want to know if a particular route exists but the best way to use it. Is the road congested at certain times? How often does the train arrive? Sharing information about our port is part of the digitization journey. To do this effectively, we need connectivity.  

Cisco Enables Us to Test Future Solutions Today

As more goods move around the world, there’s a greater need to connect everything from vessels to individual cargo containers. For that connectivity and innovation, the Port of Rotterdam turns to Cisco. I’ve grown incredibly familiar with Cisco technology, which formed our core IT infrastructure when I joined the port 25 years ago. The latest phase in our partnership includes some exciting opportunities to bring shipping into a new era.

Within the company, we use Cisco networking solutions for our enterprise network. These solutions consist of a network infrastructure with Cisco Catalyst switches and access points along with a Cisco WAN (MPLS). This network supports everything we do within the company, including connecting offices, cloud, data centers, and OT solutions such as VHF, Radar systems and CCTV.


Updating infrastructure is only one piece of the puzzle. Vessels also need the ability to connect to various networks as they move around the globe. Cisco addresses this need with Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) OpenRoaming, which will officially launch at the port in the summer of 2023. WBA OpenRoaming allows the customs department and several companies at the Port of Rotterdam to use federated identities for continuous connectivity across the port. Instead of logging into various enterprise networks individually, WBA OpenRoaming enables seamless connectivity as vessels, people, and cargo move throughout the port.

                                    rpa15-containerschip.jpeg, © Kees Torn

Cisco is also facilitating the modernization of our industry through the Country Digital Acceleration Program (CDA). One of the most significant issues with digitization is a lack of IT skills—even among a highly educated population such as the Dutch. We can only digitize so far as the workforce allows. Through the Cisco Networking Academy and local partnerships, Cisco is training up to 20,000 people in the Rotterdam area to improve their digital capabilities. The Netherlands was among the first countries to have a CDA program, and it has helped set the groundwork for the port’s digital acceleration journey. 

The Port of Rotterdam is also in a direct product loop with Cisco, where we offer feedback on products in development. A port handles highly valuable information. We need a secure way to pass this information between parties. We’re working with Cisco on quantum key distribution that will break all the rules of encryption that we know. Widespread use of this technology is far in the future, yet we are already building a small-scale quantum network at the Port of Rotterdam today.

A proof of concept project we’re collaborating with Cisco on is Container 42. Those familiar with Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will know that 42 is “the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.” Container 42, built in collaboration with Cisco and more than 20 other partners, has sensors that measure what’s happening outside and inside the container. We are shipping that container around the globe to gain data on its journey—insights that will help us improve shipping logistics. In the future, our containers will communicate vital information, like cargo temperature, just as our vessels do.  

Digitization Creates a Sustainable Future for Shipping

Sustainability in shipping is a paradox. Shipping produces CO2 emissions—in that respect, it is harmful—but it is by far the cleanest way of transporting goods. Having reliable information upfront will allow ports and carriers to operate as efficiently as possible. 

                Shore power signal board and wind turbine, © Danny Cornelissen

With the right information, for example, the captain of a huge carrier bringing iron ore into Rotterdam could know to slow down a few days before reaching port to take advantage of a tidal window. Moving one of these vessels through the water requires a lot of energy, especially at high speed, so reducing speed by 10–20% and letting the tide do the rest of the work could translate to 50% fuel savings. But that kind of optimization requires gathering and sharing reliable information in real time, and we are making strides to improve that connectivity to achieve that goal.

We at the Port of Rotterdam are fully aware that ports have to be reinvented, and failure to do so is not an option. We have to meet sustainability goals to be at zero emissions by 2050, and digitization is key to that change. That said, digitization alone doesn’t make anything sustainable—my phone is digital, but it’s not sustainable. We have to think carefully about how we apply digitization to help sustainability.

Digitization is a cornerstone of building sustainable ports because of how information helps us optimize systems and change the rules. Shipping needs to become much more dynamic in our processes: to use wind energy when available, solar energy when available, and, as in the above example, adjust to the natural cycles of the tides.

For data sharing to work, people need to trust each other.

For data sharing to work, people need to trust each other. The fields of transportation and logistics often lack trust and transparency, so we have to build that foundation of trust between parties if we want to cooperate and transition to a sustainable future. The Port of Rotterdam has already built a strong, trusting relationship with the team at Cisco that will take the industry into a future we all want to see.

*Banner image, aerial photo Theemswegtrace, © Danny Cornelissen