Tag Archives: Chief Scientist

Lessons from a lost ship

Did you know Australia has a Chief Scientist?

No? Well, we do and in early March our newly appointed Chief Scientist, Dr Finkel, addressed the National Press Club as part of an event run by Science & Technology Australia.

Dr Finkel shared a story about a small nation with middle-power ambitions. A nation in transition with a growing population and a commodity-based economy.

…But this small nation was well aware of its uncertain place in a strategic region at a volatile time. So it embarked on a bold exercise to build a flagship for its navy that would also be a statement about its place in the world.

The setting is Sweden, four hundred year ago, in 1625. Now this was no ordinary ship that the Swedes contracted the Dutch, who subcontracted the Germans, Danes and Finns, to build. This was something that no-one in Sweden had ever attempted before: a 135 foot warship with two decks, each bearing 36 cannons.

And it had to be built on the keel of the 110 foot, one-deck warship the contractors were initially instructed to build. That ship was half done when the King changed his mind – inspired by the thought of an extra deck, with extra cannons.

So the builders set to work, and they did their best to adapt the keel, while the King went off to fight his war with Poland.

By August 1628 the ship was ready. All of Stockholm gathered at the harbour for the launch of this mighty symbol of Swedish pride. And all of Stockholm was still there when, twenty minutes after the launch, tilted by the gentle nudge of a light sea breeze, it sank – less than one nautical mile from dock.

This ship – the Vasa – has sailed into business school history: as the textbook case in innovation done wrong.

The ship and 53 lives were lost as a result.

That ship sat on the bottom of the harbour for 333 years. Then it was raised in 1961 – almost perfectly preserved, ornamental mermaids and all. Raising it was a phenomenal feat of ingenuity and engineering. It was installed in a purpose-built museum, where more than a million people every year line up to see it. To Sweden, the Vasa is now a great source of national pride.

Because Sweden didn’t give up on building ships. They built two-deck gunships. They built three-deck gunships. Gunships that became the pride of the Swedish military for the next thirty years.

They helped to usher in the age the Swedes call stormaktstiden – the Great Power Period.

Failure – repurposed as a symbol of success.

But we don’t have to get there from the bottom of the harbour.

Let’s take the direct path to our own stormaktstiden, our Great Power Period.

LET HOPE RISE