Nikki Wicks
Mar 27, 2015

A night at the museum: What we can learn from Leonardo da Vinci

An exhibit at Singapore's ArtScience Museum explores the famous Italian whose name is all but synonymous with invention. As the museum's executive director explains here, Leonardo's way of working and thinking remain applicable to anyone who wishes to become more innovative.

Singapore's ArtScience Museum
Singapore's ArtScience Museum

If Leonardo da Vinci was on Twitter, his tweets may have read something like this: “Just invented the first ever parachute,” or “Heading down to Milan to measure the city and the suburbs” or “Just finished a new painting, think I’ll call it the Mona Lisa” or even, “Check out this flying machine I just invented #YOLO”.

But even if Twitter did exist in the 1400s, it’s unlikely that one of the world’s greatest minds and innovators would have taken to micro-blogging. Da Vinci wasn’t too focused on the here and now; he was busy looking much further ahead, way into the future.

“There are inventions and projects that Leonardo came up with in his notebooks that appear to be for a world that didn’t exist when he was alive,” said Honor Harger, executive director at Singapore’s ArtScience Museum. “He was inventing for a future that was of an indeterminate length of time away. He wasn’t focusing on the short-term problems of the age, he was really imagining decades—as it turned out, centuries—in advance.”

Leonardo Di Vinci was the master of long-term thinking. His invention of the parachute, for instance, came about long before there was ever any need for such a thing. It was the 1400s, and there were no airplanes. But aside from da Vinci’s incredible back catalog of masterpieces and innovations, perhaps his greatest legacy is the way in which he worked.

And it was this idea that shaped the focus of the Marketing Society’s recent event at the iconic ArtScience Museum in Singapore. At the event, hosted by Lowe Profero global CEO and chairman of the Marketing Society for SE Asia, Wayne Arnold, around 30 marketers enjoyed a private tour with Harger, who shared some of da Vinci’s greatest works and offered insights into his ways of thinking.

 

 

Campaign Asia-Pacific sat down with Harger to find out more about how Leonardo da Vinci’s practices can be applied today.

Marketers and businesses talk a lot about the need for innovation, but what can we learn and apply today from da Vinci’s way of working?

One of the reasons why Leonardo was such an extraordinary, ingenious innovator was because of a practice that we now describe as systems thinking, or holistic thinking. Or we could just more simply refer to it as inter-disciplinary thinking. So he was a master of basically applying his understanding of one topic to his work in another field. And you see this really clearly in the exhibition. 

He wasn’t bound to one mode of practice and one mode of thinking. And I think we have an enormous amount to learn from this.

So he would think deeply about, for instance, the actual sciences, and then that would come out in his work in architecture. His studies in urban planning would inform his technology inventions. His understanding of technology would be applied directly to his painting. So for him there was no distinctions between fields. He wasn’t a specialist, he was the opposite. He was a generalist or a systems thinker.

And it was really partly that tendency that led him to come up with extraordinary innovations. He wasn’t bound to one mode of practice and one mode of thinking. And I think we have an enormous amount to learn from this. In fact, we would argue it’s one of Leonardo’s greatest legacies to us today. And this is why we frame this exhibition in such a contemporary fashion, and made direct links between Leonardo’s thinking and his sketching in his work, and innovations which are happening in Singapore today.

Because we see there being a clear correlation between the tendencies that he had to watch nature, for instance, and then come up immediately with a device or an invention that would be inspired by nature. We’ve got examples in the exhibition of technologists doing precisely that, in Singapore, observing phenomena in nature and then going and building a robot which mimics these natural phenomena. That’s exactly what Leonardo did.

We like to say that when you bring art, science, culture, and technology all together, innovation comes out. It’s where the future is effectively being made. 

What’s the key to inspiring true innovation?

So we consider ourselves at the museum in the world where art, science, culture and technology come together. We’re specifically interested in the intersection point between those fields. And we would say that it’s in that intersection where innovation happens. So we like to say that when you bring art, science, culture, and technology all together, innovation comes out. It’s where the future is effectively being made. 

It’s very rare that you see significant innovation in a vacuum, innovation that would only occur within art, with no intervention from science, technology. And likewise, in science and technology you don’t really see innovation without flashes of inspiration that come from arts or design. True innovation is really where those areas intersect.

Are there things that businesses, companies or indeed schools could do to encourage innovation?

Obviously this is a completely different question if you’re applying it to yourself as a person or a school. But with regards to education, one of the major points of learning, I think, is this piece around systems thinking. If we continue to teach young people that their best shot in life is to hyper-specialise, then we shouldn't be surprised if we’re not going to see innovation coming out of that approach. Because it’s just simply not where innovation comes from.

There’s always a value to having an interdisciplinary skill set on your team, rather than hyper-specialised individuals

We see in many education environments around the world, and in Singapore, that specialisation is what’s being promoted, particularly once we get to tertiary level education, but in certain countries even at primary level. If we are trying to think of innovative solutions to some of the really big challenges that we face as a society—I’m thinking of things like climate change, food security, water security—it’s really unlikely that those kinds of solutions are going to come out of just one narrow field. It’s going to be all the disciplines, working together to try and come up with innovative solutions to those big systemic set pieces. So from an education standpoint, I think that’s very clear.

If you were thinking about how it would be applied in business, we’d be talking about different sorts of answers. But technology businesses could learn a lot from looking at other fields; from looking at the way that design businesses or arts businesses are run and working with creative people as part of their teams. There’s always a value to having an interdisciplinary skill set on your team, rather than hyper-specialised individuals who are wonderful at doing delivery, but will not necessarily be the source of those kind of bigger-picture flashes of innovative brilliance. 

How can marketers benefit from long-term thinking?

Da Vinci wasn’t focusing on the short-term problems of the age, he was really imagining decades—as it turned out, centuries—in advance. And when you start looking at the world through those kinds of timescales, you start thinking in a quite different way. It completely shifts your frame of reference, because if you’re going to have longevity in your business, having the capacity to think further out is absolutely crucial.  And it’s not necessarily encouraged.

Google talk about this quite a lot now. You’ll hear Larry Page speaking quite astutely about what Google might look like in 20 years time.


Honor Harger

If you’re in the innovation business, it’s essential if we’re trying to work out how to still be relevant at that time. Google talk about this quite a lot now. You’ll hear Larry Page speaking quite astutely about what Google might look like in 20 years time. That’s the timeframe that they now plan to. It’s difficult and it’s tricky, but you can immediately imagine how thinking like that would make you make different choices in 2015, if you’re not constantly chasing profits this year, or just for this quarter. 

You mentioned Google and Larry Page, are there any other contemporary figures that are applying this kind of long-term thinking?

Well, famously, Elon Musk. He’s like the poster child for this kind of thinking. Elon Musk is right now working on a contingency plan for what would happen if we no longer had a habitable Earth.  So that’s the kind of big, speculative, set-piece problems that his companies are working on. And someone needs to be doing this.

Da Vinci: Shaping the Future is running at Singapore’s ArtScience Museum.

 

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