Where Good Ideas Come From
Seeing as reading has quickly become a facet of my daily routine, I wanted to start a series, Knowledge is Power, to share some of the ideas and insights portrayed by the great authors I’ve had the pleasure of learning from. In a world where free time is easily consumed by distractions such as social media and television, I’ve found books to be a refreshing escape from the digital vortex.
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” — Dr. Seuss
This week I’ll be recapping “Where Great Ideas Come From”, a truly thought-provoking read by Steven Johnson on factors and environments that help influence innovation. It’s important to note that this book does not provide a framework on how to brainstorm the next big idea, but rather outlines case studies and situations that have helped innovation thrive.
Reef, City, Web
As a primer to the larger narrative, we explore a couple different concepts on the defining characteristics of new technology:
- 10/10 Rule — It takes a decade to build the new platform and a decade for it to find a new audience
- Breakthrough innovations are something that allows you to accomplish two new things (YouTube — Uploading and sharing content) as opposed to one (Analog to HD tv — Higher video quality)
- Long zoom — The spread of information can be viewed as an hourglass
Key Quote: “We are often better served by connecting ideas than we are protecting them”
The Adjacent Possible
In this chapter, we examine how innovation relies on foundational building blocks to unlock change. In every era of time, groundbreaking discoveries were only solidified when the tools of any given generation allowed them to do so.
- “The multiple” — There have been numerous examples where the same innovations were founded at nearly the same time in completely different locations without any communication between the founders.
Some of the tricks behind expanding on the adjacent possible include:
- Figuring out ways to explore the edges of possibility around you
- Get more parts (or tools) on the table
Key Quote: “At any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain change can happen.”
When a new innovation is made, liquid networks are responsible for helping those discoveries spread. Takeaways include:
- Networks should be plastic, capable of adapting new configurations
- Certain environments enhance the brain’s capacity to make new links of association
- Cities were largely responsible for fueling inventions and liquid networks
- Double-entry bookkeeping can be seen as one of the first forms of a city-oriented innovation
- Large collectives are rarely capable of true creativity or innovation
- Innovation is more likely to happen among groups than in isolation
- The social flow of the group conversation turns private state into a liquid network
- “Flow” carried along a stream of ideas expedites creative capacity
Key Quote: “A good idea is a network”
Bonus Quote: “When economic systems shift from feudal structures to the nascent forms of modern capitalism, they become less hierarchical and more networked”
The Slow Hunch
Good ideas take time. Despite popular belief, many “eureka” moments are largely the accumulation of years of prior knowledge.
- Innovation requires the cultivation of hunches.
- Commonplacing: Assemble a personalized encyclopedia of quotations from all your reading
- Maintaining a book enables one to “lay up a fund of knowledge from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life”
Key Quote: “Write down everything. You never know when it will be useful.”
Serendipity is defined as the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. In this chapter, we explore what influences serendipity and how technology has both helped and hurt its likelihood.
- Dreams are a particularly chaotic yet productive way of exploring the adjacent possible
- Phase locking: the process of millions of neurons firing in perfect rhythms
- Counter-intuitively, the more disorganized your brain is, the smarter you are
- It’s largely recommended to take an “annual reading vacation”, focusing on new topics that you’ve yet to explore in your professional or personal life.
Technology’s influence on serendipity:
- The web has led to a decline of serendipity
- Filters reduce serendipity
- Google — the database of intention
Key Quote: “The secret to organizational inspiration is to build info networks that allow hunches to persist, disperse and recombine”
Many innovations are the result of what was once perceived as an error. It’s those who are able to recognize that unexplained results may be the result of a new form of thinking or a newly discovered law of science that are truly unique.
- Good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error
- Innovative environments thrive on useful mistakes and suffer when the demands of quality control overwhelm them
- Fail faster
- Innovative collisions happen when different fields of expertise converge in some shared physical or intellectual space
Key Quote: “The errors of mankind are more interesting than their discoveries”
Innovation is largely derived from a wholesome perspective. It’s difficult to develop breakthrough ideas when looking through a small lens. Surround yourself with as many different ideologies for the best chance at developing something unique.
- Weak ties bringing different perspective are fundamental for innovation to arise
- Innovation at Apple formed from having different teams collaborate with one another
- Inventors all tend to have a lot of hobbies
- Networks of enterprise empower multi-tasking
Key Quote: “Chance favors the connected mind”
Bonus Quote: “Once key ideas from idea spaces that otherwise had little contact with one another were connected, they began, Quasi-anonymously to make new sense in terms of one another, leading to the emergence of a whole that was more than the sum of its parts.”
In order for innovation to blossom, platforms must be created for new ideas to prosper. In this chapter, we take a look at what causes new platforms to develop and tips on how they can continue to attract innovation in the long-term.
- Platform builders and ecosystem engineers are responsible for building an entirely new floor
- Software platform: a set of tiles and conventions that govern the definition of terms, the collection of data and the boundaries of inquiry for a particular field
- A good government is one that comes up with innovative solutions to the problems of its citizens or the problems of the bureaucracy itself
- Innovation thrives in discarded places
- The real benefit of stacked platforms lies in the knowledge you no longer need to have
Key Quote: “When you don’t have to ask for permission, innovation thrives”
The Fourth Quadrant
Tying all these ideas together, the conclusion examines innovation through a graded quadrant by focusing on the concepts of market vs non-market and individual vs groups. The author breaks down different inventions relative to their quadrant to examine the similarities they share.
- Decentralized pricing mechanisms of the open market allow an entrepreneur to gauge the relative value of his or her innovation.
- Hybrid economy: An economy which blends elements from the open network of intellectual commons with the more proprietary walks and tariffs of the private sphere
- There are good ideas and then there are good ideas which allow others to have good ideas
- Ideas rise in crowds
- Good ideas rise where connection is valued more than protection
- When it comes to innovation, build a tangled bunk
Key Quote: “The natural state of ideas is flow and spillover and connection. It is society that keeps them in chains”
As someone who spends most of his time alone, this book was an excellent medium to encourage more social interaction. While the internet often serves as a great mechanism for feeling constantly engaged, there’s something to be said for happenstance interactions and putting yourself in a position to hear and leverage new perspectives.
Similarly, it’s fascinating how much innovation thrives when new ideas are freely shared. Seeing how closely guarded many founders are about their ideas, this book has made me that much more confident that open-sourced designs best benefit the good of mankind as a whole.
In summary, I found this book to be extremely compelling. It’s important to note that the takeaways highlighted above are only a small segment of the much larger narrative presented by the author. Aside from these ideas, there are plenty of case-studies that further back and support the ideas mentioned throughout this recap. Furthermore, there are concepts in each of these chapters that did not make their way into the review, meaning that this book is definitely still worth exploring in its entirety.
This is the first article in a series of weekly posts. For suggestions on new books, clarifications on the takeaways or general feedback, be sure to comment or subscribe to my Substack! You can also reach me on Twitter for the quickest responses.