Where Good Ideas Come From

Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010. Pp. 326. Hardcover, $26.95.


Good ideas come from lots of places, not necessarily from the inventor’s desire to make money.  Most inventions arise not from a flash of brilliance but from a gradual accretion of ideas, often from “adjacent” fields—Johnson uses the word “rooms” instead of “fields.”  Incubators for newborn babies were created after a French obstetrician visited a chicken-hatching exhibit at a Paris Zoo.  “Liquid Networks,” where people mix and ideas spillover, foster good ideas. and cities make these networks possible.  One of several evocative charts shows the marked increase in innovations after the first cities were established. The World Wide Web was created through a “slow hunch.”  The idea took at least a decade to mature.  Examination of Darwin’s diaries shows that the idea of evolution percolated through his mind for many months, the components there but not the integrating concept. To make a slow hunch come to completion, a mechanism for remembering ideas is needed and, perhaps more important, a way of retrieving and linking ideas.  In the eighteenth century, “commonplace” notebooks, where ideas and passages could be copied, were promoted.  These were evidently more useful if a complicated indexing system was employed.  Modern software can do the same thing—creating sufficient structure so retrieval is possible but not so much structure that links between seemingly disparate items do not appear.  Serendipity needs both an unlikely collisions of ideas and also a gestating hypothesis completed by the collided ideas.  It is ironic that intellectual property laws and corporate policies have acted to decrease the number of ideas available to an innovator and thus the likelihood of a serendipitous connection.  Errors in concept or in implementation “often creates a path that leads away” from comfortable assumptions. The natural reaction to surprising experimental results, such as electrical noise picked up by radio astronomers, is to think the equipment is malfunctioning.  Actually in this case the noise was a remnant of the Big Bang but was only recognized as such through a casual conversation with a nuclear physicist.  “Exaptation” is a biology word referring to a trait evolved for a particular use and then adapted to another different use.  Gutenberg, as it were, exapted the screw press employed by vintners to his printing press.  Babbage exapted Jacquard’s punch cards.  Exaptation works best when people get together in places like traditional coffee houses, when an innovator has a broad network of people with diverse expertise.  Innovation is thus encouraged by organized infrastructure, like coffee houses or software applications.  The designer of a GPS-based restaurant referral software does not have to know about satellite communication or how to manipulate geo-data.  Open platforms or protocols reduce the number of things one has to know, so one can innovate at the boundary.  The final chapter shows the change in pattern of innovations from 1400 to the present.  Innovations are plotted on two-dimensional grid; one dimension is whether the innovator was a single person or a network of persons—Berners-Lee alone invented the World Wide Web, but a group of watchmakers in Nuremberg together invented portable watches.  The other dimension of the matrix is the marketing intent of the inventor: either to capitalize directly from sale or licensing of the invention or the intent to allow anyone to use it without charge.  AC motors were invented to sell; the Double Helix was not.  The striking observation, in the last 200 years or so, is the large number of innovations developed by a network and not intended to be sold.  Reasons for the success of open inventions may be that the innovative process is most successful when information flows freely, as it does when proprietary information cannot be kept secret.  Darwinism is not only about competition between species; it is also about the establishment of synergistic links.  Many organisms prosper in a coral reef not because the water is especially fertile but because the organisms complement each other, eating each other’s waste, living in each other’s discarded shelters.  An appendix to the book is a chronology of 200 key inventions used to show patterns of innovations.  These patterns could be the basis of much fruitful study.  The book as a whole benefits greatly from anecdotes taken from the histories of innovations.  Johnson explains his bias toward open innovation convincingly.  My experience, that innovators tend not to start with a market orientation, is consistent with his, and certainly few inventions can really be attributed to a single genius.  The book includes a great deal of history, and many insights on his theme are brought together with sensible prescriptions about fostering innovation.  The author’s “big picture” approach to innovation paid off here.