Whether you believe you can, or you believe you can’t, you’re probably right!

Whether you believe you can, or you believe you can’t, you’re probably right!

Rob Palin
February 7, 2023

The core message of the proverb in the title is that so much of our potential in life is bounded by our particular framing of the challenges we face.   Framing, or contextualising, is a perfectly normal part of how we make sense of the world around us, and helps us gauge both opportunities and threats, but the way that we do it tends to selectively reinforce whatever decision we made based upon it.  Over time, this leads to us solidifying our framing even when circumstances may have changed, and the relevant boundaries have been moved.  There is an inevitable discordance between the wisdom of past experience, and the calcification of outdated beliefs that manifests in both social and commercial aspects of life.  

As industries mature, a belief becomes established that all of the relevant opportunities have been pursued, the core challenges engaged with and handled to the point of diminishing returns, and essentially that only people who share similar past experience and future outlook have the ‘correct’ framing of what is assuredly an impenetrably complex situation.  

There is certainly truth in this belief, and often outsiders try unsuccessfully to disrupt established industries, having been convinced that they’ve perceived some otherwise unseen opportunity, but then having their hopes dashed against the unforgiving rocks of harsh reality.  Such failures further reinforce the ‘insider’ notion of what is possible.  

Every so often, however, some intrepid new player does make a robust infiltration into the mature marketplace, and even wholesale revolution may ensue.  The lesson here is that while it is correct to treasure hard-won specialist experience, it is also imperative to remain open to broader perspectives.  It turns out to be quite often the case that key challenges within one specific industry are manifested elsewhere with only relatively minor differences, and solutions may have been found there which transpose fairly well.  

This commonality of problems and solutions across industries can save vast amounts of effectively duplicated research & development, and allow for accelerated growth from communal learning.  What it requires, however, is a willingness to reconsider the framing of challenges and a humility to recognise the ingenuity of others in disparate fields.

So many things can be changed with a different framing.

In facing the difficult challenge of transitioning cargo shipping to a sustainable future, it is important that we consider our framing of the situation to ensure that we are neither unfairly defining the scope and nature of the problem, nor artificially constraining the possible solutions by extrapolating our past experience beyond the true limits of its applicability.  

The most common framing for the transition is to search for a replacement energy carrier that can be a drop-in replacement for the combustion of fossil fuels.  This formulation describes an enormously difficult problem, simply because the extraordinarily high energy densities of fossil fuels are one of their greatest strengths.  This high density is the result of many millions of years of investment in the concentration of ancient energy effectively done on our behalf by the Earth. To replicate this ourselves requires that we shoulder that burden instead, and is a formidable proposition.  

It is evident that framing defines the problem as almost insurmountable, and for sure this will have been the root cause of the relative lack of progress made so far in transitioning shipping to a sustainable future.  When we take a step back and look at the situation more generally, we see that this insuperability is really the result of looking at a jigsaw puzzle, and trying to change the picture by only swapping out one piece. If you take one piece out of a jigsaw, the one you replace it with has to be exactly the same shape, and you haven’t really changed much at all.  

If, however, you peel away some more pieces, you have the freedom to try different pieces in the same place, and to change more of the picture.  It is the interfaces that matter – keeping the perimeter edge pieces the same.  

In the case of shipping, we need to look at some of the core assumptions that supposedly constrain us to just changing this one puzzle piece.

One such fundamental assumption is that a ship needs to carry all the energy it could possibly need with it on its journey.  Obviously this wasn’t even a consideration in the past.  When Cook or Columbus set out on their travels, they only carried with them stored energy for the crew, not their ships.  The propulsive energy they needed to complete their voyages was harvested from the wind along the way.  The advent of combustion power changed the landscape, and brought with it new paradigms.  The new ways offered such big advantages over the old in terms of expanded scheduling freedom from the whims of weather, and higher speeds much of the time, that its boundaries became the new limits, rather than being an overlapping addendum to the existing ones.  

This biased framing has been exaggerated by the economics of differing fuel prices around the world, and a resulting over-specification of onboard fuel tank sizes to allow more selectivity on where ships fuel-up.  It is fairly common now for some large cargo ships to have fuel tanks sized for 80,000 km of travel, which is twice the circumference of the Earth.  This stacking of driving forces severely distorts the framing of the drop-in fuel replacement problem, leading to the belief that candidate fuels of half the energy density or less would need tanks sized equivalently for 4 fossil-powered loops of the globe. A requirement that could easily be fatal for their prospects, despite the apparent absurdity of it.

If we take a step back to the notion of allowing the stored energy paradigm to add to and expand the previous framing from the era of sailing ships, we see a situation where we could both harvest wind energy along our route, and fill in any gaps with power from stored energy.  This combination dramatically lowers the requirements for any drop-in combustion fuel replacement, and opens the field up to other stored energy solutions as well.  Our simple re-framing of the situation we face has revealed that far from an insurmountable challenge, we instead have a range of possible solutions open to us.  We thought we couldn’t, and we were right, but now we see that we could, and we can!