Ten years of driving winning ports

The North Sea Region project Dryport gave rise to the International Port Community Systems Association (IPCSA). As it celebrates its tenth anniversary, journalist Felicity Landon reflects on an extraordinary decade of achievement.

Since its official launch in June 2011, IPCSA has achieved rapid growth while building its reputation as an expert authority on the electronic exchange of information to smooth the flow of cargo.

Today, IPCSA has nearly 50 members, including Port Community System (PCS) and Cargo Community System operators, Single Window operators, and seaport and airport authorities, drawn from all regions of the world. It is also a recognised NGO with consultative status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

Logistics at sea ports are complicated and require a constant flow of communication between many parties.

Creating a European voice  

This thriving association actually traces its roots back to DRYPORT, an Interreg IVB North Sea Region project set up to consider how dryports – hinterland intermodal freight transport hubs – can maximise the capacity and efficiency of seaports, while also shifting traffic off the roads and on to rail or water.

In November 2009, during the project’s first year, DRYPORT partners from across Europe gathered for an IT and security workshop hosted in the Netherlands. The workshop tackled questions such as: how to extend a port into the hinterland with full IT connection; how to guarantee that dryport IT systems are safe; and how to facilitate inland customs clearance.

Key items on the agenda were presentations by two Port Community Systems, the Dutch Portbase and the British Maritime Cargo Processing. Only two years later, both organisations were to become founding members of IPCSA.

The creation of the European Port Community Systems Association (EPCSA) was a flagship achievement of DRYPORT. Before this point, and despite their critical role at the heart of smooth cargo flows, Port Community Systems had no organisation and no common champion for their cause.

Supported by DRYPORT, EPCSA gave Port Community Systems a united, strong lobbying position at the European Union level for the very first time.

“When we had our first conference, in Brussels, and formally launched what was then EPCSA, it was to support and provide a voice for PCSs related to Europe’s Maritime Single Window proposals,” says Richard Morton, secretary general of IPCSA. “Very quickly we were joined by new members from Belgium, Spain, Israel and then Ukraine. The association broadened out and it became more like a family.”

“We found that everybody was having similar types of issues. What makes us really different is that our members are open and honest, and willing to share their knowledge and experience.”

Entering the global scene

Three years later, in 2014, the association officially became international.

IPCSA General Secretary Richard Morton

Because they engage with the whole port and logistics community, and as trusted neutral service providers, IPCSA members are well placed to provide expertise and knowledge of what is happening on the ground, says Richard Morton.

“We were first able to help the European Commission – our initial focus – to understand more of what the trade was doing. Then it became clear that Single Window operators faced many similar challenges to PCSs, because it is all about the exchange of data.”

IPCSA soon began working with standards organisations such as UN Trade Facilitation and E-business unit, the World Customs Organization, and the International Standards Organisation (ISO).

Towards the end of 2019, the port standards specialist group PROTECT was integrated into IPCSA. PROTECT possesses an unrivalled level of knowledge and provides guidance on standards issues to bodies such as the European Commission.

Hans Rook, chairman of IPCSA, says: “We were delighted to announce that PROTECT is now totally integrated into IPCSA. By combining the very considerable expertise of both groups, we will accelerate our work in supporting international standards.”

Preparing for a post-Covid future

Of course, the world of ports, shipping and digitalisation is a fast-moving one and is in the midst of a period of exceptionally rapid change. IPCSA places the emphasis on constantly changing and adapting – keeping ahead of the crowd.

In the last major gathering of IPCSA members and partners before the arrival of Covid-19, a two-day meeting – hosted by the World Economic Forum in Geneva – discussed the future of cross-border digital trade. This included in-depth discussions on new values, new technology, new rules, new ways of working, the impact of climate change, the push for decarbonisation, and the role of digital systems in all of this.

IPCSA meeting room
IPCSA meeting

Since then, the pandemic has certainly not held back IPCSA’s activities – rather the reverse. In the past year, IPCSA has launched its Network of Trusted Networks (NoTN), a new, secure port-to-port and cross-border data exchange solution for supply chains.

The NoTN has been created in response to the requirement of consumers and logistics companies for real-time, end-to-end information on their shipments.

“When it comes to providing this kind of cross-border solution, others have tried to deliver such a concept – but the key stumbling block is always ‘trust’,” says Richard Morton. “NoTN users will be trusted, neutral platforms such as Port Community Systems, Cargo Community Systems and Single Window operators.”

IPCSA has also piloted a Blockchain Bill of Lading, in a project led by Israel Ports Company. And IPCSA was one of the leading signatories to the International Maritime Organization’s ‘Call to Action’ to up the pace of digitalisation to cope with a post Covid-19 new normal.

A solutions-oriented community

By mirroring the five regions of the UN, IPCSA is able to engage at local level with agencies in each region “and we continue to share and exchange like a family”, says Richard Morton.

“If one of our members has a problem, they will either go directly and talk to other members or go through us and ask our advice on who to speak to and how to solve the issue. Our members tend to focus on the specific. We take the practical approach – we are not interested in abstract theory but are entirely focused on reality and real experience.”

Uwe Liebschner, customs and foreign trade consultant at dbh Logistics in Bremen, concurs: “IPCSA is respected for ‘keeping discussion alive’ but also for actually doing things, not just talking about them. Other organisations are impressed because we make real progress in our businesses and are not spending months discussing the theoretical steps in how to set up a structure for the next working group.”

“Of course we can criticise and we can lobby, but at the end of the day we want to sit down together, share our real expertise and experience, and provide advice and real, practical suggestions. We have various customs services and other institutions coming to us and asking for our ideas and support. I am a fan of open discussion, sharing challenges and solving problems together – that is how IPCSA works, and it does surprise many.”

Bremen industrial port.

Like friends and family

The past year has been one in which IPCSA has excelled in reaching out to members, pushing forward with new technologies and innovations, and helping members get to know each other even better. Regular community ‘e-coffee’ gatherings via Zoom have been incredibly popular, enabling members to meet informally, share experiences and support each other through the challenges of Covid-19 as true friends and colleagues.

Ivano di Santo, CIO at the Port of Trieste, says: “In a port, as in many other organisations, we ‘IT people’ can often feel a little bit outside the general interaction. IT is not totally understood, and we can feel a little alone inside our organisations. The approach, interaction and contact we have with each other through IPCSA is so useful, because we are not alone!”

I have found new friends. I don’t think of these people as a colleague or an IPCSA member – I think of them as friends. That is due to IPCSA’s ‘family’ feeling. Through IPCSA, I am able to sit around a table with friends from around the world and discuss everyday problems and different approaches, all based on personal experience.
– Ivano di Santo, CIO at the Port of Trieste

A tribute to Dryport

There are, indeed, parallels to be drawn with Dryport. The partners of Dryport were happy to trust each other and share experiences. More than a decade after Dryport’s closing conference in 2012, emails are exchanged and members meet up, still part of that ‘Dryport family’.

“IPCSA has continued that tradition of trust and sharing,” says Richard Morton. “We are proud to be a neutral community engaging with global, regional and national logistics communities and relevant public bodies, acting in the common interest of all of our members.”


Felicity Landon in Felixstowe.
Picture: Stephen Waller

Felicity Landon is a freelance journalist, editor and author specialising in the global ports, shipping, transport and logistics sectors. She has worked in the maritime sector since 1990. 

Felicity worked closely with Dryport and a number of other European Interreg projects, including Port-Net (Interreg IIIC), Port Integration (Interreg IVC), Cruise Gateway (Interreg IVB), Isotrack (FP7) and Door2LNG, and continues to work with IPCSA as a writer and editor.

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