12 min read ⌚
MicroSummary: The pencil, the toilet flush, the battery. Have you stopped to think where all these good ideas come from? In what kind of environment are they born? What sparks these disruptions? Steven Johnson explores this in the book “Where Good Ideas Come From” and identifies seven patterns that drive real innovation. Johnson has researched dozens of modern entrepreneurial cores and brings in his book a new understanding of the history of innovation as well as a set of strategies to help us understand good ideas. Where Good Ideas Come From explores the evolution of life on Earth and the history of science. The book highlights several parallels between the two. This rich analysis, full of interesting stories and scientific evidence also addresses how creativity can be cultivated by you and your company. The book is recommended for everyone who is interested in innovation, especially if you like stories of great discoveries. If innovation is a priority for you and your company, this is a must-read.
How many times have you said to yourself that one day you would have that “Eureka” moment and come up with a great, unheard-of idea?
Ideas do not merely happen in isolation.
Then, where can you find them?
In the following summary of Stephen Johnson’s TED Talk: “Where Good Ideas Come From”, we show you the way.
About Steven Johnson
Steven Johnson is an author, speaker, and the founder of the online magazine FEED.
“Where Good Ideas Come From Summary”
Do you know why the English coffeehouse was essential to the Enlightenment?
Well, first because the rise of the coffeehouse had a significant influence in creating popular drinking habits.
Before it existed, everyone drunk alcohol as a daylong refreshment. In other words, people were practically drunk all the time.
The meaning of the coffeehouse was immense. With its appearance, it helped the world in many ways.
Evolution and Innovation
Evolution and innovation start from what is possible at a given moment. The adjacent possible. Billions of years ago, carbon atoms began to form a mixture of substances that would eventually give rise to life on our planet.
Slowly, the atoms were combining and formed molecules, proteins. These molecules and proteins were iteratively mixed and later combined into the cells of the first living organisms. With each new combination, new possibilities arose, until the most elaborate and complex living beings appeared on earth.
It was necessary to go through several stages, to ensure that certain combinations worked, multiplied, and these connections generated new combinations. In the same way, an internet company like Ebay could not have been created 50 years ago.
There were still no computers, tools for computers to connect to each other, and a worldwide computer network that allowed people to be online and actually buy.
Both in an innovation like eBay, as in evolution, these new conditions tend to happen within the limits of the adjacent possible, in the sphere of possibilities available at a given moment.
Advances beyond the adjacent possible are rare and doomed to become short-term failures if the environment is not yet ready for them.
If YouTube had been released in the 1990s, it would have been considered a failure since, at that time, there were no fast internet connections so users could watch videos on their PC’s.
The adjacent potential is limited by existing pieces and knowledge In the present moment. That explains why so many times, people in diverse parts of the world make very similar discoveries almost simultaneously.
Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Joseph Priestley isolated oxygen in the 18th century without knowing each other and only 2 years apart.
But they departed from the same starting point, for the search for oxygen could not have begun until the gaseous nature of the air was understood.
Ideas That Change The World Generally Evolve Through Time and not Sudden Leaps
Although it seems that the great discoveries happen in isolation, when we observe them in detail, we realize that in reality, they develop slowly, maturing gradually. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection arose as he studied the Malthusian theory of population growth.
But with more detailed observation, one can note in his notes that before this epiphany he had already described a theory of almost complete natural selection.
The look in retrospect makes the idea seem obvious, to the point that it appeared to be an immediate insight, a momentary discovery, but that is not the truth in most cases. The history of the internet also has a similar origin.
A British engineer named Tim Berners-Lee is credited as the father of the internet concept as it is today. A few years ago, approached by a reporter, he was asked where this visionary idea came from.
Tim did not know what to say and was paralyzed. It was not that he had forgotten the circumstance of his “eureka” moment, and so he could not answer the journalist. In fact, the basic idea of the internet was in his mind for more than a decade.
But it was only when he began working as a consultant in CERN’s laboratory that ideas crystallized in his mind.
For Tim Berners-Lee, there was not an epiphany, a eureka moment, but years of slow trials. He started a parallel project that allowed him to store and connect pieces of information, such as nodes in a network.
Another decade passed and CERN officially authorized him to work on the project, and so the technology that enabled the worldwide computer network to exist.
Platforms are Keystone Species to Innovation
The scientific term keystone species is used to describe organisms that are disproportionately important to the well-being of the ecosystem. They are like engineers of the ecosystem creating habitats for other organisms, building platforms that many other organisms need to survive.
A good example is beavers who knock down trees. These trees attract woodpeckers to make holes to house their nests.
The beaver thus creates a platform for the woodpecker. When the woodpeckers go away, these holes are occupied by singing birds. And the woodpecker creates a platform for the singing birds.
These platforms also exist in the sphere of innovation and are used for it to be accelerated within the adjacent possible. A good example of a platform in this context is GPS navigation. It was raised in the U.S.
Army research center to locate elements based on its geographical coordinates captured by satellite. Decades later, GPS became the source of dozens of combinations that brought us great new ideas.
It has enabled tens of location-based services, thousands of mobile applications, and today, even advertising is based on the location of the impacted user.
Platforms generally work together, that is, one platform serves as the basis for other platforms to emerge and these combinations produce innovation-prone environments. A good example is social networks like Twitter and Facebook.
They were created on the worldwide computer network and later became platforms as well. Today there are millions of applications built on these new platforms that are derived from the world wide web. The adjacent possible is in constant evolution and transformation
Innovation and Evolution Depend on Networks
All life on Earth is based on the carbon atom, which is the fundamental component for connecting atoms and forming molecule chains. These connections allow new structures to emerge, such as proteins.
Without carbon, Earth would probably be a dead soup of chemicals. Connections are also propelling ideas. When humans began to organize in communities, they began to expose themselves to new ideas and to spread their own discoveries.
Before these connections, a person’s new idea did not multiply because there was no network to spread it. In the 1990’s, psychologists decided to record everything that happened in four molecular biology laboratories.
It is believed that in a field like molecular biology, great discoveries are made by looking under the microscope, right? Surprisingly, it was found that the most important ideas emerged during laboratory meetings when scientists discussed their work with their colleagues.
Also, studies prove that the most creative individuals have extensive social networks that extend outside their own organization, and thus they stand open to receiving new ideas from different contexts.
Just as the emergence of communities, cities, and towns has accelerated the multiplication of ideas, the internet has also become a key channel for the dissemination of ideas. In the world wide web, ideas are created, connected and diffused at ever-increasing speeds.
Collaboration is as Important as the Competition
Being able to benefit financially from your findings is one of the key factors driving innovation. But while the marketing of inventions spurs innovation, it can also generate patents and other constraints that hamper the spread and evolution of ideas.
Therefore, the very markets that should ensure constant innovation are, in fact, structurally inefficient, as they create mechanisms (such as patents) to prevent ideas from mixing.
Market-driven innovations such as in the United States have been more efficient than innovations in closed economies such as the Soviet Union, but that does not necessarily mean that this is the best route.
Inventors deserve to be rewarded, but the ultimate goal is to increase innovation as a whole, with no restrictions. In his book ‘The Origin of Species,’ Charles Darwin emphasized the collaboration between species and natural selection, which derives from the competition for resources.
Connections between ideas, as well as collaboration between species, can be as good a stimulus to innovation as the competition itself.
Innovative Networks Should Oscillate Between Order and Anarchy
The ability of carbon to connect with other atoms was vital to the evolution of life. But a second and unpredictable force was also needed: water. In addition to carbon, able to easily combine for the emergence of life, another component was essential, the H2O molecule.
Water moves by dissolving and eroding what is in its path, thus fueling new forms of connections between atoms. On the other hand, the strong hydrogen bonds of the water molecules help to maintain these connections stable.
This blend of turbulence and stability is why net and malleable connections are best for life’s evolution and for creativity. Random and unplanned connections lead to accidental discoveries. Chaos and creativity are linked even on a neurological level.
Ideas are in fact demonstrations of a complex network of connecting neurons, and new ideas are only possible when new connections are formed.
Our neurons alternate between states of chaos, in which they fire completely out of sync with each other, and synchronized states where they are activated at the same frequency.
Studies have shown that the longer the brain is exposed chaos, the more intelligent the person is, and this makes him/her able to make more complex connections.
A Common Space Leads for “Serendipity”
Serendipity is the act of making fortunate discoveries, apparently by chance.
When ideas converge in a shared space like in a meeting between people from different areas of knowledge, creative mixes arise, and new combinations become possible. Shared interactions in physical or virtual spaces allow ideas to spread, circulate and combine randomly.
Facilitating these connections depends only on you using your brain to process ideas from different areas. Innovators such as Benjamin Franklin benefited greatly from this by working on several projects simultaneously, so that connections between projects could emerge.
In a company, the key to innovation is a network that allows ideas to mature, spread and blend with others openly.
Error Is Part of the Innovation and Evolution Process
Error is present in both the evolution of life and the innovation of great ideas and is not necessarily a bad thing. Genes are passed down from father to son, providing genetic instructions on how the child should develop.
However, mutations occur occasionally in these instructions, and without these errors, evolution would have stagnated. Mutations create new forms of lives and new characteristics in existing forms of life. Although many mutations fail, occasionally they succeed, and with that comes evolution.
Penicillin was only discovered because of an error: Alexandre Fleming unwittingly allowed a sample of bacteria to be contaminated with mold and began to imagine what had killed the bacteria. Innovations call for reinvention and reuse of the past.
The term exaptation is used to describe the phenomenon where a characteristic originally developed for a particular purpose is eventually used in an entirely different way. For example, bird feathers initially aimed at regulating temperature, but eventually allowed birds to fly.
Often ideas are similarly reused and exaggerated. The internet was created for scientific research, but eventually, it turned into a network of sites for shopping, news consumption, relationship with friends and even pornography.
Gutenberg, on the other hand, found a different use for an ancient invention. He combined the old grape squeezing machine with his knowledge of metallurgy and created the world’s first printer, revolutionizing the way humanity communicates.
Unconventional uses for old or even discarded items and ideas induce innovation. Discarded items are also transformed through innovation.
Just as the skeletal structure left by dead coral is the basis for the ecosystem of the reefs, abandoned buildings can become the origin of new urban subcultures.
People moved from drinking alcohol, which is a primary depressant, to drinking stimulating teas and coffees.
The new drinking habits brought considerable improvements in the public’s critical thinking skills. People started thinking more and engaged themselves in philosophical movements.
Second, “the architecture of the space” affected people as well.
In other words, the coffeehouses allowed people with different backgrounds to gather in one place, and share their ideas, change them, merge them, and develop new ones.
This meant that different innovations became possible.
Different environments that allow and enable innovation, regardless of whether they are virtual, physical or biological, share similar patterns.
However, to understand these patterns, you need to clear your head from traditional images and concepts that present innovation and creation as a lightbulb flash. What we mean to say is that the conventional ways of thinking see discovery as a dramatic appearance of an entirely new, breakthrough idea.
However, this is a wrong way of reasoning.
You must have heard so many times before that everything that could be thought of was already thought of. Indeed there are no entirely new ideas, but there are limitless possibilities of reconnecting old ideas in a new way.
Even on the most basic level, in the human brain, a new idea consists of a new configuration of existing neurons.
The problem is that most people are not capable of pinpointing the exact origin of their ideas. Most of the time they believe that the ideas and concepts appear when they are alone.
Again, if you think the same, you are wrong.
Video evidence collected from a global study suggests the complete opposite.
Researchers concluded that most of the fresh ideas and discoveries happen at the conference table, where colleagues can share their thoughts, their work, their mistakes, and their challenges.
So, the next time you have to push yourself and think of something fresh and new, go out and seek loud places like the early coffee houses we already mentioned. We like to call these places “liquid network.”
Another misconception that people have is that ideas are developed in a single burst of inspiration.
However, the opposite is true. Many ideas incubate for an extended period of time, they linger in the back of one’s mind for months, years, even decades, and present themselves as exciting but never resolved questions.
Take Charles Darwin for example. When he talked about his discovery of natural selection, he described it as a “Eureka” moment. However, if you look at his notebooks, you will notice that they tell a very different story.
His annotations in it show that he had thought about his idea for many months, he has worked on it a long time, only the details did not connect to a larger picture in his mind yet.
Creating an environment that inspires innovation means that you need to create space and time for people to develop their hunches. Furthermore, they need to have enough opportunities for interaction.
Key Lessons from “Where Good Ideas Come From”:
1. Fresh Ideas are Old Ideas Redeveloped in a New Way
2. Isolation is Not Your Friend
3. A Need for a Shift of Priorities
Fresh Ideas are Old Ideas Redeveloped in a New Way
Breakthroughs are a creative reconnection and redevelopment of already existing concepts.
Isolation is Not Your Friend
Isolating yourself or finding your silent place will not bring you that “great idea.” On the contrary, brainstorming in a group is what creates the most innovative results.
A Need for a Shift of Priorities
Nowadays, a vast number of companies concentrate on secrecy and try every way they can to protect their intellectual property. However, a focus on communication, networking and sharing ideas would certainly create more breakthroughs in the world.
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Our Critical Review
Johnson talks about ideas and where you could find them in a simple and entertaining lecture. He uses the crowded English coffeehouses and the pages of Charles Darwin’s journals as the materials to back his theory.
We recommend this TED talk for anyone who is interested in innovation and creativity and the way the human mind works.