“On Friday, I got the galley copies of my new book, to be published in early October. It’s calledWhere Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Of Innovation. I’ve been working on this one for almost five years now, though in some ways the idea for it is almost a decade old. The subject of the book is right there in the title: it’s a book that tries to grapple with the question of why certain environments seem to be disproportionately skilled at generating and sharing good ideas. It’s a book, in other words, about the space of creativity. Part of the fun of it—though also the challenge of writing it—is that I look at both cultural and natural systems in the book. So I look at human environments that have been unusually generative: the architecture of successful science labs, the information networks of the Web or the Enlightenment-era postal system, the public spaces of metropolitan cities, even the notebooks of great thinkers. But I also look at natural environments that have been biologically innovative: the coral reef and the rain forest, or the chemical soups that first gave birth to life’s good idea. The book is built around dozens of stories from the history of scientific, technological and cultural innovation: how Darwin’s “eureka moment” about natural selection turned out to be a myth; how Brian Eno invented a new musical convention by listening to too much AM radio; how Gutenberg borrowed a crucial idea from the wine industry to invent modern printing; why GPS was accidentally developed by a pair of twenty-somethings messing around with a microwave receiver; how a design team has created a infant incubator made entirely out of spare automobile parts. But I have also tried to distill some meaningful—and hopefully useful—lessons out of all these stories, and so I’ve isolated seven distinct patterns that appear again and again in all these innovative environments. (Each pattern gets its own chapter.) I first started working on this idea in the background as I was writing The Ghost Map, my book about John Snow’s brilliant solution to the mystery of cholera. (One of the lessons of Where Good Ideas Come From is the importance of having “background” projects.) In researching it, I stumbled across the story of Joseph Priestley and the discovery of plant respiration, and got so inspired that I decided to write The Invention of Air first. At the time, it occurred to me that this new book would effectively turn out to be the theory lurking behind the narratives of Ghost Map andInvention; both those books were portraits of world-changing ideas and the environments that cultivated them. So I have come to think of the three books as a kind of informal trilogy: two tight-focus case studies leading up to a wider vista. (Snow and Priestley each make small appearances in Where Good Ideas Come From.) The new book differs from the last two in that it is prescriptive; it’s my version of a how-to book, supported with stories of great ideas from the past (along with a few stories of ideas that failed for interesting reasons.) If it works, you should walk away from it as a reader not just with some interesting anecdotes about the amazing biodiversity of a coral reef, or the invention of the vacuum tube, but with something hopefully a bit more practical: ideas for making your own spaces—where you work, where you think, where you pursue your hobbies, where you read—more innovative as well.”
Here’s an RSA video for the more visual of us:
Bill Gates reviewed the book on his blog The Gates Notes: Bill recently read Steven Johnson’s book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation”, and found it useful as a way to think about the kinds of environments that foster creative collaboration and innovation.
“I picked up Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, with a little bit of skepticism. Lots of books have been written about innovation – what it is, the most innovative companies, how you measure it. The subject can seem a little faddish, but Johnson’s book is quite good at giving examples of how you create environments that can encourage good ideas.
Especially for people in business or education, it’s a worthwhile book. It talks about the institutional structures that facilitate good ideas – how you get lots of people thinking about cutting edge problems, how you put people together in a space where different skill sets and influences can come together, how you make the right kinds of materials available but don’t force a conclusion.
Some books about innovation revolve around the idea that a small number of amazingly smart individuals have had Eureka moments, leading to extraordinary breakthroughs that changed the course of civilization.
But Johnson challenges this view, which I liked: “We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings…But ideas are works of bricolage…We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”
The decision to start Microsoft, for example, wasn’t based on a momentous flash of insight. It was based on incremental developments in a nascent personal computing industry, the fact that Paul Allen and I had access to mainframe computers at the high school we attended, and our hunch about what people could do with computers in the future.
At the foundation, our work in global health, development, and education builds on the great ideas that others have developed over the years in a wide range of fields – global health, international development, agriculture, engineering, scientific research, and public policy.
Johnson focuses on the elements of our cultural environment that foster an atmosphere of innovation, and the recurring patterns that often are at play in bringing great ideas to fruition. He believes that urban environments and technology are potent fertilizers of discovery and invention, and that the connections between people and their ideas are the underlying seed beds of innovation.
The author identifies a number of conditions, or patterns, that enable innovation. One is the “adjacent possible,” a theory first articulated by American scientist Stuart Kauffman. It’s the idea that what is achievable today is defined by the various combinations of events and activities that have occurred prior.” … READ MORE on Bill Gates blog The Gates Notes
…” I don’t have space here to cover the other patterns that Johnson talks about, but you can read about them in his book. You can also watch a video of Johnson discussing them at a 2010 TED speech.
All of us have great ideas from time to time. The challenge is how to put more of them into action to help solve the world’s biggest problems. Writers like Johnson remind us that good ideas are most often the result of people building on other’s ideas – either individually or together – and having a fertile environment in which they can prosper….”
Here’s another video – this time from TED