Innovation for a sustainable ocean economy

In addition to its crucial role for regulating the climate and weather, the ocean is vital to the world’s economy, with more than 90% of trade using sea routes and as a source of jobs for millions of people. The ocean is also the stage for a growing range of new ocean-related economic activities and constant innovations.

But the ocean is also facing unprecedented pressures, from pollution to climate change. And these pressures are only projected to rise in the future. The need to balance the preservation of a healthy ocean and ever-increasing economic activities requires fresh approaches and rethinking in many areas.

The OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation provides decision-makers with evidence on industries, science and innovation in the ocean economy, to harness the ocean economy’s potential in a responsible and sustainable way.

Key reports

What is the ocean economy?

The ocean and its resources are increasingly seen as indispensable to addressing the multiple challenges the planet is set to face in the coming decades. By 2050, the world’s population is projected to be at least 9 billion, with corresponding demands for food, jobs, energy, raw materials and economic growth. The potential of the ocean to help meet these requirements is huge, but the ocean is already under stress from overexploitation, pollution, declining biodiversity and climate change. Care needs to be taken to increase the sustainability of the ocean economy while harnessing its benefits.

The ocean economy is defined by the OECD as the sum of the economic activities of ocean-based industries, together with the assets, goods and services provided by marine ecosystems. These two pillars are interdependent, in that much activity associated with ocean-based industry is derived from marine ecosystems, while industrial activity often impacts marine ecosystems.

The interdependency of ocean-based industries and marine ecosystems combined with increasingly severe threats to the health of the ocean, have led to a growing recognition of the need for an integrated approach to ocean management. Several management strategies have been suggested to achieve this, including Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM), Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) and Marine Protected Areas (MPA). An accurate and extensive information base on ocean economic activity, the marine environment and the interactions between the two is crucial to each of these strategies, but is often still lacking. Greater understanding of the economic value of marine ecosystems could help spur integrated ocean management in support of sustainability goals, and is gaining more attention at national and international levels.

Robust data will be fundamental to ensuring ocean-based industries and marine ecosystems are managed in an integrated manner. The OECD, in close cooperation with national and international stakeholders, is currently assessing how to improve the socio-economic evidence on ocean industries, building on lessons-learned from its initial ocean economy database, developed in the context of an original OECD foresight project on the ocean economy to 2030.

How much could the ocean economy grow by 2030?

The OECD projects a marked acceleration in economic activity in the ocean by 2030, based on the rapidly expanding ocean industries combined with expectations of moderate growth in already large industries like maritime and coastal tourism, offshore oil and gas, shipbuilding and maritime equipment. Conservatively, ocean-based industries’ gross value added could double in size by 2030, reaching around USD 3 trillion – roughly equivalent to the size of the German economy in 2010 (OECD, 2016, Figure 2). Some ocean industries’ value added is set to grow even faster than the world economy. These include marine aquaculture, capture fisheries, fish processing, offshore wind, and port activities. Employment in ocean industries as a whole may more than double by 2030 to more than 40 million, roughly the size of Germany’s current labour force, thereby outpacing markedly the overall growth rate of the global workforce. The OECD projects growth particularly in marine aquaculture, fish processing, offshore wind and port activities.

Consequently, pressures on the ocean’s natural assets will increase in the coming years, as demands continue to grow on marine sources of food, energy, minerals, leisure pursuits and so on. Similarly, ocean space in many regions of the world risks becoming ever more crowded, as maritime trade, marine aquaculture, ocean renewable energy, and marine and coastal tourism, and other activities gather momentum and, by virtue of their growth, generate further demand in related, interconnected ocean-based industries. The ocean is already under stress from over-exploitation, pollution, declining biodiversity and climate change. Business-as-usual expansion of economic activities in the ocean is not an option for the future, as it would further jeopardise the ocean’s health and resources, thereby undermining the very basis on which the ocean industries themselves depend. Realising the full potential of the ocean demands ever more responsible and sustainable approaches to its economic development.

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Science, technology and innovation for a sustainable ocean economy

The ocean is now being used more intensively than ever before, raising questions about its physical capacity to cope. At the same time, however, scientific understanding of the ocean and its ecosystems – their properties and behaviour, their health and role in weather and climate change – is gradually improving, although many questions remain. To respond effectively to the growing challenges associated with the development of very diverse activities in the ocean, science, technology and innovation (STI) will play a growing role in contributing to manage the development of the ocean economy in a responsible way.

A new STI context for the ocean

The increasing attention to the ocean is occurring at a time when science, technology and innovation activities themselves are undergoing major changes. Galvanised by digitalisation, the transformation of scientific research and innovation processes is speeding up in many parts of the world, in almost all disciplines and sectors of the economy. The adoption of disruptive technologies (e.g. artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain) is starting to affect academic research areas and business innovation cycles alike. The promotion of collaborative and open innovation is also changing the way researchers are training and working together. At policy level, a number of national research agendas are increasingly emphasising the need to tackle “grand challenges”, in economic, societal and environmental areas. In some countries, this new focus takes the shape of mission-oriented STI policies, steering the direction of science and technology towards ambitious and socially relevant goals, with Sustainable Development Goals re-shaping in some cases STI policy agendas.

The potential for STI to contribute to the sustainable use of the ocean is vast

Science is crucial to achieving global sustainability and adequate stewardship of the ocean, since it provides the ability to deepen our understanding and monitor the ocean’s resources, its health, as well as predict changes in its status.

Sustained ocean observations are for instance an essential part of worldwide efforts to better understand the ocean and its functioning. These observing systems comprise fixed platforms, autonomous and drifting systems, submersible platforms, ships at sea, and remote observing systems such as satellites and aircraft, using increasingly efficient technologies and instruments to gather, store, transfer and process large volumes of ocean observation data. The data derived from such instruments are crucial for many different scientific communities and for a wide range of public and commercial users active in the ocean economy. They underpin a wide range of scientific research, and critically support the safe, effective and sustainable use of ocean resources and the ocean environment. Developing and sustaining them requires significant public investment, the justification for which calls for rigorous assessment of the associated costs and benefits and value to society. The significance of ocean observations is growing, building on traditional scientific missions to provide evidence and increase our understanding of the ocean. But now these observations also contribute to monitor the development of ocean economic activities and to improve marine spatial planning. The general public also benefits, becoming both a user of these observations (e.g. tracking algal blooms on beaches) and a provider of data via original citizen science projects. Many innovations are taking place in small to large-scale ocean observing systems, and fresh approaches are needed to close gaps in knowledge surrounding the societal impacts of publicly funded ocean observation systems. Possible solutions include improved tracking of users (both scientific and operational), the mapping of value chains, and improvements to methodologies through the development of international standards or guidelines to conduct socio-economic assessments.

In parallel, a string of enabling technologies promises to stimulate improvements in efficiency, productivity and cost structures in many ocean activities, from scientific research and ecosystem analysis to shipping, energy, fisheries and tourism. These technologies include imaging and physical sensors, satellite technologies, advanced materials, information and communication technology (ICT), big data analytics, autonomous systems, biotechnology, nanotechnology and subsea engineering. New enabling technologies appear set to contribute in important ways to the sustainable development of the ocean economy, not least by vastly improving data quality, data volumes, connectivity and communication from the depths of the sea, through the water column, and up to the surface for further transmission. Blockchain and big data analytics applications, for example, are starting to be deployed in port facilities and maritime supply chains in many OECD economies and beyond. Shipping companies, logistics businesses, port operators and other maritime transport stakeholders are looking to more integrated services across the entire supply chain as a means of generating cost savings and greater efficiencies, as well as improvements in quality of service. The prospects for achieving those benefits by getting the various relevant operations (administration, logistics, shipping, terminal and port) to work together more smoothly have been boosted by the advent of digital platform technologies. This has the potential for greening further some commercial operations, saving energy, fuel in transport, and limiting pollution.

Scientific discovery and innovation fostered by new ways of collaborating

Scientific discovery and successful innovation often require fresh thinking in the organisation and structure of the research process itself. And so it is with ocean-related research, development and innovation. Newly set-up ocean economy innovation networks strive to bring together a diversity of players (public research institutes, large enterprises, small- and medium-sized enterprises, universities etc.) into flexibly organised networks. They work on a range of scientific and technological innovations, in many different sectors of the ocean economy (e.g. marine robotics and autonomous vehicles, aquaculture, marine renewable energy, biotechnologies, offshore oil and gas). Such research and industry-networks are springing up in many parts of the world in response to changes in the national and international ocean research environment, and leveraging their organisational and skill diversity to benefit their partners and research in the ocean economy more generally.

In view of the many new challenges to come in developing sound and sustainable ocean management strategies, it will be beneficial for decision-makers, in both public and private spheres, to identify and map further the innovations and the adequate cooperation mechanisms that have the potential to foster ocean economic activity, with positive impacts on and beyond the marine environment.

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About our work

The OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation (STI)’s work on the ocean economy builds on the findings of the foresight report The Ocean Economy in 2030 and the analytical work already ongoing since 2013. The current work programme of the Ocean Economy Group aims to provide evidence-based information to improve the research and innovation policy mix for sustainable ocean management. This is undertaken through a series of expert workshops, research on new OECD indicators and close cooperation with ocean-related communities around the world, including research centres, ministries, academia, industries, and with the support of voluntary and in-kind contributions from ministries and other administrations of OECD member economies that form the Steering Group of this activity. The strands of work are organised around five major themes:

  • Scientific advances and enabling technologies driving sustainability in the ocean economy
  • Economic measurement and ocean industries foresight
  • Knowledge and innovation networks in the ocean economy
  • Exploration of new indicators of science, technology and innovation in the ocean economy
  • Economics of ocean observations

These activities contribute to the broader priorities of the OECD Committee on Science and Technology Policy (CSTP), including for example digitalisation and emerging technologies for addressing grand challenges.

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Steering Group members

  • Belgium: Department of Economy, Science and Innovation, Flemish Government
  • Canada: Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED)
  • Denmark: Danish Maritime Authority
  • Germany: German Marine Research Consortium (KDM)
  • Ireland: Marine Institute
  • Italy: Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn
  • Korea: Korea Marine Institute (KMI)
  • Norway: The Research Council of Norway (RCN)
  • Portugal: Direção-Geral de Política do Mar (DGPM) / Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT)
  • Spain: Oceanic Platform of the Canary Islands (PLOCAN)
  • United Kingdom: Marine Scotland Science, Scottish Government
  • United States: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration