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?

Previous OECD analysis projected a marked acceleration in a range of ocean economic activities by 2030. The estimates suggested the value added generated by ocean based industry globally could double in size from USD 1.5 trillion in global value added in 2010 to USD 3 trillion in 2030. In particular, marine aquaculture, marine capture fisheries, marine fish processing, offshore wind and port activities were seen as having the potential to outperform the global economy. Based on such growth, major pressures on the marine environment were expected to increase.

Since such analysis was conducted, however, governments have necessarily taken drastic action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many ocean activities, not least those at the heart of the global trade and transportation system, are affected by measures to control the spread of the disease and the associated economic effects are likely to be major. The precise impacts of this disruption on the future of the ocean economy and on the marine environment are, as yet, unclear. However, economic activity is broadly expected to slow down and some years may pass before pre-crisis levels are reached again.

The high degree of uncertainty surrounding the next few years suggests that building strategies that seek to maintain the potential of the ocean economy prior to the COVID-19 crisis will be challenging. However, many of the same issues associated with growth in the ocean economy remain. For instance, longer term demand for marine sources of food, energy, minerals, leisure pursuits and so on is still likely to grow along with the global population. Sustainability should remain a crucial factor in decision making surrounding the ocean economy, as policymakers are considering strategies that will stimulate their economies once it is safe to do so.

The adoption of integrated management strategies, fostering collaboration between ocean science and ocean industry, and improved marine data collection and dissemination are but a few recommendations in the OECD reports The Ocean Economy in 2030 (2016) and Rethinking Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (2019) that should bolster economic activity while contributing to the conservation and sustainable use of marine ecosystems. Furthermore, the ocean is a source of clean energy and other renewable resources that are as yet underutilised in many parts of the world and could provide sustainable economic activity should well-targeted investments be made. In light of the pandemic and its impacts, the OECD will continue to study ocean economic activities and their potential future, with a particular emphasis on the role of science, technology and innovation on sustainable development.

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

Advances in the ocean economy go hand in hand with innovations in science and technology. 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 affecting 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 the policy level, national research agendas are increasingly emphasising the need to tackle “grand challenges” in multiple 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. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are also re-shaping some STI policy agendas.

The ocean STI landscape must also be considered in light of efforts to control the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in view of the forthcoming United Nations Decade for Ocean Science. The crisis could have enduring impacts on the international research landscape, with consequences on the re-prioritization of programmes, funding schemes and the setting up of research infrastructures. In this context, the importance of ocean science will need to remain at the forefront of efforts to face challenges posed by accelerations in the deterioration of ocean health, the changing climate, and ocean economic activity. The OECD will continue to build the evidence base on effective STI strategies to support the recovery efforts.

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.

For further information, please contact

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