Lessons From a Warship

Lessons From a Warship

by / May 31, 1999
The Vasa was to be the ultimate warship, built for speed and power. Impossibly narrow of beam, she carried twice the firepower of other ships of her class -- 64 guns on two gundecks. On her maiden voyage, as bands played and officials cheered, the Vasa eased out into the channel, caught a gust of wind and heeled over. Water rushed in her lower gunports, and she capsized and sank with the loss of one third of her crew.

The location was Stockholm Harbor and the date was 1628.

The Vasa, built during a war with Poland, was the first Swedish ship built with two gundecks. The builders had no formal training, and relied on experience with building single-decked ships that was passed down from father to son. The extra gundeck made the Vasa too tall. The weight of cannon made it too unstable. Modern calculations indicate that for stability, the Vasa would need nearly twice as much ballast, but the extra weight would have put her lower gunports below the water line. The result? A stability test was canceled, the builders covered their tracks by having the king himself approve the measurements, and ship, crew, guns, powder, shot, stores and intricate carvings picked out in gold leaf went to the bottom.

The Vasa was raised in 1961 and now -- in a uniquely Swedish fashion -- is both a national treasure and a monument to the stupidity and waste of warfare, to poor planning, lack of technology or careless procurement.

While Sweden now has a modern military, the country is better known for its efforts at world peace. The Nobel Prize is still the ultimate recognition for those who struggle to reconcile differences and bring understanding to a world sometimes contorted with conflict.

It was therefore fitting that on Jan. 28, 1999, while ice floes sailed under the bridges of Stockholm, that jurors for the Global Bangemann Challenge met at the Vasa Museum for dinner. The Challenge, as it is called, was named after European Commissioner Martin Bangemann, who spoke of the value of creating a global information society.

Stockholm, under Mayor Mats Hulth, took up the challenge, and began a European contest between cities, tailored to the Information Age. The competition was to compare city efforts to serve the public, deliver excellent service, provide information and operate at less cost through the use of computers and telecommunications. Even the competition was to be friendly, designed primarily to focus attention on best practices in the use of IT. The winning projects would receive plaques from the king of Sweden in the same hall where Nobel Prizes are awarded. But the real prizes in the Global Bangemann Challenge would be the sharing of good ideas on how to operate governments with less cost while providing better service.

In 1998, more than 400 projects from around the world qualified. Jurors met in Stockholm this January for training. Their evaluations were done over the Internet. The winners will receive their plaques this month from the hand of the king. But in April, during a meeting of jury coordinators, Stockholm's new mayor told reporters that the city would not sponsor the Challenge next year.

We may never be rid of armies, guns and bombs. And in order to preserve liberty, we may be required to be ever-vigilant and ever-willing to fight back. However, it is certain that in this Information Age, communication, words and understanding are today's shot and powder.

While football games replace border skirmishes, and words replace bullets, "smart bombs" still fly. A new more-intelligent world is forming and competitions such as the Olympics, the Nobel Prize for Peace and the Global Bangemann Challenge are our hope of a new spirit of reconciliation and cooperation more suited to this age. In this new era we, like the shipbuilders of 1628, cannot blindly follow the wisdom that has served the past, but must instead invent the mathematics and wisdom of the future.

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Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.

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