Ocean economy and innovation

| What’s at stake?

The ocean is being used more intensively than ever before

This raises questions about its capacity to cope. Marine ecosystems sit at the heart of many of the world’s global challenges: climate regulation, food, medicines, new sources of clean energy, job creation and inclusive growth. But managing a wide diversity of maritime economic activities and exploiting marine resources requires judiciously improving ocean-related knowledge and taking precautions to preserve fragile marine ecosystems.

Science and innovation play a central role in fostering the much-needed transition of intense ocean utilisation to more sustainable practices. This balance between increasing ocean uses and marine ecosystems’ integrity require science, technology and innovation (STI) actions on multiple fronts, with new thinking and fresh approaches required in many areas.

| What’s the context?

The ocean is central to human health, wellbeing and economic activity through the many and invaluable functions and ecosystem services it provides.

But the cumulative impacts of anthropogenic pressures are pushing the ocean to unprecedented conditions, with an acceleration of ocean warming, acidification, dead zones as well as species decline (IPCC, 2019; IPBES, 2019). In order to tackle these rising challenges, scientific understanding of the ocean and its ecosystems – their properties and behaviour, their health and their role in weather and climate change – needs to improve further.

This is occurring at a time when science, technology and innovation (STI) activities are undergoing major changes themselves, with increasing effects on the ocean economy (read Rethinking Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean Economy). Galvanised by digitalisation, the transformation of ocean research and innovation processes is accelerating. New collaborative mechanisms are gaining ground in many parts of the world and disruptive digital technologies increasingly feature in commercial and scientific applications.

In terms of organisational innovations, research and innovation networks dedicated to the ocean are springing up in many parts of the world in response to changes in the national and international ocean economy landscape. These networks are initiatives that strive to bring together a diversity of players (e.g. public research institutes, large enterprises, small and medium sized enterprises, universities, other public agencies) into flexibly organised setups dedicated to specific ocean research or innovation objectives. Often nationally-based to start with, 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 networks are leveraging their organisational and skill diversity to benefit their partners and research in the ocean economy more generally. Examples of benefits include improved cross-sector synergies, access to research facilities and specialised knowledge, and dedicated support for start-ups. Other broader benefits include the building of scientific capacity and knowledge, and contributions to sustainable economic activity in general.

There is an acceleration of interest in the commercial and scientific applications of a range of new digital technologies, as to gain a better understanding of marine ecosystems, their workings, and the requirements for their better management. They spread throughout the ocean domain, and include artificial intelligence, big data, complex digital platforms, blockchain, drones, sophisticated arrays of sensors, small satellites, genetics, and acoustics. All 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, up to the surface for further transmission. In terms of disruptive technologies, many new ocean innovations are in the pipeline – especially those building on generic advances in science (e.g. biochemistry, physics) and technology (e.g. artificial intelligence, robotics, big data) – and they appear set to enhance knowledge and understanding of marine ecosystems and their functions and improve ocean industries’ performance markedly. 

| What needs to be done?

Boosting the awareness of and the effectiveness of burgeoning ocean economy knowledge and innovation networks will contribute to improve the science and industry linkages.

Some of these existing networks are driven by maritime industries working as clusters (often involving SMEs) while others are taking the shape of specifically designed centres of excellence and innovation labs, aiming to leverage the potential synergies of technological innovations across different maritime activities. Some are private-sector managed, others pursue a "quadruple helix" approach involving co-operation among business, the research community, the public sector and civil society via NGOs. They are still often in niche areas and could be highlighted as useful national and international nods for active industry-science cooperation.

Getting different science and industry expert communities that largely ignored each other so far to meet and speed-date.

Considerable potential to further ocean science and innovation resides in leveraging technology synergies across scientific disciplines and among different ocean industries. There is a range of likely disruptive and step-change innovations being developed right now in different oceanographic research laboratories and universities (often not always linked to marine courses). These combine multiple digital technologies, that could find original scientific and commercial application in activities as varied as ocean floor mapping, smart shipping, and tracing fish stocks and fish products in the next two to three years. Linkages between experts need to be made, and ocean economy knowledge and innovation networks can play a role in developing these.

| What are countries doing?

The connection between ocean science and industry is gaining ground in many areas and particularly in some OECD countries, as shown by the multiplication of dedicated ocean economy knowledge and innovation networks (read Rethinking Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean Economy). There is an increasing number of initiatives to learn from, as demonstrated by a selected illustrations below, with key public research institutes and universities acting as orchestrators of these active knowledge and innovation networks.



First, the ability to test innovations in a controlled environment removes an important barrier to the development of many ocean technologies, via access to suitable research facilities and specialised knowledge, This represent an important raison d’être of the knowledge and innovation networks. As an illustration, the recently formed Campus mondial de la mer in Brest, at the tip of French Brittany, is building upon existing regional strengths to facilitate further communication, practical co-ordination of joint activities and access to demonstration sites on behalf of its community. The local authorities have nurtured the area’s historical association with the ocean through business support organisations and other support services such as technology transfer programmes. The network builds further links between research institutions, such as the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (Ifremer), traditional ocean-based industries such as fishing fleets, newly established innovative companies and a vibrant university community with strong links to the sea.



The Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy in Ireland (MaREI) represents another good example of how innovation networks can be utilised to co-ordinate a fragmented research environment, enabling novel approaches to problem solving and boosting the development of new innovations. Headquartered at University College Cork, MaREI brings together a wide range of research groups, some 75 industry partners, offers testing infrastructure and facilitates innovation in marine renewable energy through the co-ordination of efforts among the research and development community. The technologies it develops are aimed at harnessing ocean energy to generate electricity (e.g. offshore wind, tidal stream, ocean current, tidal range, wave, and thermal and salinity gradients.). Although still very much at demonstration stages in most cases, they are increasingly recognised as opportune for countries looking to shift their energy mix away from fossil fuels.



As a final example, most aquaculture at present takes place in coastal waters sheltered from rough conditions. In Norway, where significant parts of the coast are exposed to harsh conditions, this greatly reduces that amount of space available to industrial fish farming. Moving into exposed conditions therefore represents a potential opportunity for the industry. However, the technologies currently available to fish farmers are not suitable for operations in exposed areas. Moreover, the technological and logistical complexity of operating in exposed locations is significantly greater than in sheltered areas, and environmental precautions are crucial. The EXPOSED Aquaculture centre aims to foster the innovation required to enable fish farming in exposed locations by matching research priorities with industrial applications, bringing together a network of four leading research institutions and 14 industry partners. The types of technologies under development include autonomous systems and technologies for remote operations, monitoring and decision support for fish, site and operations; structures for exposed locations; and vessel designs for exposed operations. The network is currently building knowledge and competence capacity through the training of dozens of PhD candidates, post-docs and MSc candidates.



| What’s the outlook?

The international economic downturn provoked by the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis casts a shadow of uncertainty on the evolutions of the ocean economy, but key trends remain. The world’s ocean remains under increasing pressure from climate change, pollutions and from a growing range of intense economic activities that are disrupting and even destroying ecosystems. Policy-makers will need to manage these pressures and the potential that sustainable ocean industries can make to global economic growth and employment in the years ahead (read The Ocean Economy in 2030 and The Economist, A sustainable ocean economy in 2030: Opportunities and challenges, World Ocean Initiative, June 2020). A dynamic ocean economy of the future needs therefore to go hand in hand with efforts to improve its sustainability and this comes with opportunities for innovative countries.

Fostering a national ocean economy, based on sustainable use of ocean resources supported by rigorous scientific information, can contribute to socio-economic development. But short-term, the impacts of the crisis will affect the international research landscape, with consequences on the re-prioritization of some marine science programmes, funding schemes (e.g. some marine protected areas are suddenly without resources in some developing countries) and even the set-up of some crucial research infrastructures. In this context, the importance of ocean science will need to remain at the forefront to face the challenges posed by the acceleration in the deterioration of the ocean, by the changing climate, and by increased economic activities in the ocean.

Balancing economic activities with healthier marine environments calls for improving the science-industry nexus as a priority. Ocean science, R&D and innovation remain crucial building blocks for the future of the ocean to foster scientific knowledge, improve ocean governance, and promote responsible industry practices. In this context, innovation resulting from efficient science-industry partnerships will be ever more determinant on how our ocean is explored, managed, protected, and on how adequate regulations are enforced in many parts of the world. The forthcoming UN Decade of ocean science for sustainable development can play a catalytic role for this by allowing very diverse stakeholders to be more aware of ongoing and future collaborative projects.

The OECD work on the ocean economy and innovation will be supporting the UN Decade of ocean science for sustainable development, providing data and evidence-based analysis to foster new efficient ocean policy initiatives. The STI ocean economy work has provided original data and analysis to countries on the ocean economy for the past six years. Its two areas of expertise include the measurement of ocean-based economic activities, and the development of evidence on the role of science, technology and innovation as drivers of ocean sustainability. Further work in 2021-22 will enhance this expertise to support ever-more decision-makers.

Discover the OECD Ocean Portal to dive into our ocean-related work.


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