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What’s the Big Idea?

Friday, October 22, 2010

A new book goes a long way in demystifying a truly complex subject: the steps that lead to good ideas.

Steven Johnson is on a mission to shake things up. His newest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, features many counterintuitive findings: people with disorganized brains are smarter, error-free environments are sterile, meetings are good, and Facebook and Twitter may not be a waste of time. It is chock-full of examples that address a question on the minds of many: how do we promote innovation?

An entrepreneur, Wired contributor, and author, Johnson identifies seven patterns that recur in the generation of new ideas. He begins with the notion of the adjacent possible: innovators use the “spare parts” around them, from physical materials to scientific paradigms, to come up with ideas. He explains that an innovative idea is usually not a flash of genius but a slow hunch, accumulating over time as the spare parts are assembled and put into place.

Johnson pulls the concept of exaptation from evolutionary biology to describe how good ideas often involve coopting tools or concepts from other domains, such as Johannes Gutenberg using a winemaker’s grape press for his printing press. Other chapters deal with the role of serendipity and error in spurring new ideas and the advantages of building on top of already-existing open platforms like the Web.

Where Good Ideas Come From wants to debunk two myths about innovation: the solitary genius and the exaggerated “eureka” moment. To that end, Johnson discusses the notion of an idea as a network and begins to make a conceptual point about the nature of ideas. And herein lie both the strength and weakness of the book.

An innovative idea is usually not a flash of genius but a slow hunch.

Ideas, he explains, are literally made of networked connections between neurons in the brain. Carbon, the expert connector, is the basis of life—one of nature’s smartest ideas. Put simply, ideas have component parts; they are “puzzle pieces” or “links of association” combined in just the right way.

Take the Kindle. The idea of the Kindle has many component parts: the look and feel of physical books, the underlying technology (including flash memory and WiFi), and some solutions to problems; books can be bulky, but we want to read outside our homes, and laptops are heavy and hard to read on, especially in the sunlight. When someone comes along who can combine these parts—and many others—and recognize the connections among them, the idea of the Kindle is born.

Quoting Thomas Jefferson, who “waxes philosophical on the nature of ideas,” Johnson describes ideas’ inherent intangibility and lack of scarcity (they are “non-rivalrous” in the language of economists—having no material substance, they can be shared easily without being depleted). Johnson claims that “good ideas … want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other.” But explications like these are rare; Johnson does not focus enough on the essence of ideas, concentrating instead on myriad anecdotal examples of good ideas.

‘Good ideas … want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other.’

In a recent Wired interview, he admitted that “even though that line [‘ideas are networks’] is in my book somewhere, I had never really framed it that way in my mind. But … when people ask me about the book, I’ve been using that concept to explain it. [It’s] a really lovely way of expressing the main thesis that had completely escaped me.”

Johnson tries to make up for the limitations of what he calls his “anecdotal approach” in the final chapter of the book. There, he surveys 200 vital innovations from the past 600 years, classifying them as market or non-market and individual or networked. He finds that, in recent years, more innovations have been networked: invented by groups of people rather than individuals or small teams.

While this result supports Johnson’s general idea that facilitating connection among people will promote innovation, it is too broad to support his seven specific patterns. Making an explicit argument based on the nature of ideas would have done the job better. For example, the fact that most innovations come from groups of people does not imply that they must be “slow hunches.” But if we first establish that ideas are networks, the notion of the slow hunch follows logically because it takes time to assemble complex webs with many interconnected parts. 

That said, Johnson goes a long way in demystifying a complex subject: the steps that lead to breakthrough ideas. I will always see a network of nodes whenever I think of ideas. And perhaps Where Good Ideas Come From is one of those nodes in the larger discussion of how to promote innovation, which—when mixed and remixed with other work in the field—will someday lead us to a very good idea.

Kira Newman is an editorial assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Steven Hayward discusses "The Irrelevance of Modern Political Science," Alex Pollock argues "It’s Easier to Be Brilliant than Right," and Richard Swedberg and Thorbjørn Knudsen examine "Schumpeter 2.0." Arnold Kling asks, "What’s Stalling the Next Economic Revolution" and James DeLong explains "Googling the Book Settlement."

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