Triumph of the Innovation Economy – Part 5

What can we learn from the European Renaissance about building an economic, business, and cultural environment where innovation can flourish? Can we apply the same principles today to infuse creativity into our companies – and into our nations?

Human Creativity and the History of the World

Part 5

If you’ve enjoyed reading Parts 1 to 4 in this series of articles, you will already know my basic premise: that innovation is not simply a buzzword or a bumper sticker; it’s the central driving force for economic progress, and always has been. My previous articles have traced the undeniably huge impact of human creativity on the history of the world – from ancient times to the middle ages.

In this next article in the series, we will continue our journey through time as we examine the European Renaissance that laid the foundation for today’s global innovation economy, and consider exactly how this unique period of history became a stepping stone to the Industrial Revolution and to our modern era.

Out of the darkness into the light

Where social, technological, and economic progress had been stifled in Western Europe for close to a thousand years, it suddenly took a quantum leap forward with the European Renaissance of the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries.

Clearly, one of the main reasons for this remarkable upswing in technological and artistic creativity was the urbanization of Northern Italy, and in particular the emergence of powerful city-states like Florence, Venice, and Milan.

In these busy centers of trade and finance, the richest merchants, bankers and city officials fought to maintain their dominance in part by becoming patrons of the arts, competing with each other to fund the work of the greatest painters, sculptors, architects, writers, philosophers and scientists of their day.

A prime example is the Medici family of Florence, which owned the largest bank in Europe during the fifteenth century, and which sponsored famous figures like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Bertoldo. The efforts of these patrons brought together a variety of highly talented people from the worlds of art, education, and science, who then had the opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas and insights from their different fields, disciplines, and cultures.

This historic intersection point, writes Frans Johansson in The Medici Effect, “forged a new world based on new ideas.”

But while such a vibrant network of connections was undoubtedly a fertile breeding ground for innovation, it was not just the cultural conditions in Western Europe that became more conducive to creativity and invention during this period, it was also the mental conditions – the openness to new things, the philosophies, the attitudes, the thinking patterns and dispositions.

Prior to the Renaissance, creative thinking had been severely restricted by the medieval church. Rather than fostering curiosity for the natural world, and a desire to exploit it for economic purposes, the clergy demanded that the laws of nature – like the dogmas and traditions of the church – should be accepted without question and should not be tampered with. Mankind’s responsibility was the stewardship of nature, not its exploitation.

The prevailing attitude in medieval times might be summed up by the old phrase “If God had intended man to fly, he would have given him wings.”

There was generally very little motivation for suggesting a new idea or a new way of doing things, especially if it involved some attempt to better understand the mechanical forces of nature (which was God’s domain, not man’s) and then to manipulate these forces in an effort to improve quality of life or productivity. Any form of technological progress could potentially be viewed by the church, and by society, as a hubristic violation of divine order and a denial of mankind’s complete dependence on God.

The intellectual catalyst for the Renaissance – the fundamental change in attitude toward technological progress – came from the birth of humanism.

The Renaissance would emancipate the human mind from the constraints of medieval supernaturalism, opening people’s eyes to view the world in ways that had previously been clouded by religion and superstition.

In this exciting new age, as rationalism slowly eroded the power of mysticism, people began to develop a more mechanistic and controllable view of their world, believing it no longer sinful or reprehensible to manipulate the forces of nature or to challenge previous assumptions for the sake of human progress. Suddenly everything seemed possible thanks to the almost limitless power and promise of technology.

The Renaissance ushered in an era of unleashed human potential, producing a slew of technological, artistic and cultural achievements. It was an age in which invention and innovation could flourish.

Within two or three centuries, the technological gap between Europe and the rest of the world – in agriculture, energy use, mining, the adoption of fossil fuels, iron production, mechanical and hydraulic engineering, textile manufacturing, shipbuilding, seafaring, navigation and mapmaking, commercial transport, clock making, precision-built instruments and machines, and even financial accounting – became  immense.

One of the main drivers of technological diffusion after 1440 was clearly Gutenberg’s printing press, which made the rapid proliferation of detailed technical knowledge possible for the very first time.

But nation states also played an important role in supporting the advance of technology, for example by introducing formal patenting systems (the first was enacted in Venice in 1474), and by sponsoring scientific societies, such as the Royal Society in Britain (which was chartered in 1662).

As the French historian of technology Bertrand Gille pointed out, even the art and the political philosophy of the Renaissance was technological. This remained true as the Renaissance gave way to the Baroque period from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. By 1750, European society had become totally permeated with a focus on technological progress and economic growth.

The stage was thus set for Europe to enter a period of economic acceleration unlike the world had ever seen: the era we now know as the Industrial Revolution.

Continued in Parts 6 and 7 of this series –  find series here

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© Rowan Gibson 2015. All rights reserved.

Rowan Gibson’s brand new book The Four lenses of Innovation examines the thinking patterns or perspectives that have been catalysts for breakthrough innovation throughout human history, and shows you how to use these perspectives to infuse creativity into your own organization. Order your copy right here.

Rowan Gibson ( is recognized as one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on innovation. He is the internationally bestselling author of 3 major books, an award-winning keynote speaker in 60 countries, and a cofounder of Innovation Excellence. His new book is The Four lenses of Innovation. On Twitter he is @RowanGibson.

Rowan Gibson




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