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What's the polymath festival? and why you need to be there now

Many of the world's leading intellectuals, entrepreneurs and creatives are (virtually) getting together this February to call for an end to "specialisation" as we know it and to usher a new paradigm that celebrates the many-sidedness of human potential. You need to join them.

Polymaths urgently needed

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been comprehensive. By contrast there is a growing consensus that the response is crippled by the narrow specialist perspectives of the experts guiding policy. There is grudging acknowledgment that a bolder, broader polymathic approach fostering creativity and innovation is necessary to meet the challenge. The reality is that in academia and industry specialisation remains the dominant culture.

Enhanced collaboration will not provide a quick fix. The virus has merely exposed a problem that predates its arrival – a conservatism that impedes the development of human potential and skews technological advance. The insights of the contributors to the festival – cartographers of the future - immediately make the world a vastly more interesting and optimistic space.

They also suggest an emergency; the need to emancipate intelligence and liberate wisdom if we are to retain any agency in an increasingly complex world. Much depends on the emergence of a collective polymathy that connects the dots and unsparingly reveals the nature of the crisis.

Who's saying what

The festival content is tenaciously holistic and rampantly eclectic, an opportunity to revel in ideas, make them your own or encourage mutation. There are podcasts to mull over, panel discussions that invite reaction and time to ask seriously provocative thinkers questions you once thought ridiculous.

Most of us marvel at polymaths, awed by artistic and intellectual achievements normally impossible in a single lifetime. Philosopher, poet, physician and neuroscientist Raymond Tallis demystifies the phenomenon. Author Ian Gilchrist connects with the brain. Peter Burke and Felipe Fernandez Armesto provide historical context. Art-historian Martin Kemp splendidly illustrates the subject with a reinterpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci, the world’s most famous polymath.

Broad-minded is more than a cliché. Akbar Ahmed dismantles Eurocentric illusions. Noam Chomsky continues to enlarge the canvas. Fritjof Capra takes a systems view of life. Keith Eyeons and Richard Dunne look at the world unblinkered. Nathaniel Peat, Juli Crockett and Azeem Ibrahim celebrate the life multidisciplinary. Howard Gardner elevates the synthesising mind and Douglas Hofstadter, the polymath epitomised, continues his journey to the centre of thought.

Mining our untapped potential is no longer optional. Anders Sandberg says a multidimensional mind is indispensable as artificial intelligence replaces the specialist. We need to reprogram. Herminia Ibarra offers practical strategies for reinventing careers as pandemic shock crashes conventional ways of working. Lucy Crompton-Reid, Dr Rand Spiro and Bobby Seagull help navigate the information age. Andrew Hill surfs the flexible and fluid labour market.

The festival openly aims to catalyse a cultural paradigm shift, breach the bounds of hyper-specialisation, install previously outlawed interdisciplinary connections, and inspire an activist movement determined to change the way we think and rescue the full range of human potential.

And so, Gillian Tett storms the citadels of organisational silos and Carl Gombrich and Robert Nail address the optimal learning approach to tackle real world problems. Mattia Galotti, Ash Brockwell and James Carney illuminate the power of interdisciplinarity.

People are fascinated with the polymath’s ability to excel in both science and art, distinct cultural spheres that are often assumed to demand a particular orientation and talent. Daniel Levitin explores the art-science dichotomy. Merritt Moore, Jasmine Pradissitto, Stephanie Hill and Shama Rahman approach that frontier as women. Asiko, Delphine and Mahtab Hussain unveil a masterpiece. For Heston Blumenthal there’s chemistry in cuisine.

It is not just lip service to Art. The festival hosts a multidisciplinary visual art workshop with The Princes School of Traditional Arts, features an immersive virtual tour of the Benjamin Franklin House, an appearance by ballerina Merritt Moore and solo performances inspired by polymaths like Ziryab and William Blake

Women are the most obvious victims of institutionalised specialisation. Gayatri Spivak pays tribute to an unequal struggle. Rachel Holmes and Anna Mason reflect on the lives of polymathic daughters Eleanor Marx and May Morris.

There must be no return to normal

It is unfortunate that the festival has been reduced to a remote experience precluding the warmth, communication, and solidarity of communal participation. We will still be in lockdown when it ends. Meanwhile anxiety is compounded by confusion about the vaccines, bewilderment over testing, insecurity as businesses fold, jobs disappear, and incomes shrink; anger as inequality continues to surge and frustration at yet another round of astonishing bailouts. Adil Najam, producer of the ‘The World after Coronavirus’ series tells us there will be no return to normal.

This may appear a bleak scenario inviting a collapse into despondency and despair. The festival is intended to demonstrate entirely the opposite; that breaking the shackles of a moribund intellectual culture that suppresses human potential is the preamble to building a better world. The contributors have demonstrated that it is possible to think differently, to defy convention and the pressure to conform.

They reinforce DaVinci Network themes of cognitive flexibility, self-actualisation, reinvention, lifelong learning, creative interdisciplinarity and a holistic approach to solving complex world problems. If in a fortnight you suspect that mediocrity is an inflicted condition the festival will have been a success.

D.P. Maistry

Here's how to register for the Polymath Festival, watch live events and obtain 3 months access to all content.

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