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.