Separated by seven hundred years and more than 6000 miles, fourteenth century Florence and twenty first century San Jose, CA, seem worlds apart. Yet, as vibrant centers of artistic and technological Renaissance, respectively, the two cities have striking similarities.
The Renaissance and Us
In many ways, Renaissance Europe mirrors American society today. Back then, an explosion of creativity led to the accomplishment of pioneering feats in the fields of art, science and exploration, spearheaded by the likes of Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci and Christopher Columbus. This period was born out of immense social upheaval. The Black Death, which ravaged Europe in the mid 1300s, was followed by the War of Eight Saints, a conflict fought between the Catholic Church and an Italian coalition led by Florence. Although these incidents are now a distant memory in the modern-day west, global events – including the War on Terror, the Global Financial Crisis and the Ebola outbreak – have continued to act as catalysts for social change and innovation, heralded by a new breed of tech-savvy entrepreneurs and philanthropists.
The concerns we obsess over are ones we share with our Renaissance counterparts. Driven by fears of war, disease, and climate change, we repeat the history of our ancestors, who faced similar threats. Of course then, as now, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were not all doom and gloom. Wealthy families – the venture capitalists of their day – enabled a new wave of problem solvers with their investments and patronage. Powerful houses, such as the Medici of Florence, provided innovators with the means to further their projects and accelerate social progression. The decentralized competition among the Florence guilds spurred innovation just as startups, operating in a similar ecosystem in Silicon Valley, do today.
Looking back, we can define Cosimo de Medici, the son of a Vatican banker, as a quintessential venture capitalist. Using his vast wealth, Cosimo funded arts, infrastructure and education, helping society to bloom and grow in doing so. At the same time across Europe, similar funding from wealthy patrons – including Spanish royalty – eventually led to Columbus’ history-defining journey to the New World. This is not that different from the businesses that fund efforts to expand humanity’s reach into space. When we consider these two parallel Renaissances in the context of each other’s scope and ambition, we can better understand the untapped potential of the current era.
The new face of problem solvers
Flash forward seven hundred years and mankind’s latest Renaissance has firm roots San Jose and the surrounding Silicon Valley area. Huge multinational tech companies such as Apple, Facebook and Tesla now make decisions that will determine global society’s trajectory for decades to come. Like Cosimo and his family of wealthy philanthropists, entrepreneurs such as Tesla’s Elon Musk are using their capital and vision to drive humanity’s potential forward.
With Musk as an example, it’s easy to draw comparisons between the Renaissance thinkers of the 1400s and the problem solvers of today. Musk’s long-held ambition to mass market an electric vehicle, providing a sustainable transport solution for all, is perhaps the clearest example of a rebirth in the way entrepreneurs look to solve problems in world around them. For Columbus, a commercially minded explorer, finding the new world was a byproduct of trying to find a faster route to the East Indies. Now, Musk is actively looking to colonize a new world – this time Mars – as he seeks to preserve human existence.
Musk has equally impressive ambitions in the field of sustainable energy and transport. Despite world leaders’ agreement to tackle climate change in Paris last year, it will be up to entrepreneurs like Musk and Bill Gates to make tackling climate change a reality. If his prediction that Tesla will be worth $700bn by 2025 comes true, it will be on the back of successfully marketed electric cars. Politicians use only the language of restriction to impose greener ways of living. Musk, on the other hand, is creating the viable option that consumers need while Gates uses his influence to increase government research and development (R&D) into alternative energy resources. This is a process that is being repeated across industry sectors as different innovators participate in a surge of global problem solving, aided by the sheer scale of the internet.
To the future – the path of progress
But where will this innovation take place? By its very nature technology always has and always will evolve. As time progresses, the distance between technological breakthroughs continues to shorten. Consider that while thousands of years separate the wheel and the car, just a few decades exist between the car and space flight. Similarly, the location for innovation booms will continue to change. At different points in history Athens, Florence, Paris, and the Bay Area and others have taken the lead in the evolution of art, science and thinking. While Silicon Valley has held the mantle of global innovation center for more than a decade, that could be about to change.
Locally in the U.S., innovators are starting to whisper – or in some cases, shout – that Silicon Valley’s pre-eminence is already dwindling. Bibop Gresta, the chief operating officer of Hyperloop, has labelled the Valley’s denizens as talkers, rather than doers, saying that real innovation is instead taking place in Los Angeles. Elsewhere, others boast the emergence of rivals such as Austin, or Boston.
Globally, billion dollar startups are emerging all over the world. Flipkart – India’s answer to Amazon – is already valued at $15bn, while Jack Ma’s Alibaba goes from strength to strength and China looms large. Ignoring isolated entrepreneurs, Nairobi is now discussed as Silicon Savannah, following reports that its tech startup scene could be worth $1 billion in the coming years. The question is not “if” future Renaissances will happen, rather ones of “where” and “when”. As we gaze towards a not too distant future – when weekend travel to Mars may be a reality – we would do well to keep the Renaissance and its continuing impact in mind. After all, we will create the world we want to live in.