Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Steven Johnson. 2010. Riverhead Books. 326 pp.
There’s a lot to like about Steven Johnson’s latest book, which was just reissued in paperback. While it’s the kind of book that consultants and business executives read, it is no business book. No bulleted lists. No trademarked soundbites. No pointless diagrams (or rather, there’s only one).
Throughout the book, Johnson recounts the origin of myriad important, game-changing, innovative ideas. “Idea” here is a ridiculously broad term, since Johnson describes both scientific innovation (like the Internet) and innovation in the natural world (like the ability of a water flea to change its method of reproduction according to its environment), using both to illustrate how “a series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile [i.e., innovative] environments.” Thus, a coral reef follows several identifiable patterns that make it a fertile environment for biological innovation; those patterns reappear in the circumstances of Darwin’s intellectual life, giving rise to his ground-breaking scientific conclusions—including conclusions about the origins and mechanisms of the coral reefs.
Johnson distills these recurring circumstances into seven patterns, and devotes a chapter to each one (although at times the shift from one chapter to another seems somewhat arbitrary). For example, one pattern is “the slow hunch.” With it, Johnson disputes the conventional notion that good ideas occur in sudden “light bulb moments.” Rather, by tracing the lesser-known histories of a few well-known good ideas—the discovery that plants produce oxygen, the theory of evolution, the development of the World Wide Web—Johnson shows that each of these ideas had been percolating for some time before finally being articulated as a single, coherent theory or invention. “The Vaseline-daubed lens of hindsight tends to blur slow hunches into eureka moments. […] But if one examines the intellectual fossil record closely, the slow hunch is the rule, not the exception.” Descriptions of these slow hunches themselves prompt tangents of an unpredictable nature: the intelligence near misses that failed to prevent the September 11 hijackings, the popularity of “commonplace books” among intellectuals of past centuries, management practices at Google and 3M. Johnson’s discursive narrative style opens door after door to new concepts, ideas, and discoveries—mimicking the subject of his first chapter, “The Adjacent Possible.”
In describing the seven patterns of innovative environments, Johnson offers suggestions that individuals can use to better access to their own creative spark; that businesses can use to promote creativity and innovation in the workplace; and citizens/bureaucrats/activists can use to generate good ideas for community benefit. Which brings me back to how this is not your mentor’s treatise on strategy. Suggestions that one might use in a personal, business, or community context are oddly, charmingly buried amongst the anecdotes and historical narratives. For example, embedded in a discussion of serendipity and Friedrich August Kekulé’s insight into the ring structure of the benzine molecule is a paragraph offering up the value of the walk (or shower) to promote the proper frame of mind for making new connections and birthing good ideas.
At times I began to wonder whom Johnson was really talking to and trying to persuade. This mystery interlocutor is most annoyingly apparent in Johnson’s concluding chapter, in which he shows that most innovations in the modern age occur in highly networked, non-market-based environments (i.e., not in secretive R&D labs run by for-profit corporations). This category is the “the fourth quadrant” of Johnson’s classification rubric, which he discusses and defends at length.
Somehow the tone of the final chapter left me feeling like I had walked in on an ongoing telephone debate, where I had little idea who was on the other end of the line and or what they were saying. “The fourth quadrant should be a reminder that more than one formula exists for innovation. The wonders of modern life did not emerge exclusively from the proprietary clash between private sector firms. They also emerged from open networks.” Surely that is a response to an opposing position taken by someone, somewhere. But whom?
Just as Johnson’s intended audience veers from individual to organization, he also seems to confound the interest of the individual business entity (where I/P protections are welcomed in the interest of maximizing market share and value) with an altogether broader interest in innovation. Steven Johnson may hope to maximize innovation wherever possible, but the average business executive will only care about the innovation that will have direct impact on her own bottom line. It’s frustrating that Johnson does not make this distinction between individual and collective interests.
In his Introduction, Johnson states that “If there is a single maxim that runs through this book’s arguments, it is that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.” It’s a variation on a refrain we’ve been hearing for several years, although many of us have shrugged it off. Remember Betascape, and Thingiverse founder Marty McGuire’s “culture of sharing”? This is the ethic of Web 2.0 and beyond, in direct opposition with certain hallmarks of Big Company corporate culture: its zealous protection of I/P, devotion to wringing error out of its work processes, even its floorplan.*
Quibbles aside, this book is a balm for people like myself, whose interests are many and varied. I feel vindicated for exploring different subjects, hobbies, and places, and I’m inspired to seek even more new experiences in this, my year of new experiences. Imagine my delight to read that “The more disorganized your brain is, the smarter you are.” (Don’t we all seek to overcome and disguise the disorder that clutters our brains? Apparently it’s not a bug, it’s a feature!) The book has obviously been researched broadly and deeply, providing the reader many fantastic, obscure background stories about a broad range of innovations and phenomena. It even includes a “Chronology of Key Innovations,” as well as suggestions for further reading. Such a wealth of examples should naturally inspire readers to consider their own circumstances and how they might make changes to promote creativity and innovation in their own lives.
*Johnson argues that when copyright and patent systems work as designed, they act as both financial incentive and logistical barrier to further innovation. He does not address the current abuses of the patent system which have given rise to a stand-alone racket of patent protection. There’s a great This American Life piece on the business of patents here.