This post is by Stephen J. Easley, vice president for government affairs and general counsel at F2 Technologies.

At the South By Southwest Interactive Festival, the power of social media in advertising and networking was clear to see and discussed ad nauseam. But the work of applying these tools to solve radically different, perhaps more important challenges is just beginning. Some of these ideas were explored at a session called “Cargo Containers: The Next Big Social Network.”

Speaker Tom Stitt told the crowd of social media developers and designers that the ideas that gave rise to social tools could be applied to another kind of network the global supply chain for cargo containers, those ubiquitous large steel boxes in ports and on ships, rail cars and highways. Companies such as Apple and Wal-Mart provide the product, or payload. The huge international shippers, such as Maersk Shipping, deliver these payloads through a complex, standards-based, slow-moving packet system through their container ships as network pipes to consumers who complete the model as users.

This network, however, is mired in the 19th century, Stitt said, and social media developers need to apply their tools to radically transform this inefficient and antiquated container network. Cargo containers are used to deliver 90% of all finished goods and represent a $4 trillion-per-year part of our economy.

He challenged the audience to apply social networking to the container supply chain to better inform and shape processes, to reduce waste, inefficiency and environmental impact take liking and friending to the next level. Two of his big ideas:

1. Liking and tweeting could help drive buyers decisions, particularly in fashion, electronics and new-product categories, where buyers that drive the process operate with precious little consumer intelligence. This would allow the big retailers to have well-managed inventories personalized to markets that would substantially reduce costs, create efficiencies, and reduce carbon footprint and dependence on oil.

2. Friending of products based upon accurate reflections of their carbon footprints, thereby allowing consumers to make informed decisions about when products are delivered, based upon the processes environmental impact through social networks and the Internet.

What other ways do think social media ideas could be applied to problems rooted in the physical world? How have you applied social networking ideas to your own organizational problems?