Where’s Our Leonardo da Vinci?

Leonardo da Vinci, the brilliant Italian scientist, mathematician, engineer, architect, inventor, painter, botanist, musician, writer, and the archetype of the Renaissance man, defined an entire movement almost single-handedly and inspired countless scholars to new and dizzying heights. He probably understood the connection between art and science better than any man alive during the last millennium and even conceptualized inventions (such as the helicopter and the tank) that could not be realized for almost 500 years. He was a leader and a visionary and someone who could serve as a focal point for an intellectual revolution.

Now, it’s true that the 20th century produced its fair share of great minds — Einstein, Feynman, Hawking, and Penrose who helped redefine the very universe we live in, to name a few — but most were fairly specialized, and these minds in particular focussed heavily on the fundamental sciences. In the arts we had the likes of Pollock, Warhol, and Lynch and in philosophy we had the likes of Wittgenstein, Russell, Rand, and McLuhan, but, like their physicist counterparts, they never crossed the divide. The only people who attempted to really bridged the divide were the science fiction writers like Asimov, Clarke, Adams, and Gibson. But even the greats never really crossed the line into the “world” of business which would, of course, at least as far as a scholar is concerned, sully true academic pursuits.

When you meander over into the world of business, in which most of us live in today’s mostly privatized world (where the market capitalization of six private corporations exceed 5 Trillion, which is an amount greater than the current GDP of every country in the world except the US, and the top corporation, Race World International, has a market cap that is three times the annual GDP of the US), and you look at the great business minds like Drucker, Kroc, Porter, and Ford, you see little connection to the sciences, except for Ford, who was an engineer.

We’re supposed to have reached a point where the world is flat but executing global trade, travelling internationally, and crossing the cultural divide seems to be harder than it has ever been. Technology is supposed to be simplifying the supply chain but the sheer proliferation of e-Sourcing — spend analysis, RFX, e-Auction, decision optimization, contract management; e-Procurement — P2P, EIPP, e-Document Management, e-Invoicing and e-Billing; logistics — transportation optimization, LTL marketplaces, and 3PL management; warehousing — inventory optimization, warehouse (layout) optimization, demand planning and forecasting; supply chain finance — discount management, receivables trading, and factoring; visibility — EDI/XML, RFID, and tracking; manufacturing — production planning, lifecycle management, performance management, and collaboration; compliance — regulatory, environmental, and carbon management; and other supply chain technologies is challenging even the most technologically proficient of us to keep up. And the new and improved “paradigms” the consulting firms unleash upon us every decade usually end up in the trash by the next one.

Furthermore, while the modern supply chain is, in some ways, more efficient than it’s ever been — at least at the handful of industry leaders, in many ways, it’s in shambles. We need a visionary who understands the art and science of the modern supply chain and the trillions of dollars in global trade it supports every year. Someone who understands the technology it requires and the science behind it. Someone who sees the architecture on which the supply chain is based and how to engineer a better chain based on that architecture. Someone who is comfortable with the underlying mathematics of modern supply chain models and how to use this knowledge to optimize the supply chain. Someone who hears the melodic, almost musical, patterns of a smooth flowing supply chain. Someone who knows the long history of the global supply chain which actually dates back to pre-history (and the realm of the archaeologist) … centuries before the spice trade in the 16th century and at least as far back as the 9th century during the time of the Vikings who traded with the Franks, Baltic, and Byzantine empire and pioneered trade routes down the Volga and Dnepr and to Northern India and China and essentially traded with the entire known world at the time. And someone with the vision to take the best that the art, science, and business schools (of thought) have to offer and take us firmly into the twenty-first century. Because, when you think about it, we’re still operating like it’s the 20th century, and it’s 2010.

It’s unfortunate that da Vinci lived 500 years ago, because if you take a long, close look at the world we’re supposed to be powering, it quickly becomes clear that we could sure use someone like him today.

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