Netherlands Customs hosted international conference on innovation

From 18 to 20 October, the Customs Administration of the Netherlands hosted the WCO Technology Conference & Exhibition. This was a huge honour and a great ending to our anniversary year. The World Customs Organisation (WCO) organised this conference with the topic ‘Driving Customs Performance with Data and Technology in the Changing Landscape of Global Trade’.

More complex world, new approach

The economy is digitising, power blocks are shifting and the platform economy continues to grow. And all of these things are accelerated by global struggles like Brexit, the energy crisis, the war in Ukraine, labour shortages and the pandemic. Our globalised world is becoming more complicated every day. One of the most important shifts for customs has been the growth of e-commerce. Large container ships used to be packed with several commercial shipments for known companies; nowadays, they carry thousands of small packages from unknown suppliers to consumers.

All this creates a world of trade that keeps changing, which in turn requires a very different approach to customs work as well. Customs administrations all over the world are therefore researching and using new methods and techniques. The motivation behind this is the fact that in our ever-changing ‘trade landscape’, we can only continue to properly monitor the flows of goods crossing borders with technological innovation and data-driven control. Methods and techniques such as big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning and auto-detection therefore form the basis of future customs control.

International knowledge sharing

The proper use of new technologies strongly depends on sharing knowledge and experience. This is also the opinion of the WCO, an umbrella organisation of more than 180 customs administrations, jointly responsible for some 98% of world trade. That is why the WCO organises this annual event, each time at a different place and on a different topic. This year, the conference was held in the Netherlands and it focussed on innovation. For 2.5 days, the MECC conference centre in Maastricht was filled with about 1,100 visitors from all over the world. About 350 more visitors joined online. These were mostly employees of customs administrations, but employees of government organisations, data science universities and technology companies were present as well. The attendees came from all over the world: from Uruguay to Norway and from Kenya to Japan.

Working together on smart enforcement and smooth logistics

During the opening ceremony of the conference Director-General for Netherlands Customs Nanette van Schelven and the guest of honour, State Secretary for Benefits and Customs Aukje de Vries, gave speeches that stressed the importance of cooperation. Customs organisations all over the world do the same thing and face the same challenges. They collect taxes and protect society from unwanted goods whilst disturbing legal trade as little as possible. That is why we need to work together, especially in a world that is becoming increasingly more data and technology-driven. In his speech, WCO Secretary-General Kunio Mikuriya talked about the importance of embracing and sharing data. In the grand opening presentation that followed, head of trade relations Frank Heijmann and Enforcement Policy Director Arno Kooij of the Customs Administration of the Netherlands presented their vision of the future: an ‘adaptive’ customs administration that uses smart enforcement to ensure smooth logistics. A path that the Netherlands Customs has already embarked on, but which we will need to ‘refine’ in years to come.

Substantive programme

The conference consisted of a substantive, technical programme with panel sessions, presentations, a lecture tour, a hackathon with students from technical degree programmes and round tables covering a variety of innovations, such as car detection. The focus was not only on the added value of applying technology and data for customs organisations, but on what technology we need to focus if we are going to use it for our enforcement as well. The use of such technologies requires a great deal of care and responsibility from a government organisation. We have to be careful about privacy, for example. The importance of open-source technology, which everyone can work with and work on, was stressed several times during the conference. The opportunities offered by technology to work more sustainably, e.g. paper-free, were discussed as well.

There was also an exhibition where visitors could see technology at work. The Netherlands Customs gave demonstrations of the innovations we are already using today, such as drones, a mobile scan, OED and a diving team. At the exhibition, tech companies presented themselves and their services. Customs administrations need these companies to fulfil their innovative ambitions. During the networking sections of the programme, customs officers were given the opportunity to gain and bring more in-depth knowledge and experience and establish valuable contacts.

Technology: for better work and a better world

Arno Kooij concluded the conference by looking back on three successful days, and so does the Customs Administration of the Netherlands. A conference like this contributes fully to our vision. Innovation is essential in this complex world and, above all, we need to work on it together. Not just because together we have more knowledge and experience, but also because people and resources are scarce. We should cooperate with other customs administrations,other enforcement organisations and the business community. Both in the Netherlands and all over the world. The Netherlands Customs strongly and clearly embraces technology and all the opportunities it can bring to our enforcement. We recognise that technology is essential in overcoming  challenges in the world of trade and logistics and are fully committed to it. Because it allows us to do our job better and more effectively. Technology offers Customs opportunities to make the world a fairer, better and safer place.