In my regular conversations with the leaders of border and customs agencies around the world, I sometimes ask them this question: “If you solved all the problems at your land borders – congestion, delays at peak times, large amounts of time spent on inspections – and everything was great, what would be your next move?”

Invariably they reply: “I’d like to push my borders beyond the borders of our country.” They don’t mean pushing them back geographically. Instead, they’re referring to the concept of the “invisible border”, which involves using digital technologies to enable trade and travellers start crossing the border before they reach the actual frontier.

Blending physical and digital

How does this work? When most of us think of a border crossing, we visualise the structures and buildings at the site itself – gates, booths, lanes – and the physical activities that take place there. But in the digital era, the border is expanding beyond its physical layout to become a virtual space where data can do much of the work.

There are essentially three steps in crossing any border: pre-arrival, arrival and post-arrival. In the old physical era, most of the activity such as filling in firms, entering data and submitting and approving declarations would take place on arrival. The results commonly included queues and delays.

But the advent of digital technologies means it doesn’t have to be this way. By ensuring that as many activities and processes as possible are handled at the pre-arrival stage, often in other countries, a border agency can dramatically reduce how much happens at the actual border itself – thereby making the border effectively invisible.

Focusing on the customer experience

Handling processes before arrival at the border also does something else: it helps to create a seamless and pleasant experience for users – especially those who are familiar and trusted travellers and traders requiring less scrutiny.

But this isn’t an automatic outcome. If an agency wants to make its border invisible, it can take one of two approaches. First, it can focus solely on the technology needed to collect and track data before and during the border crossing. The drawback here is that it might overlook the experience of people using the border – which may be so unpleasant that they never want to come back.

The second – much more productive – approach is to start with the customer experience you want to create, and then decide what technology is needed to deliver it. Clearly, every border has to apply some non-negotiable requirements around security and other laws and regulations. But there’s still room to meet these while promising and delivering a seamless and positive experience to every customer.

Easy and touchless

How to achieve this? By following the user’s footprints across the border, and bringing together the right technologies to make it as easy and touchless as possible. Technologies like Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics and even facial recognition can help an agency to guarantee a pleasant and unintrusive border experience to every legitimate and law-abiding traveller.

Regular readers will notice there’s a close linkage here with one of my previous blogs in this series, on how land ports can use data-enabled targeting to transform inspections. The same data-rich technologies that enable the minority of suspicious border users to be singled out for closer scrutiny can also be used to help fulfil the promise of a smoother and faster border crossing for the vast majority who follow with the rules.

A two-way street

That’s why the invisible border is a two-way street between users and border agencies. People who provide information and declarations digitally in advance – and can be trusted to pass through without needing rigorous inspection – will get the full seamless experience offered by the digital expansion of the border. Those that decide not to cooperate may be saddled with the old problems of congestion and delays.

What’s more, the benefits of complying with requests for pre-arrival data will grow as the momentum behind invisible borders continues to increase. In some countries in the Middle East, the “single window” through which traders interact with the customs agency is set to evolve into a “national trade platform”. The role of such a platform will extend beyond compliance to shape the journey itself at the border.

The message? Today, the process of crossing the border can begin before a truck leaves its depot or a traveller leaves home. Smart border agencies can see their future – and it’s invisible.

Disclaimer: This content is provided for general information purposes and is not intended to be used in place of consultation with our professional advisors.

Copyright © 2021 Accenture. All rights reserved. Accenture and its logo are registered trademarks

Mohammed Adlani

Client Account Lead


Jorien Kerstens

Senior Manager – Consulting, Public Service, Border Services

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