Deusto Business School and the innovation firm 3M have presented a report that delves into the importance of a phenomenon which led civilisation to its highest level during the Renaissance and has emerged as a key aspect in the digital era: polymathy. Polymathy is the capacity to achieve excellence in two or more branches of knowledge in different expressions of human genius, with a combination of structures that may come from fields as diverse as the arts, sciences, business, sport, technology or the humanities.
Could Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest exponent of the Renaissance, have made history, if he had been born in our times? Could the minds of Copernicus, Galileo or Francis Bacon have been so outstanding in today’s specialised world? On such a fast-moving scenario, where scientific production doubles every 10 years, it seems that polymathy is acquiring new significance. Technology change and global competition create more incentives than ever to innovate and the digital economy is fertile ground for polymaths to develop all their talent. An inquisitive mind which is constantly questioning reality, with a facility for learning and finding imaginative solutions is especially suitable on today's new scenarios.
In this context, the most valuable future workers will not be the best engineers or programmers but polymaths: people with broad technical knowledge who are also capable of understanding the needs of the company and its customers. This can be explained by the fact that business success is determined not only by the level of technology development but by adaptation to people's lives.
There are well known polymaths in Silicon Valley who are revolutionising one industry after another. Serial entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk are the Leonardos or Edisons of the twenty first century. Their success is not based on being specialists in one field but in pulling together their business acumen with design, technology and science.
During the last two centuries, the pillar of the western world has been hyperspecialisation, so we find it strange to see professionals who shine in fields as diverse as science and the arts, for instance.
However, the digital era requires “all rounders” like those who stood out in the Renaissance. In more recent times, nevertheless, there have been cases in Spain like our Nobel Prize in Literature, José Echegaray, who was formerly a scientist or Gregorio Marañón, who was a doctor and essayist, or Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who was outstanding in photography and the neurosciences, also a Nobel.
Never before have we had as many possibilities to develop polymathy as we do with today’s new technologies. We can now access any type of knowledge not only through books and manuals but also through videos or MOOCs (massive open online courses) taught by lecturers from the world’s top universities. The dichotomy of the arts and sciences, which intends to place persons in a certain category from secondary school level, is broken is this context. A person can shine in both disciplines. Furthermore, it is important to recognise others such as artistic creation or sport.
According to Francisco González-Bree, Professor of Innovation at Deusto Business School and co-author of the report entitled “La innovación require ahondar en el llamado efecto Medici” (Innovation calls for delving into the so called "Medici Effect”) which seeks innovations where industries and disciplines intersect, “We foster this search at Deusto Business School and firmly believe in innovation as an essential growth and sustainability lever for companies.”
Estrella Cabrero, Head of Innovation at 3M Iberia, states that continuous innovation is now more necessary than ever due to technology changes and global competition. "At 3M, we have been generating value for decades by combining different branches of science and technology to create new products, services and complex processes aiming to solve the world's big and little problems"”. In fact, one of the company's objectives is that 25% of its turnover should come from products that have been on the market for less than five years. “Our scientists use 46 different technology platforms and look for connections between them to find the most innovative solutions," added Estrella Cabrero.
3M published the first global study on polymathy, focusing on analysing how their scientists who combined broad in- depth knowledge contributed to the success of the company, drawing the following conclusions: “Specialists have contributed the most important innovations to 3M; generalists have created new ideas and patents and polymaths have taken part not only by generating innovation but also by applying these inventions to different departments, integrating them with different technologies. They have become the company’s most valuable scientists."
This is how management and organisations are rediscovering the value of rounding off their teams with people who have a high level of technical knowledge and a strong humanist background. They are shifting from the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Model to STEAM, which includes the Arts, in the broadest sense of the word.
In short, polymathy proves to be a key aspect of innovation that many big firms are already using in today’s hyperspecialised world.