Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

How are innovations developed? Do they spring forth in the mind of a single individual? Or are they crafted over time in a dialogue with others? Is there some recurring pattern that can account for their formation? These are the types of questions Steven Johnson considers in his densely packed, heavily researched book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Innovation.

In this book Johnson undertakes an analysis of 300 of the most influential innovations in areas ranging from the discovery of air conditioning, evolution, vacuum tubes, vacuum cleaners, the Internet and the World Wide Web.

It is an intellectual tour-de-force that is continually fascinating. Johnson argues that certain environments breed innovations effortlessly. Listing the major themes of this factually rich volume is, I think, the clearest way to illustrate his findings.

• Good ideas rarely spring de novo in the mind of a single person. It’s very, very rare to find cases where somebody on their own, working alone, in a moment of sudden clarity has a great breakthrough that changes the world.

• Innovations are built out of a collection of existing ideas and they are limited to those ideas that happen to be around at any given time. Ideas are works of bricolage; they are built out of that detritus [of old ideas]…in reality they’ve been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.

• Innovations are often generated in open networks of ideas, individuals or settings that meld together seamlessly. …[a creative] space…sees information spillover as a feature, not a flaw. It is designed to leak. In this sense it shares some core values with the liquid networks of dense cities.

• Good ideas often come from hunches that develop over a longer period of time. …the idea (Darwin’s theory of natural selection) didn’t arrive in a flash; it drifted into his consciousness over time, in waves… The Web came into being as an archetypal slow hunch: from a child’s exploration of a hundred year old encyclopedia, to a freelancer’s idle side project designed to help him keep track of his colleagues, to a deliberate attempt to build a new information platform that could connect computers across the planet.

• Good ideas often occur by chance, say during a dream or while on a walk. The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. (A similar phenomenon occurs with long showers or soaks in a tub…)

• Innovations are often crafted from a tool or idea originally developed for a specific application but is then transformed or “gets hijacked” for a completely new one. Gutenberg’s printing press was a classic combinatorial innovation…Each of the key elements that made it such a transformative machine—the moveable type, the ink, the paper, and the press itself—had been developed separately well before Gutenberg printed his first bible.

• Good ideas often develop after a long series of false starts and errors. Being wrong forces you to explore…When we’re wrong, we have to challenge our assumptions, adopt new strategies.

• Finally good ideas are often formed in environments that encourage and promote exchanges between fields and methods of analysis.….[hotbeds of innovation] where different kinds of thoughts could productively collide and recombine.

In reviewing the 300 innovations (Each one is briefly described in the Appendix) that he studied, Johnson concludes that by far the majority developed in open environments, where there were no barriers (copyright protections), no economic incentives (market forces), and where ideas flowed freely in unregulated channels of communication.

For those eager to create the next big thing, Johnson concludes with this bit of advice: Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.

(He also penned some not-so-subtle advice that is clearly aimed my way: New ideas do not thrive on archipelagoes.)