Why visionaries, design thinkers and business leaders need to study the history of science

Right now I am in the middle of writing a book review of Henri Bortoft’s Taking Appearance Seriously. Having been taught by Henri, and being someone who now teaches Henri’s phenomenological philosophy to business students, his publisher Floris Books sent me his manuscript early, and it has been wonderful for me to read his latest work, especially since his last book The Wholeness of Nature was published in 1996.

Henri’s book is a monumental tour de force, and I can think of no other living philosopher, scientist and author who has the ability to explain in such clarity the evolution of thinking from the time of Plato to this modern age, not only in terms of liner evolution, but also what Henri calls the dynamics of thinking, a dynamical way of seeing which he suggests was the true teachings of Plato and Aristotle, and which came back to us first in Goethe’s way of science which he called delicate empiricism and then in the last century in the European philosophical movements of phenomenology and hermeneutics.

It is not always an easy sell though, telling people in business the importance of studying the history of science. For me it is vital, since it is not enough to look at the ideas the greatest thinkers have had. This on its own will not make us great thinkers. But I do believe that if we study the way of thinking of these great scientists, discoverers, innovators and inventors, then we can learn to become ourselves more innovative, creative, and we can learn to understand organic dynamic natural systems. It is only if we have new templates of thinking that we can raise our levels of consciousness, and thus solve problems which previously seemed intractable to us.

Photo credit: dexigner.com

It was therefore great when I read today this interview with Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo, and creator of the influential Design Thinking methodology.

Q: Where do you find your inspiration for new ideas?

A: I love history and science (and the history of science most of all).

I am interested in the design of complex systems and science, whether of the natural world or the science of complexity, is greatly inspiring to me. I believe we have to adapt our methods of design to accommodate the complexity of the systems we are designing for. Many of my ideas, such as the importance of understanding emergent behavior, come from science.

History is also important to me, particularly the history of technology, design and business. We can get very excited by contemporary ideas but I find time and again that going back and looking at what great historical figures thought, such as Buckminster Fuller, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Darwin, or Peter Drucker, can be truly insightful and put things into perspective.

This quote is wonderful, especially as he also mentions Charles Darwin, someone who I am also a great admirer of. Here in Brazil there is a real thirst for new business thinking, and many business schools here invite many international speakers each year to come and teach. However, as far as I am aware, there is only one Business School which not only teaches Complexity Science, but also a module on the History of Science in order to help student develop their thinking around innovation, creativity, systems thinking and sustainability, and that is Sustentare Escola de Negócios (Sustentare Business School) in Joinville, Santa Catarina.

Prof. Wilmar Cidral with Maria Auxiliadora Moraes Robinson and myself

Sustentare was founded by Prof. Wilmar Cidral, and it really is to his credit that he has had the foresight and wisdom to develop a post-MBA course which includes a module on The History of Science. I have already written about the impact that this level of teaching has on business students, one of whom summarises it well in their feedback by saying:

Yes, my thinking has changed. Complexity defines a system which is more than the sum of the parts and where chaos and order may coexist, such as the example of organizations that can not be described without considering their culture, their people and the relationships between them. For when I am part of the organization I do not see an organization separate from me, because the organization has the parts that are the people. And every person is a reflection of the organization.

Read More

Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought by Henri Bortoft is published by Floris Books and is released on 25th October 2012

Changing Mental Models of Complexity

Blistering Barnacles! What I learned from reading Darwin

Reflections on my two days at Sustentare Business School

Sustentare Escola de Negócios

7 responses to “Why visionaries, design thinkers and business leaders need to study the history of science

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