Where Good Ideas Come From explores the process of creative thinking looking at seven key principles of innovation. Based on a detailed analysis of human achievement in art, science, technology and culture, Steven Johnson puts forward unusual conclusions about how good ideas form and develop in society.
Where Good Ideas Come From Summary
From the wheel to the internet, human creativity has seen incredible breakthroughs. Today, individuals, countries and companies seek to harness the creative spirit but it’s not altogether clear how and why groundbreaking ideas originate, propagate and succeed.
Taking a scientific approach, author Steven Johnson looks at seven patterns and principles that guide where the best ideas originate and how to encourage more of them.
Below are some of the key insights from the book.
- The history of innovation suggests that we are often better served by connecting ideas then we are by protecting them.
- Darwin’s Paradox observes that coral reefs (<0.01% of landmass) are home to over 25% of known marine life species.
- Kleiber’s Law suggests that the total number of heartbeats per lifetime is stable but bigger animals simply use their quota more slowly.
- By contrast, as cities get bigger they become exponentially more creative. A city that is 10 times larger becomes 17 times more creative.
- HDTV took 20 years to develop while Youtube took months to bring video to the web due to the power of networked and bricolage inventions (e.g. Adobe Flash)
- Innovations happen in environments that harness the power of the Adjacent Possible. This is where technology is developed upon existing spare parts and skill sets (e.g. Gutenberg) and is ‘of it’s time’ (e.g. Babbage vs. Turing). The Apollo 13 film provides a good example here.
- Another factor is the existence of a Liquid Network akin to coral reefs, the world wide web or primordial soup. In these circumstances information spills over. You can see this with Italy and double entry accounting or Dunbar’s observation of scientists in a lab but having creative epithanies in the meeting room. For this reason, breakout space is incorporated into offices.
- Ideas often come from a Slow Hunch where an idea is turned over and expanded in the network of your mind during a period of time. A good example of this is 20% time at Google or writing down all your observations in a single place.
- The role of Serendipity is also notable, e.g. the role of chaos at a neurological and evolutionary level where sexual selection is a prime example.
- Creativity also depends on Error (e.g. Vacuum tubes, Penicillin, Photography) which also plays a role in evolution. Experiments suggest that introducing noise can prompt creativity in otherwise predictable free association. (Charles Nemeth)
- Another principle is Examptaton where new innovations are built on unsuspecting inventions (e.g. PageRank upon Hyperlinks, YouTube upon Adobe Flash)
- Innovations also occur when Platforms amplify and encourage hunches e.g Homebrew computer club, Twitter APIs, Open Source. The coral reef also operates as a platform, allowing innovations to built upon calcifying dead animals. A stacked platform relies on knowledge built on that already found that you don’t need to have.
- Johnson also plots a market / network matrix to argue that innovations are increasingly being surfaced in the Fourth Quadrant (non-market / network) arena where increased flows of information are continually overspilling into new areas.