Collaboration the key to clever urban logistics

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Text: Oliver Schönfeld
Photos: Shutterstock, University of Duisburg-Essen

The best logistics solutions are those that aren’t needed in the first place. That is the opinion of Professor Ani Melkonyan-Gottschalk, Managing Director of the Centre for Logistics and Transport (ZLV) at the University of Duisburg-Essen. She argues that individual logistics solutions alone are not enough to meet the challenges of urban infrastructure and that instead dual-purpose concepts hold the key to a sustainable logistics future.

Entrepreneurs primarily think in economic terms: They seek to ‘optimise processes’, ‘increase efficiency’ and ‘maximise profits’. “Logistics companies also need a clear vision of the future purpose they will fulfil, namely helping to ensure society is sustainably supplied with goods and services,” explains Dr. Melkonyan-Gottschalk.

ZLV study shows people willing to accept increased prices in return for sustainable logistics

But the provision of a sustainable logistics service may come at a price. Studies conducted by the ZLV which surveyed more than 1,500 participants have shown that consumers are willing to accept a surcharge of between four to five euros per shipment of goods for demonstrably sustainable goods transport. A good three quarters of those surveyed responded they would pay more for sustainable goods transport, she said. “We have discussed the results of the studies with numerous logistics companies, but none have yet dared to break from the ongoing price war trend.”

»The pain points in urban logistics are well known, but currently it is the wrong people who are taking the hit.«

Professor Ani Melkonyan-Gottschalk, Managing Director of the Centre for Logistics and Transport at the University of Duisburg-Essen

Clever forms of cooperation are needed

The logistics expert explains that it has long been apparent that both public infrastructure and logistics chains are reaching their limits as the result of continual increases in goods traffic, in particular in urban areas. “The pain points in urban logistics are well known, but currently it is the wrong people who are taking the hit – society as a whole and the people in urban neighbourhoods. The companies themselves don’t seem to be feeling it enough yet.” Dr. Melkonyan-Gottschalk adds that logistics service providers clearly need to cooperate more with one another in order to reduce the amount of goods traffic in cities and improve logistics processes. Concepts such as “The Green Logistics Hotel” in Vienna, which serves as a cross-company micro-depot and consolidation centre, are positive examples of the opportunities associated with closer collaboration, she went on to say.

Logistics industry unable to solve multi-faceted problem alone

The ZLV has organised numerous workshops with companies to discuss the last-mile-logistics challenges they face. Time and time again it has been shown that transport service providers are unable to sustainably improve urban logistics alone, the ZLV managing director explains. “This task also requires public authorities to make decisions and regulatory guidelines to be in place. In addition, it is ultimately the responsibility of local government to solve the often multi-faceted problem by themselves.” According to the ZLV logistics expert, there are also still many hurdles to overcome in the logistics industry itself, as is the case, for example, with the provision of the necessary company data for successful collaborations to take place. Furthermore, other actors and stakeholders, such as municipalities, local trade representatives as well as cultural associations, should also be involved in the decision-making process.

Duisburg plans for pilot project unveiled

The ZLV research group is currently involved in a pilot project which is set to take place in Duisburg: an empty department store located in the city centre is to be used as a micro-depot for several logistics companies and is also to become an attractive meeting place for food lovers thanks to a new indoor market offering fresh regional produce as well as restaurants for those who wish to dine out. “The concept is designed to improve the appeal of city centres again, reduce the number of building unit vacancies that have risen in many places as a result of the pandemic, while also exploring potential new urban logistics avenues,” says Dr. Melkonyan-Gottschalk.

Duisburg’s own digital twin

Applications to attain EU funding for the Duisburg pilot project are currently being processed, and the Ministry of Transport of North Rhine-Westphalia is also interested in the plans, she says. She is confident that it will be possible to launch the pilot project in spring 2023 and noted that “The ZLV will be there to support the project scientifically. To do so, we want to create a digital twin of the entire city in order to attain a digital representation of the various sectors which supply public utilities and which are responsible for sewage and waste disposal so that we can improve them.” The hope is that, in the future, if digital twins exist not only for one but for as many large European cities as possible, it may be possible to find solutions exactly scaled to specific cities to improve logistical efficiency and make inner cities more liveable.
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