Alfred Nobel
True humanist: Alfred Nobel’s abiding ambition was to contribute to the betterment of his fellow man © Getty

The second week of December is a hectic time at Stockholm School of Economics. The school has three professors on the committee for the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, and Nobel Week, as it is known in Sweden, brings a seemingly endless roll call of events. Last year, SSE hosted Nobel NightCap. This party, arranged by the students, transformed the school into a winter wonderland, complete with ice bars and fairytale animals. A day later, the Nobel economics laureate addressed the school in the main hall, seemingly oblivious to all the commotion.

Alfred Nobel was an entrepreneur in the true sense — chemist, engineer, inventor, company builder and philanthropist. His life was not always easy. His father’s business went bankrupt, the family lived in Russia for a time and the young Alfred helped put food on the table by selling matches on the street. His brother and several others were killed during his experiments with nitroglycerine.

But Nobel’s invention of dynamite, patented in 1867, paved the way for a story of rare success. Nobel worked long hours and had an unbending belief in the progress of humanity through peaceful subjugation of natural forces. He was an avid reader, kept an extensive library and wrote poetry that explored melancholy, loneliness, depression and related themes.

Nobel’s energy verged on the frenetic. He obtained more than 350 patents and was convinced dynamite would lead to global peace, believing people would draw back from conflict once they saw the harmful effects of explosives.

That vision did not come to pass, and Nobel sought to compensate by directing in his will that a foundation be established and the interest on its capital used to fund an award to the individual who had made the greatest contribution to humanity each year. Nobel’s next of kin had to make do with a negligible slice of his fortune. Their benefactor believed inherited wealth “feeds indolence and contributes to the apathy of man”.

Nobel was ahead of his time. He mixed his interest in science with aesthetic creativity and entrepreneurship. His abiding ambition — to contribute to the betterment of his fellow man — was multidimensional. For all his scientific training and engineering background, Nobel was a true humanist.

Today, work for many people is highly specialised, professionalised and focused. An engineer does engineering; a poet writes poetry. Nobel nurtured a profound and uplifting belief in mankind’s capabilities. And he saw education and the creative arts as tools for a better world.

All the same, Nobel’s view of humanity’s decision-making when in possession of destructive weapons was touching and verged on naïve.

His approach to life offers lessons for higher education. We know creativity demands the juxtaposition of different perspectives; that delineating boundaries between disciplines and subjects does not promote invention and innovation; and deep, specialist knowledge is imperative for identifying certain types of problem. But we also know counter perspectives are often needed to identify problems and solutions.

In higher education it is sometimes said “the world has problems and universities have departments”. It is vital business schools continue to apportion the knowledge they generate and share in line with the knowledge-based infrastructure of the day. At the same time, we need to admit alternative approaches into our frameworks.

The problem is, it is difficult to conduct clear studies on the impact of creativity and creative environments. Would Nobel have been able to invent dynamite without his love of literature? Would he have become a great philanthropist without his poetry, or a successful industrialist had his father not gone bankrupt? These questions are impossible to answer, but Nobel’s work can inspire an understanding that multidisciplinary exposure can kindle ideas, that ambition and drive can be channelled in innumerable directions and great success should be accompanied by great responsibility.

If we are to create a better world, we need a strong belief in human capacity, which we can then channel with the help of incentives, such as the Nobel prizes. Or through our personal conviction about what is right.

Lars Strannegård is president of Stockholm School of Economics

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