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What we learnt from the Polymath Festival with Isaiah Wellington- Lynn

The inaugural Polymath Festival, the world’s first major festival of ideas dedicated to celebrating many-sided human potential and exploring interdisciplinary solutions to complex world problems, took place over the first two weeks of February 2021.  

The two-week multi-session virtual experience aimed to catalyse a cultural paradigm shift, away from hyper-specialisation and ‘silo culture’, towards the encouragement of connection-making between different fields, disciplines and cultures. 

Hundreds of people from around the world signed up to attend the event, which featured a carefully curated set of live conversations, panel discussions, interactive workshops and unique performances, with more than 50 of the world’s leading thinkers and polymaths, including multiple LIS faculty. 

Isaiah Wellington-Lynnan anthropologist, designer and educator, and part of the LIS facultymoderated two panels with world-leading academics, entrepreneurs, and designers 

The first was titled ‘Researching the Polymath’, which sought to understand what it means to welcome new approaches to identifying talent, expertise, intelligence, and passions and having suitable outlets and appropriate terminologies to pursue those. During this session, he interviewed world-leading polymath thinkers and researchers: Dr Angela Cotellessa and Professor Dean Keith Simonton.  

He shares his main takeaways from the session: 

The pressure to specialize can cause psycho-social and ontological confusion for polymathic people. That is, those people in our society, your friends, family, professors, entrepreneurs, you name it; those people who intrigue us with their many interests and are fascinated by seemingly disconnected passions, can have challenging times ascribing labels to themselves to fit into society.  

– Don’t give up on your interests because they don’t seem relevant.  

– Academia loses out on cross-pollinated perspectives due to silo-culture (something Gillian Tett alludes to in her book, The Silo Effect).  

–  There is beauty in cognitive flexibility: owning your own story and narrative, carving your own path and the importance of subjective wellbeing. 

He says: 

“Dr Cotellessa offers a remedy for people like me, who seek an opportunity to satiate our varied academic interests. She proposes that we carve out our own niche in society. She calls us polymathic. Dr Cotellessa went on to elaborate that her continued research shows that using polymath as an adjective offers a sense of reassurance and affirmation to this group of people and allows them to better understand themselves. I deeply appreciated how she adopts this term. It feels liberating. She also alluded to how phrases such as “the Jack and Jills of all trades, master of none”, can serve to undermine polymathic people’s natural inclination to want to understand many different topics from various perspectives.”

The second session he moderated was titled ‘A Multidisciplinary Approach to Design’, which aimed to discuss the various ways to solve challenges in our society, albeit from a human-centered, data-driven design perspective. 

During this panel, Isaiah interviewed 3 people: pioneering architect, academic, designer, and Founder of Total Tool, Giulio Ceppi; ultra-luxury hospitality, yachting, finance, and sustainability entrepreneur, and CEO of Earth 300, Aaron Oliveraand, Mauro Porcini, the Chief Design Officer at Pepsico, the second-largest food and beverage company in the world with revenues of $64 billion and 260,000 employees. 

He says: 

“In preparation for the session, I re-watched Tom Hulme’s Ted Talk on ‘What Can We Learn From Shortcuts’. One of Tom’s most salient points is to “design for user needs at low friction points”. This inspired me to kick the session off with a discussion on what this means in practice.

Given the different speakers’ backgrounds, the audience organically heard three different perspectives. Some of the key takeaways were that design is a mindset predicated on some core values. We discussed that these include: openness to adaptation, embracing serendipity, resilience, empathy, open dialogue and open to disagreement and conflict, respect, collaboration, understanding complexity and curiosity. Following on from this, we touched on a range of design processes that each panellist employs in their practice. Aaron spoke about the power of beauty and wonder, coupling playfulness with complexity. Mauro spoke about the power of love, to design products, services, and experiences for humans to either communicate our affection or to ease our problems. And, Giulio spoke about the power of design to transform reality, to iterate, and to feel comfortable operating in the grey area.”

“The two sessions were very rich in perspectives that, at times, seemed to challenge one another; however, what was common to both was this idea of the purpose of higher education. This leaves me with the question: what does it mean to hone a craft in inter/multi-disciplinarity – having a toolkit to solve different problems from different perspectives?”


To celebrate many-sided human potential, connect with others who share their passion for cross-disciplinary dialogue and creativity, and explore interdisciplinary solutions to complex world problemsThe Polymath Festival are offering on-demand access to all the content from the festival until the middle of May for those who missed out. Over 40 sessions of live-streamed events, pre-recorded talks, and exclusive podcasts are accessible to watch and listen to whenever you want. Subscribe to their newsletter to be notified when the content becomes available.
Sign up here. 


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