Uncovering the real value in logistics research

By Carolina Ciprés, Director of Research and Dr. Alicia Martínez de Yuso, Research Office Technician.

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Over the past couple of decades the European Commission has funded, in whole or in part, over 150 major research projects into aspects of freight transport and logistics, and ZLC has led or participated in more than 30 of these. The aim has been to bolster companies’ sustainability and competitiveness, thus generating value for society, and more particularly to improve the sector’s contribution to EU policy objectives.

These have not been merely theoretical or desk-based exercises. In most cases, innovative solutions have been comprehensively tested in ‘Living Labs’ – real goods moving in real lanes to real customers for real money, and involving significant investment by shipper and carrier companies and regulatory authorities across Europe and sometimes beyond.

Of course, not all proposed innovations passed these tests: nonetheless a substantial body of knowledge and experience has been built up demonstrating developments and innovations that work, the conditions that are necessary for them to succeed, and the financial and other paybacks that can be expected. Quite a number of technological developments (both physical and in IT) have subsequently been marketed.

It might be supposed therefore that companies and authorities would be queuing up to apply these learnings, but sadly that is not the case: indeed, even supply chains that have been directly involved in Living Labs haven’t necessarily continued, let alone extended, successful applications.

To understand why this is so, and to boost the impact of research and innovation (R&I), the EC is funding, from the Horizon 2020 budget, a new three-year project in which ZLC is part of its leading team. BOOSTLOG aims to enhance the whole R&I ecosystem at regional, national, and European levels by accelerating the take-up of technological and organisational innovation.

BOOSTLOG recognises that research project results – products, services and solutions – have been difficult to find, despite the existence of the European Technology Platform ALICE (Alliance for Logistics Innovation through Collaboration in Europe; do please view the website at www.etp-logistics.eu).  It is also quite difficult to valorise the research results: the companies and people who would need to buy in to a particular solution aren’t necessarily those who would see an immediate value or return from the commitment.

More widely, there are often real barriers to implementation. Organisations can be resistant to change, innovative solutions may not meet the requirements of regulatory regimes based around existing practices, and the market is highly fragmented while a relatively large number of operators, developers, end-users and other stakeholders in a logistics network need to be on board to achieve an impact. Furthermore, there hasn’t to date been any real framework or analysis for identifying the gaps in R&I coverage, and it may be that there are areas, apparently minor in themselves, that conceal real barriers to implementation. And of course the logistics landscape itself is not static – even without the impact of the current pandemic, trends in globalisation, and now towards localisation and protectionism, make a big difference for supply chains trying to find the best technological and organisational solutions.

So BOOSTLOG will start with a stocktake of current and recent EU-funded research, looking at their outcomes and the resources they generated, the extent to which their findings have been adopted or valorised, and the barriers that have impeded success.

Then, BOOSTLOG will be devising a valorisation strategy to accelerate innovation uptake. This will involve creating a community around an ‘Innovation Marketplace’ which will not only publicise results but show how to gain value from implementation. A heatmap will correlate research effort and findings with Logistics Clouds. (‘Clouds’ are a visualisation of the concepts and pain points, the tools being developed, the fields of potential application, and their links to other sectors and activities and to external factors such as developments in ICT, energy, the circular economy and so on). The heatmap should reveal, on the one hand, where viable solutions and developments have already been demonstrated, and to what extent they have been taken up (in effect, what impact EC-funded research has already had); and on the other hand, where there are gaps in R&I coverage. If the heatmap can show that covering those gaps would be really valued by stakeholders, that can be used to suggest to the Commission future targets for funding. The heatmap may also reveal application fields where the outputs from different research projects might usefully be combined for a multiplier effect.

BOOSTLOG will also be mounting an extensive series of interviews with developers and adopters of research results, trying to identify the elements that have led to success (or failure) and defining the relevant Key Performance Indicators that measure the impact of EU R&I research funding in this sector.

If we can understand the reasons behind project success, we can develop tools to improve uptake and value, and the relevant concepts and innovations can be actively promoted at regional, national, European and even global level. Part of the BOOSTLOG output will be a series of comprehensive, industry-actionable reports around particular fields, for example urban logistics, multimodal freight, logistics data sharing, or modularisation, to share the progress made and to highlight the impacts that are achievable through adopting the R&I findings and experiences.

Fortunately, because of the Living Lab approach to previous research, there is already a large body of significant companies, authorities, trade associations and networks such as ALICE and the like that have experience of the EC’s research programmes, so in reaching out and promoting to stakeholders it won’t be necessary to start from scratch.

If successful, BOOSTLOG should be a means of realising the considerable economic, environmental and societal gains that the EU’s research programmes have always been intended to achieve.

For more information contact Carolina Ciprés, ZLC Director of Research [email protected]