Page last updated at 06:56 GMT, Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Lessons learned as the Box returns

By Jeremy Hillman
Editor, BBC business and economics unit


"This box not only brings the world to your living room - it has changed the world."

After a little over 12 months and more than 50,000 miles the BBC Box is back in the UK at Television Centre in west London.

It has picked up a few dents and is slightly faded but was still striking enough to attract rapt attention from passers by as it was carried along Wood Lane in heavy traffic.

Many of you have been tracking the BBC shipping container on its travels around the world since last September.

Its voyage has coincided with some of the most dramatic developments in the global economy including the first global recession in 60 years.

And the battering our container has had along the way has been more than matched by the battering visited on the container shipping industry.

Trade at standstill

The Box at Television Centre

With a record 10% of the fleet idle, and revenues per container likely to drop from already extremely depressed levels, it has certainly been an interesting time to be following a single container around the world.

The BBC Box project was intended to tell the story of the global economy and international trade over the course of a year and we have charted its progress on radio, television and online.

And as global trade reached near standstill at the height of the turmoil , our Box followed.

From April until July it sat forlornly (if containers can be forlorn) in the Japanese port of Yokohama.

It was just one tiny illustration of the statistic that the container business made a collective profit of £3bn in 2008, but is estimated to have lost a cool £20bn in 2009.

Graphic showing facts from the 51,654-mile journey

So what else have we learnt from the journey?

Way back, in what seems like a different economic world, our container delivered its first cargo of Scotch whisky from Greenock to Shanghai, in China.

We showed the growing strength of China's consumer class whose buying habits seem only to have been momentarily slowed by the global recession.

Piracy issues

But even that blip badly hurt in Brazil as we found out when the Box arrived at the busy port of Santos earlier this year.

For them the dip in China's iron imports was painful - a dip made worse by falling demand across the world for goods made in China.

From Singapore to New York, Los Angeles and Bangkok we learned vividly just how inter-dependent countries have become, and what globalisation really means close up.

Factory workers in China
Demand for goods made in China fell, so fewer containers were shipped

Along the way, literally, we were able to cover developments in international piracy, including its impact on insurance and the profitability of the Suez Canal through which the Box passed early in its journey.

Perhaps my favourite story was that of Copenhagen Express Captain Sanjeev Kaushal who only found out about the BBC Box, and that he was carrying it on his own ship, from relatives e-mailing him on board.

I should be clear that the project has had some frustrations.

The GPS satellite tracking on the container has been intermittent and for periods of the year, we have had to manually track the position of the Box, though not nearly as frequently as we would have liked.

Soup kitchen

The Box project has been overseen by a small team in addition to their other full-time roles and thus we have not been able to respond to as many of your e-mails and comments as we would have liked.

And there were plans that we couldn't see through for budgeting or logistical challenges, such as placing a BBC correspondent on board a container ship for one leg of its journey.

I should reiterate here that this project has not cost the BBC a great deal of money.

The Box arriving back in Southampton
The Box is now back in the UK, but will soon be sent to Africa

At all times, this has been a real, working box and we have only paid for the journalism to cover it.

This week we have invited some of the schoolchildren who have been following the BBC Box in their classes all year to come along to see it close up, and share with us what they have learned.

But that is not the final chapter.

Our project partners NYK have generously agreed to donate the container for charitable use and they will transport it to Africa where it will be refitted as a permanent soup kitchen for some of those people who have been worst affected by the global recession.

And for all the Box aficionados, our website will remain active so all the content we have produced can continue to be enjoyed in the future.

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