"Containerization" Takeaways

A container approach can help deliver sustainable solutions to problems requiring fast, decisive action.
May 19, 2010
Gerry DeSeve
By Gerry DeSeve  |  Contributor
Gerry DeSeve is a GOVERNING contributor. He is a consultant with ICF International and a professor in the Masters of Sustainable Design Program at Philadelphia University.
Rob Fryer
By Robert Fryer  |  Contributor
Robert Fryer is a GOVERNING contributor. He is an Assistant Professor, Architecture Program, Philadelphia University. For more than ten years, Professor Fryer has designed and managed architectural projects and has been a LEED consultant.

Modern government collaboration rarely takes place in person. One benefit to the advent of remote collaboration is the increased capacity for launching rapid, effective solutions at virtually any location. This new form of collaboration holds great potential for sustainable development, and centers around a concrete shared mission, experts on the ground and what we call "containers" that facilitate the collaborative work. Containers can be a physical war room, an online document management system or a whiteboard.

The most sophisticated containers deal with expected singularities -- anticipated but unplanned events that invoke a network or necessitate the rapid accomplishment of a mission. These critical resources are deployable soon after an expected singularity takes place because the decision-making recipe for reacting to the event has been determined in advance.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, for example, combines a mobile lost-child recovery package -- computers, Global Positioning System (GPS) devices and communication equipment -- with specially-trained, retired law enforcement personnel and search-and-rescue K9 teams. This container can be rapidly deployed anywhere in the country once a child has been reported missing.

The U.S. Army, likewise, has aligned much of its ground force around containers called Stryker units, created to deploy anywhere in the world within 96 hours (usually with other units that together comprise a Stryker Brigade). A Stryker unit is comprised of troops, vehicles designed for rapid troop deployment, supplies and a sophisticated command-and-control hub linking troops, commanders, the U.S. Joint Forces command and coalition partners.

Containers are designed to accomplish a mission by providing immediate, onsite access to all necessary resources. Containers also concentrate activity around the expected singularity by providing structural support within inherently unstructured situations, and by reducing decision time by establishing the conditions for deployment well in advance of the expected singularity taking place.

The recent Haiti earthquake provides another example of containers in action. The organization Shelterbox began deploying 12 minutes after news of the quake reached them, and the first Shelterboxes -- containing a tent and survival equipment for displaced families of up to ten people -- reached Haiti just 48 hours later along with volunteers trained to deploy them. They worked in concert with the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne to distribute the units, and with United Nations relief agencies to have additional Shelterboxes flown in via cargo helicopters.

Heidi Arnold, a Masters student at Philadelphia University, recently led a collaborative workshop on how Haiti could be sustainably rebuilt after the quake. The goal was to learn as much as possible about the situation and develop an effective design for sustainable housing. The most promising ideas to emerge from the workshop, however, turned out to be something very different.

Designing housing proved especially challenging given that Haiti's minimal public infrastructure was completely decimated after the quake. We asked fundamental questions: How will materials be imported and brought to a site? What utilities will be available? Who will do the work? There were no easy answers, but the key issues seemed less concerned with sustainable design than they were with sustainable development.

A team was assigned to develop ideas and solutions beyond the limits of just "housing design." They devised a container approach, one that may best be understood as a combination of "schoolbox" and "villagebox" (incidentally, no one knew about Shelterbox at the time).

The schoolbox container comprises the professionals and materials needed to set up a temporary school where community members can learn the building trades, in part by helping to construct a permanent school that would serve as a living lab for how earthquake-proof structures are built. Areas of instruction would include material recycling, effective use of local building resources and creating sustainable utility microgrids robust enough to serve a community. Graduates would go on to build homes in Haiti and teach at the school.

The villagebox container would comprise enabling infrastructure and would include, for example, the Slingshot water purifier and biomass-fueled Stirling generator designed by Dean Kamen (of Segway fame). It would also contain composting toilets, solar thermal water heating kits and laptops from One Laptop Per Child. Students of the villagebox school would be trained in how these resources could be used effectively during community rebuilding.

Be it a sustainable development project or otherwise, "containerization" can serve as a highly effective delivery system under certain circumstances. In thinking about containerization consider the following take-away points:

Decide if your project is a good candidate for containerization. Containerization is a good idea if your problem is well-defined and best solved with decisive action. This means that you should be able to illustrate every step of the process from event detection to decision making, and finally to its complete resolution. The container should have every element needed to deliver the solution.

Build decision processes ahead of time so they can be rapidly enacted. Indecision will scuttle a container project before it is even launched. Create clear decision entry criteria, such as a child is missing or a natural disaster has occurred, and thresholds for those criteria, including determining the forums for the decision-making process and choosing the decision makers.

Firmly establish the boundaries of the container to prevent mission- or scope-creep. Containers function with relative autonomy, so there is a danger that they will stray from their purpose. The container approach thrives on mission clarity and a concrete solution. Deviating from that purpose will create harmful ambiguities which will dull the ability of the container to deliver its solution. Managers should work hard on the container design in advance to ensure that it is highly focused.

Create containers which are sustainable. Containers should enable stakeholders and delivery personnel without creating a dependence on the container long-term. The best containers will empower the people they are helping both in the short term and in the long term through tools and systems, not through handouts or alleviation of minor symptoms. Container design must also account for what happens after it has served its purpose in the community. The end of the container's life cycle is essential.