Farming Leonardos

Joe White

Renaissance Man and Leonardo Da Vinci. The words are almost synonyms. He was the embodiment of man reborn in an age emerging from centuries of darkness who added his own searing light of genius onto it.


These are gross oversimplifications, of course, yet no one can explain how Leonardo excelled even his many brilliant contemporaries. His world was rapidly expanding – in economics, the arts, politics and science – its horizons stretching from distant China to the new Americas. It was also one of constant warfare; yet one more stock ingredient in the crucible of new ideas.

If we could replicate such a cauldron, could we create our own Leonardo? The idea is certainly seductive, but is it feasible? I don’t mean gleaming sci-fi biobots with superpowers. They may take a few years yet. But can we create a society, or a web of companies, or universities, that can simulate the furnace that made Leonardo and manufacture twenty-first century Little Leos on an educational production line? And once you’ve got them, can you identify them, put them to good use – and control them?

Passion for Practical Work

Leonardo had a practical bent: “Things of the mind left untested by the senses are useless.” So, he did not merely sit and reflect. He had to come up with the goods and find belligerent patrons to employ him. Sadly, war and conflict have so often been the stimulus to invention. In World War II, both sides flew squadrons of advanced planes from blank drawing board often in less than a year.

If necessity is the mother of invention, surely ignorance is the father. Many of the greatest schemes have come from those with little or no formal training. Leonardo trained as an artist, not a scientist. And sometimes invention and ignorance spawn a state of mind that has no choice but to invent. For such people, invention is a way of life, a passion and an end in itself.

Leonardo’s ideas could be understood by an educated contemporary. Had he sat alone in an attic dreaming, he might have been isolated from nurturing streams of thought and from the feedback that might turn a whimsical idea into a practicality.

Modern World Meets Ancient

It has been suggested that Leonardo’s bubbling, anxious society might have a parallel in today’s social media. Trawl through enough Facebooks, Twitters and YouTubes and you will find enough brilliant ideas to keep us busy for centuries – if they don’t blow us up. But can a modern organization exploit these virtual, twittering DaVinci’s? I would say the answer is “yes,” as long as we remember the bit about blowing ourselves up.

Modern mind-farmers must be clever enough to distinguish between the useful and the potentially disastrous. And to understand that many of Leonardo’s schemes were useless in his day. You’d be insane to leap off a skyscraper in one of his helicopters. Yet only five years ago a surgeon was inspired by his anatomical studies to perform heart surgery in a radical new way.

The trick is not only in having the initial flash of genius. It is also in recognizing it and knowing when the time is ripe to use it.

PROFILE MAGAZINE 3/2010 page 27

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