Where Good Ideas Come From
Which do you think would help the germ of a thought grow into a brilliant idea: Talking about it with others, who have their own sparkling thoughts and brilliant ideas, and recombining the best parts of each to make them as strong as possible; or locking it away without sunlight and water? If you chose the first option, you’ve stumbled on to Steven Johnson’s central argument: “we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.”
Openness and connectivity, he asserts, are the defining features of idea- and innovation-rich environments, from a coral reef that provides a perfect environment for the innovation of evolution; to big cities that somehow encourage residents to be not only more creative than residents of smaller locales, but exponentially more creative; and even to offices that embrace openness through architecture that makes communication easier, or which encourage more discussion between co-workers.
Johnson develops his thesis across seven chapters which range in focus from serendipity to hunch development to “the adjacent possible,” or what can be created with the spare parts and ideas already at hand, rather than attempting to innovate without a platform to stand on. (For example, as he writes, “Four billion years ago, if you were a carbon atom, there were a few hundred molecular configurations you could stumble into. Today that same carbon atom, whose atomic properties haven’t changed one single nanogram, can help build a sperm whale or a giant redwood or an H1N1 virus, along with a near-infinite list of other carbon-based life forms that were not part of the adjacent possible of prebiotic earth.”) He uses fascinating examples to illustrate his points, such as the “hunch-killing system” in place to deal with memos at the FBI, which due to its compartmentalization of information may have prevented agents from putting evidence together in time to prevent the World Trade Center attacks of September 11th; or MIT’s Building 20, where an unexpectedly high number of scientific and technological breakthroughs were made in part because, Johnson and others theorize, its origin as a temporary structure made it easy to knock down walls, rearrange rooms, and otherwise alter the interior space to accommodate new groupings of people and ideas, allowing as much connection as possible.
Ultimately, you’re responsible for your own good ideas, but reading this book will give you the food to help them grow.
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
New York: Riverhead, 2010