- The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
To many, innovation and high-tech are synonymous terms. But, change and the introduction of new ways of doing things are what characterize innovation, and, as such, even the simplest of tools or mechanisms, if applied in novel and ingenious ways, can result in innovative consequences. This is a message that comes through in Marc Levinson's 2006 book, The Box, a historical account examining the rise of the shipping container. Levinson, a historian and economist by training, and possessing long experience as a business journalist, effectively shows how a simple, low-tech apparatus, the shipping container, has become one of the greatest innovations of all time. In doing so, he tells a number of different, but related, stories: a summary of the key role played in the transport industry by the shipping container (Chapter 1); the inefficiencies of the systems preceding the shipping container's introduction (Chapter 2); the difficulties of initiating and carrying out beneficial change (even when it was obvious to most involved that change was needed) (Chapters 5–8); the role of key individuals and specific events in impacting change (Chapters 3–4, 6, 9–10); and the unpredictability of change once it has been initiated (Chapters 11–14). In essence, however, Levinson's story is one of institutional persistence and change.
Institutions are the rules of the game in a society. How they persist and change has been of great interest to business researchers and social scientists. One of the subplots of Levinson's study is aligned with conventional institutionalist assertions, which posit the considerable influence of isomorphic tendencies on the development and state of social organization. Levinson provides much empirical evidence showing why already in-place institutions are difficult to change. For example, although container-based transport was known to be cheaper than existing transport forms, the shift to cost-saving containers did not occur. This is in opposition to the dictates of economic analysis, which contend that actors should naturally gravitate to more efficient and lower-cost alternatives. It is a situation that adhered, however, to notions of institutional analysis, which asserts that isomorphic forces act to keep already legitimated institutions in place, minimizing the prospects for change. Levinson's story details how individual interests and existing conventions militated against a shift to more efficient and lower-cost transport options. He cites such things as: dockworkers and the unions that represented them acting against [End Page 191] change; established ports, afraid that they might lose business to new startups, doing what they could to stop adjustments; early transport innovators attempting to stop standardization movements; scores of transport-market participants not wanting profit-reducing changes in rate structures; and governmental entities, enacting favorable subsidies and rules—all aimed at stopping change and maintaining existing status quo.
A second, institutionally related subplot featured in Levinson's book is one concerning the way in which change occurs. In most discussions of institutional transformation, changes are linked with jolts or shocks to a system: a major event takes place, altering the existing institutional environment, which results in change in existing institutions. But, in the mid-twentieth-century transport industry, there were no such events. Levinson emphasizes instead how institutional entrepreneurship can result in change. Institutional entrepreneurs are individuals possessing the power, insight, and social skills to effectively catalyze system adjustments. The institutional entrepreneur on whom Levinson focuses is Malcom Purcell McLean. McLean was a successful entrepreneur, who had previously achieved success in the trucking industry. Though McLean had no previous experience in shipping, his self-confidence, drive, prescient judgment, willingness to take action, and ability to convince others to help him made him special. Levinson portrays McLean as being especially unique in terms of his conceptualization of the transportation industry, viewing the industry in field-like terms, and coming to the conclusion that each component of the transport field was mutually dependent on...