Friday, June 16, 2006


Thinking Outside the Box about the Box

From my house in the Berkeley hills I have a great view across the bay to San Francisco but I like to watch the foreground action in the Port of Oakland where towering Panamax cranes taller than most of the buildings in downtown Oakland load and unload huge container ships.

So when I heard about Marc Levinson’s book called "The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger" I immediately bought a copy.

The shipping container was invented 50 years ago, and Levinson makes a compelling case that by radically shrinking the cost of moving goods the container was a key enabler of globalization. It also completely changed the character of port cities, eliminating most of the work on the waterfront traditionally done by longshoremen and shifting it to places built to exploit containers; for example, Port Newark took over from New York City, and Oakland supplanted San Francisco. The container played a crucial role in the Vietnam War, where the huge buildup of the US forces was enabled through new container ports, and rather than coming back empty, containers were routed through Japan and filled with the "made in Japan" goods to start the import flood from Asia.

I am sure that stories from this book will make it into my courses this coming year on "The Information and Services Economy" and "Document Engineering." The container story is a great example of how technology and business models co-evolve, and while I usually focus more on information technology in that relationship, containers are now a key part of information-centric business models and processes too. You can bundle a battery and satellite transponder into small box that can be attached to a cargo container and report on its location, content, and condition from anywhere, even the middle of the ocean.

-Bob Glushko

Tags: BookReview, BusinessProcess, Logistics

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