Steve Johnson on how good ideas really emerge

Where do good ideas come from? What kinds of environments make them more likely, and how can we use this knowledge to generate more innovation?

PopTech 2005 speaker Steven Johnson tackles these questions in his latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation., which explores interesting stories about scientific, technological, and cultural breakthroughs. They include how Darwin’s “eureka moment” about natural selection was actually the slow evolution of ideas that eventually crystallized into an articulate theory; how Gutenberg borrowed a crucial idea from the wine industry to invent modern printing; and why GPS was accidentally developed by a pair of twenty-somethings messing around with a microwave receiver.

His most ambitious work to date, Johnson integrates many of his earlier ideas from Everything Bad is Good for You and The Invention of Air. into a kind of how-to book. With this latest work, Johnson has crafted a “natural history” of innovation by exploring the unusually successful spaces of innovation across cultural and natural systems. This “long zoom” approach moves from the complexity of the coral reef and the chemical soups from which life emerged to the architecture of successful science labs and the information networks of the Web.

Connecting natural evolution to technological innovation is a provocative idea. [For more on whether innovation is inevitable, check out Johnson’s recent Radio Lab conversation with host Robert Krulwich and author Kevin Kelly.]

It’s also quite handy, enabling Johnson to promote the kind of connectedness that allows good ideas to flow easily. Through this framework, he dispels the romantic image of transcendent eureka moments. Instead, Johnson suggests that breakthroughs are often slow – the confluence of hunches that form over time – and inevitable – the result of a natural tendency to cobble together available ideas to create new uses. The number of interconnections in a space are also important. For example, Johnson tells the story about how Brian Eno invented a new musical convention while living in New York City in the 1970s. He writes how the cacophony of radio talk shows Eno listened to at the time would inspire him to build songs based on the layered, looped spoken words he was recording off the airwaves.

By examining breakthroughs across multiple scales, Johnson extracts seven key principles of innovation that can generate more good ideas. One principle, the “adjacent possible,” is an idea that refers to the “gradual but relentless” exploration of what’s possible. To make his point, Johnson relates a story about a design team working to reduce infant mortality by creating an incubator made entirely out of easily-replaceable spare automobile parts. This solution, says Johnson, illustrates how good ideas are derived out of constraints and shaped by the parts and skills that surround them. In other words, if you want to innovate, you need to be in places where different types of ideas can thrive and where there’s room for serendipity as well.

Image: Riverhead Books

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