Review: Where Good Ideas Come From

Steven Johnson’s latest book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation could be seen, as others have noted, as a kind of meta-book of Johnson’s last few books: ideas about ideas. (Johnson even references John Snow and Joseph Priestly, the subjects of his last two books, in this one.)

What Johnson sets out to find out is how people like Charles Darwin (who threads his way through the book) come up with their world-changing ideas. He takes as his starting point that ideas don’t appear in a vacuum to one genius inventor. Instead he takes what he calls the long zoom and looks at ecosystems like cities and universities, workspaces and gathering places like coffeehouses, and even the cultivation of one’s own inner space through the compilation of commonbooks, as the source of ideas.

Johnson devised a series of patterns (more ideas about ideas) around which the book is structured. For designers, the most important concept is that of the adjacent possible. The adjacent possible “tells us that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.” This is because new ideas are only built out of existing things, and thus constrained by the available parts, skills, and other ideas/theories available. No idea is completely new, but is a “work of bricolage,” as Johnson puts it.

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself…Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and occasionally contracts) over time. Some of these parts are conceptual: ways of solving problems, or new definitions of what constitutes a problem in the first place. Some of them are, literally, mechanical parts.

This is basically what designers do all the time: summon items from the adjacent possible and bring them to life. I had just never thought of it as such. It’s a really powerful metaphor, and for me, the major thought construct I’ll take away from the book.

The adjacent possible is also about limitations. You can’t make radical leaps into the future because either we don’t have the “parts” to do so yet, or, if someone does make that kind of leap (like Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine) they are just “ahead of their time” and the ideas don’t take root.

What helps bring about the adjacent possible? Environments.

Innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts—mechanical and conceptual—and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts. Environments that block or limit those new combinations—by punishing experimentation, by obscuring certain branches of possibility, by making the current state so satisfying that no one bothers to explore the edges—will, on average, generate and circulate fewer innovations than environments that encourage exploration.

This is a theme that runs throughout the book. Johnson’s maxim is that ideas are better connected, not protected. “Environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments,” he writes. While stopping short of saying patents and IP protection are wrong, one can’t help but draw that conclusion.

This is because, as Johnson notes (in a phrase destined to be repeated), “A good idea is a network.” Both on a micro-level (neurons firing), and at a macro-level in its construction and reception in the world. “An idea is not a single thing. It is more like a swarm.”

Not surprisingly, cities get a lot of play (and are held up as an exemplar of an idea exploration environment) in the book for encouraging this effect, what Johnson calls the liquid network. (Isn’t there anyone who loves the suburbs? Arguably, that’s really what Silicon Valley is.) Cities are places filled with “noise and error” and those are often innovative environments.

Johnson also debunks the Gladwellian “Blink” effect, noting that most powerful ideas are the slow hunch that often take years to come to fruition. “Snap judgements of intuition…are rarities in the history of world-changing ideas.”

Most great ideas first take shape in a partial, incomplete form. They have the seeds of something profound, but they lack a key element that can turn the hunch into something truly powerful. And more often than not, that key element is somewhere else, living as another hunch in another person’s head. Liquid networks create an environment where those partial ideas can connect; they provide a kind of dating service for promising hunches. They make it easier to disseminate good ideas, of course, but they also do something more sublime: they help complete ideas.

Johnson offers some “simple” advice for cultivating hunches: write everything down, but keep your folders messy.

Johnson fills this book with interesting examples, from Darwin and Babbage to Tim Berners-Lee and Twitter to back up his points. It’s a fast, interesting read, and recommended. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation