A 21st Century Renaissance

The New Polymath, by Vinnie Mirchandani, is an ambitious, wide-ranging and celebratory exploration of technology innovation in the 21st century. The book epitomizes the title (a polymath is someone who excels in many disciplines) in taking on the distinct, though certainly overlapping, disciplines of infotech, cleantech and healthtech – and all the various technologies and practices that support them. It evokes the spirit of polymaths throughout history (Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Hypatia of Alexandria, and the ultimate polymath, Leonardo da Vinci) and seeks their equivalents in our own times in both individuals (Bill Joy, Nathan Myhrvold) and organizations. Most provocative, it sets up a parallel between our age and the 14th century, when the Late Middle Ages, or Dark Ages, gave way to the Renaissance, or rebirth. Mirchandani is hopeful that we are entering another Renaissance.

There is much to like about The New Polymath. It is an absolute refutation of the idea that there’s a lack of innovation going on; the book is a veritable firehose of innovation examples, presented by someone who knows what it takes to make innovation happen inside organizations large and small. The examples are laid out in the context of Mirchandani’s RENAISSANCE framework – his attempt to marshal today’s technology innovations into some kind of logical order. This feels a bit contrived, but I suppose it works as well as any other organizing device. The framework includes:

Residence: Better Technologically Equipped than the Office
Exotics: Innovation from Left Field
Networks: Bluetooth to Broadband
Arsonists: and Other Disruptors
Interfaces: For All Our Senses
Sustainability: Delivering to Both the Green and Gold Agendas
Singularity: The Man–Machine Convergence
Analytics: Spreadsheets, Search, and Semantics
Networks Again: Communities, Crowds, Contracts, and Collaboration
Clouds: Technology as a Service
Ethics: In an Age of Cyberwar and Cloning

What I like most about the book is Mirchandani’s premise that we are in a kind of modern day Dark Ages with the potential for another great Renaissance. He outlines the paradox that we have so far been unable to solve the “wicked problems” of our time despite great technology abundance.  He focuses his argument on the enormous waste in technology spending ($3 trillion A YEAR on information technology and telecom; printer ink for $5,000 a gallon; support and maintenance agreements that amortize to over $10,000 for every 20-minute help-desk call); the lack of agreement around sustainability; and the lack of access to healthcare for many people around the world.

But Mirchandani fails to address one of the greatest barriers to solving these problems: the market forces that drive the majority of our technology innovation. As long as consumers demand and will pay for the next new advance in entertainment and convenience and stockholders demand the greatest possible returns, that’s where the innovation focus will be – not on solving the big problems that the average consumer is able to ignore from the comfort of their own couch. Perhaps the problem is less one of ability and more one of priorities, focus and resolve.

This point is thrown into stark relief in the second to last chapter of the book, which profiles BP’s CTO organization. Written before the tragic explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform and subsequent and still unstaunched gushing of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the chapter paints a picture of an amazingly effective innovation engine inside a large organization. Yet all that technological prowess didn’t prevent a failure of epic proportions, reinforcing the need for more focus on the final “E” in Mirchandani’s Renaissance, the ethics of decision making inside corporations today.

Each chapter of the book concludes with a recap of its main points – which is good, because the examples are many and diverse, and the recaps create a sense of order and progression to the book’s themes. The final chapter brings these all together into 10 grand challenges for readers who want to develop their own ability for compound technology innovation.

The Polymath sensibility is one of AND, not OR, and the challenges of our time require nothing less. Mirchandani offers us a clear picture of what that looks like and a starting point for the renaissance man or woman in us all.

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11 thoughts on “A 21st Century Renaissance

  1. vinnie mirchandani

    Abbie, thanks so much. Very thoughful review from someone I truly respect.

    In fairness to the BP, CTO group I profile, it is focused on IT innovation projects not the go to market or field technology which is on every TV screen these days.

    At least to me, the recent tragedy does not diminish what the small group of 12 in my case study – has been delivering in business value and innovation for years now. It is a still a good role model of innovation tools, methods and ecosystems every CIO could learn from.

    Thanks again!

    Reply
  2. Mark Montgomery

    Excellent review– just a couple of thoughts while fresh

    1) The polymath perspective is one I wholeheartedly agree with– due to observing what actually works over time, type of perspective required to overcome existing challenges, etc.

    However, our system is still structured very much to resist just this type of solution. I have two recent examples to share — first is a discussion recently on the oil spill with a senior level consultant from big oil who came out of one of the giants. She was totally focused on the psychology of the cultures (she is a psychologist so that isn’t necessarily surprising) — arguing that what matters most is the perception of credibility in big oil itself. My response was — are you kidding? This is ancient knowledge — either big oil isn’t aware of what actually works, or doesn’t care, but when it reaches the point where the orgs actually believe they are the only credible solution — Houston we have a problem.

    Secondly is our legal and patent system, which is patterned after academia in specialties, wrongly assuming by structure that solutions to our largest challenges can be stitched together by extreme niche pieces of IP. The system in many respects prevents solutions from ever becoming an option — they are killed off long before a customer ever has a chance, and that isn’t entirely accidental.

    Customer apathy is a real challenge to be sure — one of the greatest, but the structural disincentives in our system are the most challenging, for they require a polymath solution in organizations that are full of specialists who have created barriers for decades, not least of which is legal.

    I myself have said that we may be entering a period of dark ages with respect to innovation. It isn’t necessary of course — I vote for a Renaissance.

    Great stuff — thanks

    Reply
  3. cbcurran

    I too enjoyed reading The New Polymath. What many of its examples, our own research and even the comment here by Vinnie support is that while plentiful, much of the innovation is internally focused – business process improvement and the IT function itself, rather than on new markets, products and services (where most of the hype is).

    -Chris

    Reply
  4. vinnie mirchandani

    Chris, let me just clarify for other readers – there are plenty of case studies/cameos in book like GE, Hospira, BMW, BASF, Avon, Starbucks, Plantronics, salesforce.com and others which are about go to market or product innovation and the technologies they embed.

    BTW – you highlighted in your review the importance of polymath, multi-disciplinary teams. Many of my conversations with clients and others since then have made me even more aware of the talent not as much the end solution aspect of innovation. Thanks

    Reply
  5. abbielundberg Post author

    Thanks for the great comments, Vinnie, Mark and Chris. Vinnie, thanks for clarifying on the BP CTO group.
    To Chris’s point, I worked on a research project with the Harvard Business Review’s Analytic Services group in which we explored how companies are leveraging information for growth coming out of the recession. Only 17% said they were embedding technology into their products to either enhance the offering or track information. The survey was global, of all company sizes and industries, with over 1300 responses from among the HBR subscriber base (director level and above, all functions and including CEOs and board members). The PDF of the report is here: http://hbr.org/hb-main/resources/pdfs/comm/symantec/15846_HBR_Symantec_Report_FNL_for_web.pdf

    Reply
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