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My cluster: Insights from inside Hamburg

Our personal insights from the passionate hearts of some of the maritime sectors busy and exciting clusters continues. Carsten Bullemer is the definition of a maritime entrepreneur, and is at home in fast paced business life of start-ups and finance. Here he offers his thoughts of one of the industry’s oldest maritime hubs, Hamburg, as it takes up the pressures of innovation.

I  arrived in Hamburg, 20 years ago as a young software engineer, who had worked in Bavaria’s automotive Industry. There I worked on supply chain tools to monitor the spare part production for a big car maker. So, I was far away from ships and water, but I did have some knowledge about logistics and production.

After working for some time in the Hamburg startup scene, where I helped to create an online ticket business, I started my own little software development business. We developed all kinds of software programmes for companies, some of whom were working in the port of Hamburg. 

At that time, the word “digitalisation” had not been invented, we just developed software and some hardware pieces and tried to make our customers happy. I soon realised that the port was a really interesting playground and that there existed all kind of companies that wanted to use computers to better plan their operations and serve their customers better and more efficiently.

I also understood that not only was Hamburg the second largest port in Europe at that time, but the city also had a huge concentration of maritime businesses, with shipowners, ship management companies, Germanischer Lloyd (the classification society now part of DNV GL), and the shipyard Blohm&Voss. And they were all had a growing need to enter the age of the computer.

The software tools we developed became quite successful, and when I sold my first company, we had more than 1,000 clients and around 30 employees, and for a working class guy like me,this was not a bad deal.

On pilsner and progress

On my journey, I also realized that there are more interesting ports than Hamburg and that this industry has a lot of people around the world who are working together. I visited a lot of  nice gatherings and events around the world, and most of the people were open minded and fun to talk with.

Btw, Drinking beer with people and talking with them, is also some of the things I enjoy in life. Maybe this is the reason i really like this industry.

One of the biggest events the city hosts every 2 years is the SMM exhibition, which is the biggest trade fair for ship machineries, pumps, paint and other engineering stuff.  The whole world comes to visit us, every two years. I have always a booth there and try to organize parties for my clients and partners.

Also for some years, the Hamburg Eisbeinessen was fun to visit, however, I am unsure how long this annual dinner will last – the new generation is not so eager to get drunk and eat a pig leg.

Every year, we also have a big parade – the port anniversary – with over a million visitors coming from across Germany – maybe Europe –  the biggest highlight of this event is always the tugboat ballad – 20 tugs dancing on the water and producing exhaust and CO2 for the fun of the visitors, financed with people’s tax money. Besides this, almost every year a big cruise vessel has a naming ceremony during the event.

Because, I was reading more and more about ocean plastic, climate change, overfishing and other problems, I started the seadevcon conference – where I invited the local and global shipping community, NGO, sportsmen and artists to talk about the future of the maritime industry. The highlight is always our seadevcon award, which we give to outstanding persons for their lifetime achievement for the fight for a sustainable and respectful use of the world’s seas. 

Forcing change

Coming back to my hometown, in the last years the port and the community has not made a lot of improvements and in terms of innovation, digitalization or sustainability Hamburg is, I believe, far beyond Rotterdam,  Singapore, Antwerp or other ports. 

The port authority and the big terminal operators here in Hamburg are facing a lot of problems, the port is not growing anymore, the cruise business is gone because of Covid-19 , the terminals  are expensive and inefficient and we are  facing a lot of environmental issues, like bad air and dying river coming from the hard dredging work the port has to do, to keep the river open.  

At least, there are some initiatives for new ideas, innovations, startups, digitalisation, ai, blockchain – you name it. However most of this initatives  are more competing against each other, than helping new ideas or innovations to accelerate.

Having said that, I  would like that people understand that there is still a lot of potential in this city, coming from its maritime roots and that the shift towards sustainable shipping could be a great opportunity for the local community to grow and to survive. 

Probably it is our only chance to survive, because we still rely on an old business model, that is coming to an end. 

A lot of companies, which were important when I started my career have already gone or been bought out or merged with others to become less Hamburg: Germanischer Lloyd, Blohm&Voss, Hamburg Süd, just  to name a few.

So, let’s see, if we are able to grab this chance and can continue with our maritime tradition, so that we can build and operate sustainable ships and have a port that exists in coexistence with citizens and nature and that is an idol for other port cities in the world.

Otherwise it is Plan B for Hamburg: to become an huge maritime open air museum for folklore. Probably then, I can become a museum guide and try to increase my little pension – also an opportunity – just a little bit smaller.

Software and digital entrepreneur Carsten Bullemer

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Comments (1)

  1. I feel your pain Carsten! Old and proud history can sometimes be a hinderance for change.
    We are in a time of rapid transformation however. Those who are not able to mobilise and act, will fall behind. By making your cluster aware of threats on the horizon, you may be able to get some balls rolling, and so perhaps your message here at Fathom World may be a starting point for new action!

    We at FMA are curious to see how and if we can bring any value to the deadlock you are describing, so please don’t hesitate to reach out for a chat!

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