Pair agile business thinking with agile methods and it’s possible to make any digital dream — or transformation — come true. This is being demonstrated as the Italian Port Authorities use agile vision and methods to liberate ancient seaports from their physical geographies and virtualize the work done there in dry port (inland) locations. Partnering with agile experts at DXC Technology, Italian ports are digitally transforming to break port gridlock and boost the economy.

The port community is uniquely suited to digital transformation using agile methods, says Daniel Munyan, Ports & Shipping global offering leader for DXC. Harbours were historically chosen for their safe locations, near mountains or other topographical features that afforded protection. But the physical geography that protects ships docked in harbours also makes them “choke points”, slowing transport and business access to these hubs.

“Reimagining seaports using an agile mind-set was the first part of the transformation”, says Munyan. This entailed decoupling the physical port space and tasks of loading and unloading ships from the administrative tasks, which can be done digitally — and anywhere in “dry ports”. The second piece was to apply agile methods to realise the vision, as Munyan told his development team: “Your jobs are to make this vision come true.”

Agile methods were essential, because automating in the traditional way by speeding up processes doesn’t work in seaports, explains Munyan. “The problem is not about efficiency. The problem is inherent in the harbour — it’s a great anchorage, but a terrible business location.” With ships three times the size they were only decades ago and 10,000 lorries needed to transport a single ship’s load, ports are crowded places and a logistical nightmare.

Trucks can’t enter the port until others have departed and freed up capacity, whilst delays accrue significant fines — or “demurrage” in shipping vocabulary — as cargo is not only unloaded but also inspected. In the digital smart port, drivers, longshoremen  (who unload ships on the quayside), logistics and transport companies, and freight companies are all connected to one another and to the rail networks, so as to expedite the flow of traffic.

Layered over the already complex logistics of getting ships unloaded and lorries in and out is a plethora of official paperwork relating to each piece of cargo. The convergence of multiple stakeholders — including customs, security and other government agencies, plus shipping agents and more — means that port business isn’t sequential and can’t simply be speeded up. Converting from traditional seaport to smart, virtual port called for intelligent and automated analysis of workflow processes, and automated testing.

The agile method created users’ stories and automated testing of them before writing code, saving a lot of heartache — and averting certain failure had the project used a waterfall approach, says Munyan. “Behaviour and test-driven development let developers accurately determine how many hours a task will take, shape customers’ expectations and, crucially, prevent new functionality [from] breaking the old, which was the bane of our lives [with waterfall].”

Adopting an agile mind-set and project methods together made the re-imagination of a seaport, and its delivery in a new, virtualized format, possible. But the full value has been realised by using the full spectrum of digital transformation techniques and technologies.

“By analysing port transactional data,” says Munyan, “we understand processes better and have created optimal workflows between stakeholders, and between dry [ports] and seaports, as well as transport networks.”

Read about the transformation of the Italian seaports in the white paper, Use IT modernization to accelerate and scale business transformation.