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Netherlands Diary 9: Science Fiction on the Quays of Rotterdam

June 12, 2013

Since 1956, with the invention of the shipping container - one of the transformative technologies of the 20th century – the pattern has been clear:  the replacement of manual labour with automated systems.  The impact on longshoremen was immediate: container[1]employment dropped by over two-thirds on the east coast of the States.  But a similar drop in the cost of moving goods led to a rapid expansion of international trade – and arguably an increase in employment overall.
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And that was just the beginning to changes in the supply chain as technology replaced the simpler functions performed by human beings with the arrival of the bar code, the Internet, intermodalism, Toyota- and Walmart-style systems management, accompanied by deregulation and globalism.  And it keeps on going: robots, big data, omni-channel distribution – and to those places that haven’t automated, the brutal inevitability from the competition that has.
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To see what that looks like, there is at the Port of Rotterdam one of the most extraordinary scenes I have ever viewed:
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There are no human beings in this picture – even though all that equipment is in motion.  From the containers on the ships, to the cranes, to the flatcars, to the trucks, it is all completely automated.  And when you finally realize that, the effect seems almost like science fiction – even though this is the way this terminal has been operating since, more or less, the 1990s.
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The manager of this terminal, one of three in the Port of Rotterdam, is Dutch-based European Gateway Services, a company that  started in 1966, a mere decade after the introduction of the container, with 35 boxes.  By 2012: 7.7 million.  Now it is in 52 ports in 26 countries.  (Remember that Dutch strategy: logistical services to the world.)
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EGS was a pioneer in driverless technologies and robotized container systems – something possible to do behind fences on restricted portlands.  Now they are trying to take the same principles to the inland terminals – indeed as much as possible to the whole length of supply chains.  The 9/11 and 2008 credit crises actually helped them, since the advantages of the EGS approach become clearer to authorities who wanted ever more secure systems.  More machines, less  humans.
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But these systems require the exchange of information, and exchanges of data require trust, confidence and a cultural traditional of cooperation.  Again, sound familiar?  EGS has marketed themselves as the trusted middleman – figuring out the mutual advantages to be gained if all the partners are open.
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Because business has been good for EGS, they have seen a modest increase in employment even as systems become more automated.  But will that be true for the world they have helped create?  It’s a subject of increasing interest, particularly as economists try to figure out why employment growth has stalled even as post-crisis economies recover.
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A current article in The Atlantic frames the issue:

Technology used to make us better at our jobs. Now it’s making us obsolete, and the share of income going to workers is crashing, all over the world. What do we do now?

In past times, technological change always augmented the abilities of human beings. …  Recent technological advances in the area of computers and automation have begun to do some higher cognitive tasks – think of robots building cars, stocking groceries, doing your taxes.

…  it is quite possible that workers’ share of what society produces will continue to go down and down, as our economy becomes more and more capital-intensive.  …  A society with cheap robot labor would be an incredibly prosperous one, but we will need to find some way for the vast majority of human beings to share in that prosperity, or we risk the kinds of dystopian outcomes that now exist only in science fiction?

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That was also the sense of science fiction one gets on the quays of the Port of Rotterdam.  But because the Dutch have been at this longer, having worked out with labour the transition to increasing automation, they are in the position to bring these systems to, say, the quays of Burrard Inlet and the Fraser River.

We, however, have to work out those cultural issues.

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