An Open-Access Graduate-Level Class from the Academy for Sustainable Innovation
Last month, former tech entrepreneur and now leading global philanthropist and systems-thinker Bill Gates suggested Walter Isaacson’s highly entertaining biography of Leonardo da Vinci, published by Simon & Schuster (2017) as one of his five recommendations for summer reading this year. This is what Gates has to say of the book:
I think Leonardo was one of the most fascinating people ever. Although today he’s best known as a painter, Leonardo had an absurdly wide range of interests, from human anatomy to the theater. Isaacson does the best job I’ve seen of pulling together the different strands of Leonardo’s life and explaining what made him so exceptional.”
On July 23—27, the Academy for Sustainable Innovation is offering its first intensive graduate level class: Challenges and Opportunities in Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy. Session 1 in the class is Learning to Think Like Leonardo: Design-thinking meets systems-thinking to foster experimentation and innovation.
Pre-dating Gates’ recommendation, Isaacson’s book had already been identified as a resource for the class. Below, course leader Dr David Wheeler reviews the Leonardo da Vinci biography as an inspiration for design thinking and why transcending disciplinary boundaries is a core skill for sustainable innovation. Some of the questions raised by Da Vinci’s life and work are posed at the end of the review, including what Leonardo might have made of the concept of the ‘circular economy’.
Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519
Like many disruptive entrepreneurs – Steve Jobs and Elon Musk would be obvious present day examples – Leonardo da Vinci was something of an outsider from birth. His well-connected biological father failed to legitimate him or make provision for him in his will. In adulthood, after his apprenticeship and his early successes, he was well dressed, physically and temperamentally attractive, comfortable with his sexuality, and was irrepressibly curious and intellectually self-confident.
As the ultimate Renaissance role model, Leonardo was most celebrated for his art, but he was captivated by a very wide range of disciplinary interests spanning geometry, geology, optics, astronomy, anatomy, fluid dynamics and mechanical engineering. These interests helped Leonardo become arguably the most technically gifted painter of all time, but they also fed his imagination and countless prophetic if untested inventions in the fields of manned flight, architecture, urban planning, hydraulics and military engineering.
Leonardo claimed no classical scholarship (“letters”) and did not speak Latin or Greek. He was unencumbered by contemporary received wisdom, and was unafraid of heretical thought — religious or scientific. Indeed it was probably his lack of formal academic training that required Leonardo’s development of an experimental approach to scientific inquiry consistent with that pioneered by 10th century Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham and later adopted by Galileo Galilei and countless European scientists of the 16th, 17th and subsequent centuries.
It would be a serious understatement to describe Leonardo’s observational and other talents as well developed; rather he was a perfectionist to the point of obsession. He took years to complete some of his best known works and he published almost nothing of the prodigious output of writings, lists and designs contained in his notebooks. Leonardo’s numerous and brilliant anatomical drawings, based on many human and animal dissections he conducted personally, were never reproduced commercially — surely a monumental loss to medical science. It is doubtful he would have found tenured employment in an Ivy League university today.
Many of Leonardo’s commissions were never completed, much to the irritation of various patrons and art historians like Kenneth Clark who believed Leonardo’s propensity for distraction to represent a dramatic waste of his talents. One of the most tempting distractions for the master was his frequent involvement in theatrical events and pageants where his fantastical designs for stage props provided free rein for his imagination as well as entertainment for the rich and powerful.
In this biography, Walter Isaacson follows Leonardo from his birthplace near Florence in 1452 to Milan in 1482 and back again, before he returns to Milan and travels thence to Rome and finally to the French Court in Amboise where he died and was buried a few weeks after his 67th birthday. Against the ebb and flow of French interference in the governance of Italian city states, Isaacson records Leonardo’s pragmatic and frequently complex relationships with diverse patrons. These included the ruthless, violent and syphilitic Cesare Borgia, various Medicis, Sforzas, a pope, Louis XII of France (and his representative in Milan Charles d’Amboise), and finally his perfect sponsor, the young French King Francis I who required nothing except the master’s brilliant presence at court.
Leonardo was well acquainted with contemporaries Michelangelo (whom he found more than tiresome) and Niccoló Machiavelli who was so enamoured of Borgia that he was inspired to write a self-help book for aspiring despots: The Prince.
Unlike the more individually prolific Michelangelo, Leonardo was a team player, usually surrounded by apprentices and protégés who contributed to and copied the works of the master while obtaining their training and personal advancement. One such, Francesco Melzi, became his adopted son and heir as well as keeping his correspondence and other papers in order. Such team playing has resulted in some dispute over what works can be partly or wholly ascribed to Leonardo.
Happily there is little confusion over Leonardo’s most influential works: Vitruvian Man, Virgin of the Rocks, the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, the Last Supper and of course the Mona Lisa — all of which merit individual chapters in Isaacson’s book. Relatively recent discoveries, and the stories of their authentication, for example La Bella Principessa and Salvator Mundi are also described in detail, giving the book a contemporary dimension.
Isaacson does a reasonable job summarising Leonardo’s ‘genius’ and his contribution to curiosity-driven, trans-disciplinary research. He offers a checklist of what we might learn from Leonardo’s life, including cross-references to the career of Steve Jobs, whose comprehensive biography Isaacson published in 2011.
English historian AJP Taylor once described another supremely charismatic Italian as “the only wholly admirable figure in modern history”. He was referring to Giuseppe Garibaldi, the pope-threatening, international adventurer who played a key military and political role in the unification of Italy in the 19th century. Leonardo Da Vinci emerges from this biography as at least equal to Garibaldi in human terms — an inspirational and visionary character who was pre-eminent in demonstrating the historical importance and meaning of the Renaissance.
Leonardo was wilful, uncommercial and doubtless frequently maddening to his sponsors. He never did deliver the Mona Lisa to Francesco del Giocondo, Lisa’s silk-merchant husband who in all likelihood commissioned the portrait in 1503. Indeed, La Gioconda was still in his possession when he died in 1519 — presumably awaiting a final brush stroke or two. But as Isaacson notes, in this one painting there is a complete answer to all “the scholars and critics” who have despaired of the time devoted to Leonardo’s study of optics and anatomy: “The Mona Lisa answers them with a smile.”
It is hard to overstate the importance of Leonardo’s legacy to modern intellectual endeavour. He provides one of the earliest and most brilliant examples of scientific systems thinking, always looking for analogies and patterns from nature to explain his observations and never being afraid to challenge conventional thinking or discard unhelpful theories.
Leonardo’s contribution extends well beyond the art for which he is most famous. He is an inspiration for all scholars and practitioners interested in developing solutions to complex problems where imagination must be harnessed to a deep appreciation of the underlying forces at play if valuable insights are to emerge and transformative innovation is to occur. This book helps us understand the dedication and humanist style Leonardo brought to that task.
Questions for Academy for Sustainable Innovation Class
- What were Leonardo da Vinci’s principal attributes as a thinker? Would he be seen as an exemplar of ‘design thinking’ or ‘systems thinking’ or both?
- Was Leonardo an inventor or an entrepreneur or both?
- How would we compare Leonardo’s abilities to those of early industrial inventors and entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell or later industrial figures like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk?
- If Leonardo was alive today what would he be working on? What might Leonardo make of the concept of the ‘circular economy’?