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Bridging the Renaissance Era and Digital Era with Leonardo da Vinci

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Leonardo da Vinci might have been one of the earliest adopters of exponential thinking.

da Vinci was born more than 500 years ago in semi-rural Tuscany to parents of modest means. Despite little access to formal education, he was able to extrapolate forward-thinking ideas about subjects as diverse as architecture, engineering, mathematics, urban planning, science and astronomy. His ideas were inconceivable to residents of those small Italian towns—and perhaps to everyone at the time.

How did Leonardo do it? The answer, in part, is exponential thinking.

Incremental thinking focuses on improving what exists, while exponential thinking tries to make something new or different. Exponential thinking is, in a way, creating solutions for things that don’t exist yet or solving problems using technology that doesn’t exist yet.

If exponential thinking was so easy, everybody would be able to do it. But few can.

Da Vinci’s ideas were often rejected because of limitations in current thinking and technology. For example, da Vinci:

  • Proclaimed the sun was the center of the universe 40 years before Copernicus.
  • Introduced the theory of gravity 200 years before Isaac Newton.
  • Argued for evolution 400 years before Charles Darwin.

Even when history’s greatest minds weren’t validating his ideas, he still was ahead of the curve. For example, in 1502, da Vinci envisioned an intricate bridge design as part of a civil engineering project in Turkey. However, the project wasn’t pursued because it was believed such construction was impossible. 500 years later, the Turkish government approved da Vinci’s original design. Talk about being ahead of your time!

In addition to exhibiting exponential thinking, da Vinci also showed a digital mindset:

  • Build bridges, not silos. Leonardo did not see a divide between science and art and viewed the two as intertwined disciplines rather than separate ones. Science made him a better artist and art made him a better scientist. Instead of putting the two fields into silos and treating them as two separate units, he merged the two. There’s a lot of talk about the digital vortex, and how the digital revolution is cross-industry. Nobody better exemplified this than da Vinci.
  • Stay curious. Leonardo was insatiably curious by nature, and this curiosity fueled many of his innovations and discoveries. For example, credited inventions include the self-propelled cart and helicopter. Fast-forward to the 21st century and we’re now reading about autonomous vehicles just about everywhere. Earlier this year, the first self-driving bus started regular routes in Vegas, and this summer, autonomous flying taxis should be seen in the skies above Dubai and Paris. If da Vinci could visit us today, would he be astonished to see such things, or perhaps perplexed that it took so long for them to happen?
  • Be hands-on. Leonardo loved tinkering with things and loved the mechanical aspect of design and thinking. But he always tried to go beyond just thinking about an idea, he’d try to bring that idea to life. He’s quoted as saying, “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”

With his exponential thinking and digital mindset, da Vinci would have felt at home in a startup environment. In 1994, Bill Gates paid $30M for the Codex Leicester, a 72-page notebook with sketches, ideas, and entrepreneurial ideas. This manuscript and sketchbook from da Vinci was a loose collection of ideas he tried to piece together. Like many startups, da Vinci adopted a mentality where there is no blueprint for success and tinkered with his ideas before sketching and fleshing them out. Much like those thinking exponentially today, he experimented often, learned by doing, readjusted and experimented more.

Leonardo Da Vinci was truly a man ahead of his time – the ultimate Renaissance Man and the original exponential thinker.

For more lessons from innovative thinkers, see Postcards From The Digital Edge: Innovation Lessons From The Best.

Jonathan Becher
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June 15, 2017
Jonathan Becher

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