The Shipping Container Disruption Helped End Famines (The Pattern of Disruption, Part 6)

Images from Unsplash by Spencer Davis and Avel Chuklanov

Bigger, better, cheaper, faster

Containers were not a new idea, but at the time they were often small, mostly smaller than three cubic meters. But the containers McLean had built were different. McLean’s first containers were 33 feet (10 meters) long, at least seven times the size of most containers in use at the time And they were made largely of steel. Unlike loaded railroad cars or wooden boxes with canvas tops, they could be stacked on top of each other, connected together, and lifted easily by cranes, eliminating the need for slow and extensive human labor power.

The conditions for disruption

So why did Malcom McLean’s containerization revolution happen when it did, and not a few decades sooner or later? Like all disruptions, shipping containerization in both the US and around the world was enabled by a convergence of factors.

Winners and losers

The reduction in shipping costs brought about by containerization resulted in winners and losers in different parts of the globe. The biggest immediate losers, of course, were businesses tied up with the incumbent industries. The containerization revolution thus illustrates in stark terms how disruption tends to turn conventional economic expectations of winners and losers upside down. What were once massive advantages for incumbent industries become their greatest liabilities, and the very cause of their collapse in the face of the disruption.

Cascading effects, and the aversion of the great global famine

As with many other new technologies, shipping containers resulted in unexpected consequences that their proponents could not have foreseen. One of the most important and yet little recognise ones appears to be how the ‘negligible’ cost of transport dramatically reduced the risk of famines around the world.

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RethinkX, disruptive technology think tank

RethinkX, disruptive technology think tank

RethinkX is an independent think tank that analyzes and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society.