Between AI and Climate Change: The Sustainable Transformation of Logistics

The full auditorium of KLU with president Andreas Kaplan on stage.

Logistics Day of the Kühne Foundation at Kühne Logistics University Geopolitics, climate change, and new technologies: the massive changes of our time call for a fundamental transformation, and the logistics sector is no exception. The sector must rise to the challenge and above all quickly learn how to tap the potential of new AI tools – this was the key conclusion of the 19th Logistics Day, hosted by the Kühne Foundation at KLU in Hamburg. At the event, more than 140 experts from the academic and business worlds discussed the challenges and opportunities in connection with the transformation of logistics, from leadership to supply chain management, to humanitarian logistics.

“Our goal today is to explore how logistics, together with the digital transformation and sustainability, can drive forward the decisive changes needed to face the challenges of our time,” said KLU President Prof. Andreas Kaplan in his opening address for the 19th Logistics Day. In his view, the event’s theme – Logistics reimagined, responsible transformation in the age of AI – was an excellent fit with KLU’s objectives and mission.


Digitalization as opportunity and challenge alike

In a total of nine sessions, the Logistics Day offered a platform for shedding light on various facets of the transformation currently underway, together with the attendant opportunities and risks. What can various AI tools already offer? What could the future of logistics look like?

One key to the digital transformation: processes. In her keynote, Prof. Stefanie Rinderle-Ma (TUM Munich) showed how AI can be used to analyze and present processes with far less time and expense than in the past. “Logistics is more exciting than classic fields, as it brings together systems, people, and the physical world,” she said. “In turn, processes bring all these elements together in an integrated manner and help us understand the connections between them.”

One important aspect for a successful transformation is the interplay between human beings and technologies. Skepticism, let alone fear, is a poor guide – and in most cases, unnecessary. Encouragement came e.g. from leadership expert Prof. Niels Van Quaquebeke in his talk on “Your Bit Boss,” which addressed the possibilities of leading with AI.

“There are countless opportunities,” stressed Dietmar Guhe (Arvato) in the session on generative AI in supply chain management. Fear, he claimed, can be divisive – even though new technologies by no means make human beings obsolete. “It takes experts to evaluate what the AI wrote,” he said. Optimizing this type of collaboration between AI and human beings is now urgently needed to fruitfully upscale the technology, as Prof. Kai Hoberg and Frank Vorrath (Danfoss Climate Solutions) argued in their analysis. According to Hoberg: “Transparency is the key […] Managers have to learn firsthand when their input actually worsens the results produced by AI – then they’ll adapt their behavior and refrain from unnecessary interventions.”

On the way to a sustainable and just future

In addition to digitalization, adapting to the worsening climate change is an important driver for the ongoing transformation. “Logistics is the key,” said Sven Hennebach (TOMRA Reuse) in the session on reusable packaging in the foodservice industry. “For example, by using the logistics systems already in place, we can massively facilitate the introduction of the new system,” said Hennebach. In this way, logistics – which, as a major source of emissions, is currently still part of the problem – could become part of the solution for a sustainable economy.

The talks came full circle with the closing keynote by Prof. Felix Creutzig (Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change). By bringing together Big Data and AI, various types of cities can be quickly and efficiently analyzed. “If this data is then combined with, say, data on the ‘last mile’ for deliveries, it can pave the way for designing political instruments and logistics solutions that lead to reduced traffic, noise, and emissions in our cities,” he said.

Major challenges – major opportunities

“It’s great to see how many of you have found the time today to exchange notes with your peers and members of the academic community,” said Dr. Jörg Dräger, Executive Director of the Board of Trustees of the Kühne Foundation, at the end of this year’s Logistics Day. There are more perspectives on logistics, he claimed, than efficiency, process optimization and reducing costs. “To name just three: resilience and adaptation to climate change, sustainability, and assuming responsibility for ensuring that supply chains around the world are fair,” he said.

Impressions of the 19th Logistics Day of the Kuehne Foundation