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The Common Thread That Links History's Greatest Innovations

Applied Minds cofounder Bran Ferren reflected on what a 2,000 year old structure can teach the tech community about building for the future.
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It was during a family vacation in Rome when technology designer Bran Ferren, then 9-years-old, stood in the Pantheon and had the life-changing realization that design and engineering were not polar fields. Ferren learned that it that it had taken several engineering miracles to build the beautiful dome temple, he said Tuesday during his talk at the TED 2014 conference

"Largely because of that visit, I came to understand that contrary to what I was being told in school,the worlds of art and design were not in fact incompatible with science and engineering. I realized when combined, you could create things that were amazing that couldn't be done in either domain alone," he said.

Today, Ferren is the co-chairman of Applied Minds, a consulting firm that emphasizes interdisciplinary thinking. The TED conference is being taped in font an audience of about 1,200 this week in Vancouver, Canada. Tuesday morning featured a session called "Retrospect," during which Ferren and others mused about what the past can teach us about the future. 

The history of the 2,000-year-old Pantheon structure has much to say about the way humankind will create modern innovations, ones that will leave people awestruck 2,000 years from now, according to Ferren.  

"How do these projects of unprecedented creative vision and technical complexity like the Pantheon actually happen? Someone themselves, perhaps [Roman Emperor] Hadrian needed a brilliant creative vision. They also needed the story telling and leadership skills necessary to fund and execute it," Ferren said.

The 5-miracle Theory 

But even the most skillful leaders can't pull greatness off on their own. Ferren has a theory that at least five "miracles" are behind every game-changing innovation, he said. For example, just one of the "miracles" behind the Pantheon was that its constructors were able to invent an impressively strong concrete, without which they couldn't have built the structure.

A successful leader, he said, needs to be able to identify other emerging "miracles" when he/she sees them.

"In my experience, these rare visionaries who can think across the worlds of art, design and engineering and have the ability to notice when others have provided enough of the miracles to bring the goal within reach," Ferren said. 

Is there any one under-construction project today that is a modern-day 'Pantheon' in the making? Ferren said it's tempting to say that the Internet is, but he thinks that's not entirely correct. 

"The Internet isn't a Pantheon, it's more like the invention of concrete. Important, absolutely necessary to build the Pantheon and enduring. But entirely insufficient by itself," he said.

Last updated: Mar 18, 2014

LAURA MONTINI | Staff Writer

Laura Montini is a reporter at Inc. She previously covered health care technology for Health 2.0 News and has served as an associate editor at The Health Care Blog. She lives in San Francisco.




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