Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

Book review with synopsis: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. Anyone who is involved in any field of productive creativity, from business, to science, to engineering, to art, has probably asked themselves the question “where do good ideas come from?” This book attempts to answer that question with a twist: “what are the conditions that produce good ideas, based on the historical data?” This is an excellent book for anyone who desires to create conditions under which productive creativity can flourish.

In this book Steven Johnson provides a useful analysis and framework of how good ideas have emerged throughout human history, and debunks some of the common myths regarding the “creative genius”. There are many thought provoking concepts in this book that make it worth the read. Of note, the author does use many parallels between biological evolution, and the evolution of ideas and invention. If that bothers you, this may not be the ideal book for you. That aspect not withstanding, this is an insightful and informative read. This book was certainly helpful to me in developing new approaches to coming up with good ideas.

If you want to hone your creative thinking skills, or you are curious as to how some of our greatest inventions came to be, then you will probably enjoy this book. More importantly, if you want to learn the types of conditions or circumstances that lend themselves to producing good ideas, then I can’t recommend this book enough. However I must mention, this is not a light read, and you need to set aside some quiet time to absorb the dense information included. Also, Johnson builds on ideas throughout the book, so I wouldn’t recommend skipping around, nor waiting a long time between chapters.

With that in mind, if you’re not able to dedicate the time to such a dense read, below I offer a synopsis of some of the key ideas that I took away from this book. These are not necessarily in order of how the book was written, but merely in the order of how my thoughts organized them.

One of the key points that Johnson returns to again and again is that great ideas seldom occur in isolation. He argues that great ideas are more likely to come from individuals or groups who are exposed to a wide variety of people and information, which allows for innovative and often unusual combinations of ideas to form. He uses the chemistry analogy of “liquid networks” – that is, gas molecules are too far apart to make adequate connections to catalyze good ideas, while molecules in solid materials are too rigidly structured to ever create anything inventive. Therefore, liquid networks offer the ideal balance, offering plenty of opportunity to make useful and creative connections, while not being so rigid that it prevents new connections from forming and turning into something productive. Anyone savvy in maintaining business or social relationship networks knows that this is certainly true.

Johnson also does a good job of explaining why certain innovations are possible to successfully implement in a given time and place, and why others are not. The author discusses the concept of the “adjacent possible”, which is perhaps another way of describing the “you can’t get there from here” phenomenon. He uses the analogy of being in one room with four doors to choose from; you can only go into one of the adjoining rooms. But once you are in the next room, that opens up new possibilities (new doors) that were not available from the previous room. So at any given time and place, certain things are possible to successfully establish, and others are not. The key is to be able to identify the ideas that are possible from where (and when) you currently are.

Essentially, for inventions and innovative ideas to succeed in the marketplace of implementation, they have to be sufficiently supported by existing infrastructure and knowledge. In business strategy one could relate this to the idea of a “pink ocean” strategy. However when it comes to technological ideas and innovation, this goes beyond just strategy, but to commonly available technological infrastructure and skills to support it. For example, the author provides compelling explanations of why YouTube would have failed if it was invented in 1995, and how any invention may be a most brilliant technological achievement, but will absolutely fail to be implemented anywhere there is inadequate infrastructure widely available to support it. Another way to think about this is that the timing of bringing new ideas and inventions to “market” or to the public, is always essential.

This brings me to another key point in the book: Johnson explains that successful innovation is often accomplished by building on existing platforms in new ways. Johnson uses the example of how Tim Berners-Lee invented HTML and the foundations for the world wide web by using existing TCP/IP network protocols. Then still other people built further new and inventive technologies on top of that – for example, Twitter, and YouTube. Johnson’s examples support his point that invention is more often an evolutionary process rather than a revolutionary one.

Johnson borrows the concept from biology known as “exaptation” to describe how one can innovate by recycling and repurposing something old and putting it to new use. For example, Johannes Gutenberg repurposed very old technology from wine presses to create his printing press – something entirely new and revolutionary. In other words, trying to give something old a new and productive use is one of the best ways to come up with good ideas.

The author provides numerous examples of how platforms can be keystone species in ecologies of innovation. Johnson describes how the development of GPS was a relatively straight forward scientific and engineering problem (based on the Doppler effect), with a multitude of beneficial unintended consequences which are used by almost everyone daily. Everything from smart phones to ATMs to innumerable other technologies now depend on GPS as a keystone platform. Ebay and Amazon are other examples of keystone platforms in the ecologies of marketplaces.

Speaking of beneficial unintended consequences, Johnson takes an interesting and innovative approach and delves into the concept of serendipity. The author provides numerous case study examples of how “chance favors the prepared mind”. In other words, good ideas and inventions often come from someone who has been curious about something or working on something in the background for some time, and then is presented with an unexpected opportunity to put that knowledge to use – often in unanticipated ways. Johnson refers to this as “slow multitasking” or a “slow hunch” where multiple embers are burning in the back of someone’s mind. He uses Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin as examples of how fruitful this approach can be. Johnson makes the case that most breakthrough ideas – those “aha moments” or “light bulb ideas” almost never happen spontaneously, but rather are the result of someone’s brain finally putting together the pieces from a “slow burn” in the background. And facilitating such serendipitous connections is simply a matter of simultaneously introducing ideas from different disciplines into your thinking.

Similarly, errors are not necessarily negative and can likewise produce serendipitous results. Penicillin was discovered by accident. Errors in DNA copying lead to genetic mutations that are often harmful, but can sometimes produce highly advantageous changes in organisms.

One topic Johnson mentions that I found particularly amusing was the idea that having some “chaos” in your brain or life can aid the creative process that leads to good ideas. He mentions some neuroscience studies that support this point. And what do you do if your thinking and life are just too structured and organized to be creative? Well, you should add some randomness of activities to spark connections or provide “outside the box” experiences and insights that your typical routines normally would not provide you.

Finally, Johnson characterizes innovative new inventions and technologies as falling into one of four possible categories, based on two criteria or axis. The two axis are “commercial” vs “non-commercial” and “individual” vs “collective” or group effort. His resulting four categories are “individual commercial” (think of a lone inventor who starts a business), “collective commercial” (think of multiple people within a business developing a new tech), “individual non-commercial” (think of a lone academic scientist), and “collective non-commercial” (think of open source software development, or other non-commercial group activity, like a non-profit).

Johnson then goes on to discuss the historical data regarding the number of innovations or inventions from each category. In doing so, he supports his thesis that networks of individuals and collaboration are more effective at driving good ideas and invention than is competition (although both can play a role). I found several things to be interesting about this section. First, there is no one clear cut single way that good ideas are produced. Good ideas have spawned from all four quadrants. Second, there seems to be an increasing trend in the number of inventions coming from teams of people rather than from individuals. And third, that the internet and modern communications technology have opened up an entirely new category or possibility for creative collaboration: individuals working together outside of any structured entity (like a business or local community group).

Johnson repeatedly points out that historically, cities have been the hotbeds for good ideas and inventions, due to the high degree of networking opportunities available – due to the sheer number of people in a small area. However, the internet changes everything in that regard, because now anyone with a network connection can work with anyone else with a network connection, and it matters almost not at all where those two people are physically located.

Here is a list of seven great questions (inspired by this book) that you can use to help develop good ideas. These were originally summarized by Brand Genetics:

  1. What new possibilities are there today, that didn’t exist a year ago? (principle of adjacent possibilities)
  2. What hunches have you had for some time about what to do? (principle of slow hunches – the more others share them or build on them, the better they may be)
  3. What do fresh eyes think we should do (principle of liquid networks)
  4. What’s worked that’s surprised us? (principle of serendipity – build on what surprises, chance happenings)
  5. What’s the biggest learning from our biggest error? (principle of error)
  6. What other purpose can our product or service be used for? (principle of exaptation – bird feather evolved for warmth, and then through ‘exaptation’ they became wings)
  7. What big success can we build on? (platform principle)

In conclusion, this is not a light read, but is certainly a useful one. I would reiterate that I would recommend this book to anyone who needs to develop new good ideas, regardless of your field of endeavor. After all, who doesn’t need more good ideas – particularly ones that actually get implemented.

For Health,
Rob

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