When we ask “Where good ideas come from?” there is a common belief that they are born out of eureka moments. But the author of “Where good ideas come from” gives us a more descriptive answer to this question suggests that eureka moments rarely exist and there isn’t a single source of ideas but rather there are a series of shared patterns and properties that recur to generate different kinds of innovations.
“Where good ideas come from” calls those patterns the 7 patterns of innovations.
Steven Johnson comes up with one of the most enlightening books when it comes to innovation- its history and guidelines for the future. From Charles Darwin’s Natural Selection theory to how FBI agents could have stopped the 9/11 attacks on US soil if they had been “connected,” “Where good ideas come from” is imperative to any person within an avenue that requires innovation.
At over 300 pages, Steven Johnson gives readers a well-researched book that will no doubt shift the thinking of its readers.
You can buy the book, Where good Ideas Come From from here.
The Concept of Innovation
Within the context of “Where good ideas come from”, its main aim, states the pertinence of discovering the meaning of innovation as described by various scholars. This will provide more understanding as to how innovation is defined by the world as a whole.
From that vantage point, we can then delve into how innovation actually interacts with the outside world. “Where do good ideas come from” analyzes and discusses the innovation plights of individuals and business corporations.
Schumpeter proposed five types of innovations (Schumpeter, 1934)
- Introduction of new products (product innovation)
This involves the introduction of an entirely new product to the market that customers are unaware of. The products are good and should meet the needs of the customers in a more effective way than before.
- Introduction of new methods of production (process innovation)
This includes a new method of production and development that is yet to be fully tested or is tested by not fully experienced. This can be a new manufacturing machine that is meant to increase production and lower costs.
- The opening of new markets (marketing innovation)
This involves the entering of a new market that the firm has not entered before. This new industry is yet to be experienced, so there are still various uncertainties.
- Development of new sources of supply for raw materials or other inputs (supply chain)
The conquest of a new source of supply of raw materials for half-manufactured goods, again irrespective of whether this source already exists or it has first to be created.
e) Creation of new market structures in an industry (business models)
The carrying out of the new organization of any industry, like the creation of a monopoly position (for example through justification) or the breaking up of a monopoly position.
The 10/10 Rule
The idea that it takes a decade to build a new platform and a decade for it to find a new audience. HDTV is the obvious example. The 10/10 rule states that new technology often doesn’t have a conducive environment when it has been fully formed and needs 10 years for the audience to receive it. Whilst at the same time it takes 10 years for it to get to the stage where it’s fully formed.
The Adjacent Possible
What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen
Steven Johnson states that ideas often build on what is already available. The term was coined by the scientist Stuart Kauffman to explain biological innovation but Steven uses it to show us how it can be used for ideas too. Anyone might be able to come up with extraordinary ideas but in order for them to succeed a previous set of ideas or innovations have to pre-exist. The adjacent possible are those openings that unlock as we create new stuff.
A great way to see the adjacent possible in action is to think of any web service that we use and then start going backward. “Where good ideas come from” uses Uber as an example, someone in the 60’s might have thought of a device to order a taxi, but was it possible to do build that back then? No.
That’s an idea which was “ahead of its time’. In order for Uber to exist, there were many doors that had to be unlocked – to list a few:
- The Global Positioning System.
- The Internet.
- Amazon Web Services
- The iPhone
- Credit Cards
- Online payments
The list can go on and on, building Uber was not just sheer luck but rather a combination of ideas that were there waiting for someone to bring them together and unlock a new door. The inventions whose raw material is not available are ahead of their time and fail to materialize.
The adjacent possible innovations come from the first-order combination of what’s already available. The writer himself termed them “spare parts.”
When talking about technology, I think Amazon Web Services was one of the biggest rooms with unlocked doors. Many services could be built because of them, and then those services contribute to the creation of more ideas. Stephane Tarnier, an obstetrician in 1870, took inspiration from chicken incubators to construct human incubators.
The same incubators turn out to be difficult to be repaired in the developing world and a new one built out of auto spare parts turned out to be better. For example, YouTube succeeded in 2005, it would have failed, if launched, in 1995.
The second pattern is “liquid networks”. Steven writes on how the social flow of group conversations help ideas to connects. In the book, the author shows through numerous examples how cities, the eighteenth-century English coffeehouse or the first market towns in Italy ended up being great places for new ideas to flourish.
Slow hunches stay in the mind and develop into an idea over time, and liquid networks allow such hunches to be passed around and intermingled with other hunches.
“Eureka” moments, where an idea comes fully formed is very rare and almost improbable. Big ideas such as Charles Darwin’s natural selection theory, come in parts within one’s mind. Past writings of Darwin’s indicate he already had an idea of the theory in his mind, but it hadn’t “clicked.”
The author uses the term slow hunch to show us how great ideas come into the world more as hunches than revelations and then introduces the commonplace book as a secret to cultivating hunches.
Darwin, Milton, Bacon, Locke, and Erasmus – they were some of the great thinkers mentioned in the chapter and how keeping a commonplace book help them reflect on their previous hunches to come up with new ideas. Tim Berner’s Lee took inspiration from Enquire Within Upon Everything over time to develop his hunches around how World Wide Web should look like. Similar hunches lead to the invention of products like Google News.
An FBI agent filed a memo in July 2001 stating that Osama Bin Laden is sending students to attend civil aviation in the US. The memo was marked speculative. A month after his memo, Pan Am Flight Academy in Minnesota reported to FBI about a suspicious student who has more interest in cockpit doors and communication than the actual flying.
The search warrant to check his laptop was not granted till Sep 11, 2001. The two agents in Arizona and Minnesota had hunches but only if they were connected, it would have lead to something.
The fourth chapter talks about the creation of new ideas thanks to accidental connections. Serendipity is the world to describe such accidents. We have slow hunches in our minds, things we have taken or given to liquid networks and a world full of adjacent possibles, sometimes what we then need is just some neurons to fire at the same time to bring ideas to life.
The author describes possible ways to cultivate serendipity like:
“Where good ideas come from” touches on a very important subject and is the creation of walls around ideas, counter-intuitive at what we have learned about the generation of new ideas. Daphnia, a water flea, reproduces asexually under normal circumstances. Subjected to stress (harsh weather), the reproduction starts producing males and switches to a sexual reproduction. It’s a biological innovation strategy.
When life is going good, it makes sense to keep doing what you are doing. Innovation is required when it’s not.
Dreams and sudden sparks of thoughts explore the adjacent possible combining various unrelated ideas and sometimes reveal remarkable solutions to problems at hand.
Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore…
In this chapter, “Where good ideas come from” shows us how the constant accumulation of error produces new ideas and like in other chapters, walk us through history to make his point. A point that really caught my attention in this chapter was how by being wrong we get force to explore and update our beliefs, challenging our comfortable assumptions.
Steven mentions Charlan Nemeth who through research came out to the conclusion that good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error. They emerge more from surroundings with a certain amount of noise and error which leads to the exploration of the adjacent possible.
These patterns show us how many inventions resulted from taking things that were not meant for that solution and putting them together to build something new. One of the examples in “Where do good ideas come from” is how Gutenberg converted a machine meant to get people drunk into a printing press.
The author also tells us how legendary innovators end up creating great ideas thanks to their many hobbies and how been curious about many things help us except ideas from projects to projects. Feathers first emerged for warmth were later exapted for flying by birds. If they haven’t provided warmth in the first place, the evolution would not have pushed towards making them worthy enough of flying.
Therefore, exaptation is the only way for flying feathers to evolve. Steven Johnson also talks about social networks. Diverse, horizontal social networks are way more innovative than uniform, vertical networks of similar individuals with shared beliefs. The latter damps the creative sparks. In fact, the individuals who maintain active links to multiple diverse groups are the real source of innovative exaptations.
The last pattern in the book are platforms and tell us how platforms open many doors in the adjacent possible. To make his point, Steven starts the chapter talking about Darwin’s theory of atoll formation, then moving through beavers which by creating dams gave life to a new ecosystem, and ends up the chapter talking about recent platforms and the things they have made possible.
Steven also talks about APIs and how companies have been evolving from that “secret sauce” to fostering the idea of an open platform for others to come and built on top of them. As an example, Steven uses Twitter and all the mashups that were created thanks to their open API.
Platforms also have a natural attraction towards recycling the waste and abandoned. In big cities, chain stores and restaurants occupy the new construction while the old one is occupied by bookstores, struggling artists, and antique dealers.
The riskier enterprises always have to go for the less valuable spaces, that’s why, Google, Apple, and HP were started in garages. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings but new ideas must use the old buildings, new construction is too expensive to support them.
What I found imperative about Charles Darwin’s account was that he had a mentor in the form of Charles Lyell, who had his own theory which stated that atolls were formed by undersea volcanoes. Having engrossed his mind so much Lyells’ theory, Darwin came to his own realization and conclusion upon the observation that his mentor’s theory was wrong.
Max Kleiber’s Law
Within the pages of what I would call a ground-breaking book is the account of Max Kleiber, a Swiss scientist who measured the impact that body size had on metabolic rate. From Max Kleiber came the calculated explanation of why animals with fast metabolic rates eat more and literally live “faster” than those with slow ones. A case example would be why the lifespan of a fly is about 25 days and the lifespan of a turtle can be over 100 years. Upon further analysis, this revelation wasn’t even the most important Scientists from the Santa Fe Institute wanted to find out if Kleiber’s law applied to cities.
They wanted to answer the question: did cities slow down as they got bigger? A brief answer is “not exactly.” There are some variables that increase as a result of being part of a bigger, more complex system – such as elements of creativity. The study concluded that a city that was 10 times bigger wasn’t just 10 times more creative, but it was actually 17 times more creative. And a metropolis that was 50 times bigger was 130 times more innovative.
Success Guardians thoughts on “Where good ideas come from”
It is through an observation made by Charles Darwin on the sands of the Indian Ocean that Johnson forms the foundation of his own idea. Throughout the book, Johnson seems particularly fascinated with Darwin’s Paradox that describes the coral reef – so many different life forms, occupying such a vast array of ecological niches, inhabiting waters that are otherwise remarkably nutrient poor.
Darwin was interested in the “tiny architects” that build the reef formations that are resistant to the waves’ impact. The microorganisms form connections to the rocks and each other that are incredibly strong. In many cases, they have created coral formations that are thousands of feet tall.
“Where good ideas come from” uses the reef as a metaphor for our own minds. He explains that by utilizing the seven patterns of idea formation in our daily lives, we can start to create our own “reef” – a bank of connections in the mind. And ultimately, it is the connections made within the mind that give rise to good ideas.
The good news is that we can do more to foster these connections. Johnson believes that the richness in our daily lives builds up those connections and by doing so we make our lives a more fertile environment for good ideas.
“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 your own ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.”
Making connections in the mind to build one’s coral reef isn’t necessarily about absorbing tons of new information. Rather, it is about connecting what we already know in new ways. Consider this: the adult human brain contains one hundred trillion distinct neuronal connections.
It is by far the densest, complex network on earth. In order to make the most of the information we have, we have to be able to access it. In a way that is slightly metaphysical, Johnson proposes that we already hold all the answers – they are internalized.
One of the ways that the brain forms connections are during REM sleep. Neuroscience suggests that REM sleep can actually be a crazy time for the brain. Think about the last dream you remember. Did it seem random? That randomness is actually the brain experimenting! This sometimes leads to the brain coming across a valuable link that escaped during waking consciousness.
In fact, studies have shown that the brain actually gravitates toward a more chaotic state of existence where it can experiment with new connections. Johnson goes as a far to say that Freud had it backward – a dream isn’t revealing a repressed truth, “it is exploring, trying to find new truths by experimenting with novel combinations of neurons” (page 102).
Allowing your mind to wander is one of the many ways we make meaningful discoveries. To go a step further, we have to give ourselves the “space” to be a bit chaotic in order to form those connections. Brainstorming at the beginning of a project is a prime example of this.
Just as coral reefs welcome new microorganisms to build themselves up, choosing to be open about our ideas will provide us with opportunities to build upon our own ideas. Johnson suggests two facets of openness. The first relates to the networks we live and socialize in. Throughout his explanations of the seven patterns, Johnson alludes to networking and openness as a key way to form good ideas.
But it’s not enough to spend time with like-minded folks. Making your personal network diverse is what will lead to the richness of your ideas because you can cultivate them from different perspectives.
The second kind of openness that “Where good ideas come from” discusses relates to intellectual property. An idea is often just the tip of the iceberg for developing something much greater and there is great value in allowing others to come into a conversation about the idea.
Johnson uses the example of offices that have created a physical space that foster idea generation: breaking down physical walls, allowing employees to work near those they are collaborating with and turning walls into whiteboards. By making it easier for inter-disciplinary collaboration, good ideas are more likely to be birthed.
Johnson also uses Twitter as an example of “Cooperative Advantage.” Much of what Twitter is today has been developed by users and external developers, not the company. For instance, only a small percentage of Tweets are actually sent from the main Twitter website.
The majority of them come from the plethora of applications for mobile devices that were created by amateur coders. These developments all stem from the deliberate decision of Twitter’s founders to utilize an open platform – Application Programming Interface.
This has created one of the largest ecosystems of applications built for their platform and further engages users with their product.
Just like the coral reef that he describes, “Where good ideas come from” builds a network of ways for the reader to improve idea generation. Although there are many ideas to try in “Where do good ideas come from”, they are all connected to two underlying concepts.
Firstly, we are only as intelligent as our networks. Second, breaking from the routine leads to new perspectives. Johnson’s combinations of historical anecdotes and creative insight make this a great read for anyone who seeks to be on the edge of innovation.
Earlier, when connectivity was poor and it was harder to capitalize on one’s innovation, it was mostly driven by the individuals for non-market motive. After printing press, the connectivity became easier, then the most innovation was driven by the networked groups for non-market motive. As capitalism took a strong grip on the economies, more and more innovation was produced by the networked groups working for the [captialistic] market.
One problem with that, however, is that financial rewards discourages an open sharing of the information and hence, makes the networks less liquid. Both universities and the world-wide-web have played a strong role in encouraging networked innovation with non-market motive (“commons”) leading to open-source movements and open research. And even markets have benefitted from it.
The Importance of Innovation
“Where good ideas come from” goes at great length on showing how innovation plays a fundamental role in societal and corporate growth. In this section, I want to link what has been stated by Steven Johnson with the words of other authors pertaining to innovation and its importance.
“Where good ideas come from” provides an insightful account of how innovation can be used as a tool of advancement in all areas of life. The author organizes his concepts well together with relatable case studies that ensure it is easy to understand.
This book is for anyone who wants to increase in creativity for any endeavor, whether for purely via inspiration, an innovation to do list or both. After a brief study of various academic authors on the concept of innovation, I found the “Where good ideas come from” to be an accurate account of how innovation and evolution have revolutionized society.
Anyone experiencing hard times will also be motivated in knowing that times of chaos and noise are predominantly the most conducive times for creativity and innovation. What the book does well is that it consists of a refined mixture of philosophical points and scientific facts. A large number of self-development express ideas that seem good but have no scientific backing at all.
“Where good ideas come from” allows the reader to immediately trust all its ideas by going back to traceable historical facts.