Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

by Steven Johnson                                                               


Right from the start I would say this is close to the best book on innovation and idea generation that I have ever read. The book begins essentially with the idea of the adjacent possible but before that states some remarkable statistics. Firstly there is a law that relates body mass of animals to their metabolism – that there is a very strong negative logarithmic correlation between the two that also seems to mean that the heartbeats per lifetime are about the same. Larger animals have slower metabolisms and heart rates. A similar sort of power law seems to occur with cities but it is a positive correlation – a city that is ten times the size of another city is on average 17 times more innovative.

It is the central tenet of the book that this innovative increase is due to the nature of the adjacent possible and the chapter on this subject includes a very simple story about the origins of life. In the initial stages before there was life on earth there were very few chemicals present in the “primordial soup” but once some chemical reactions occurred (possibly triggered by lightning strikes) there were more chemicals formed. Once this occurred there were a large number of further possibilities that were not possible in the original set of circumstances. While this may not be the actual true story of the origins of life Steven Johnson uses the analogy to discuss what he believes is a myth – that of the single genius making a discovery or having a momentous idea. Steven believes that the single most necessary ingredient in idea generation and innovation is the presence of other ideas and that the intersections between different disciplines, ideas and culture are what drive innovation and hence why larger cities, with their size and diversity are generally more innovative.

To back up his theory the author quotes several inventions and ideas that the general public associate with single geniuses and shows that similar ideas were generated in a number of places at very similar time frames. These include the telephone, the steam engine, the first electrical battery, etc. A paper written in the 1920s is quoted by the author as having found 148 examples of independent innovations occurring at different places around the globe, largely in the same decade. It is the author’s contention that this is only possible if some pre-existing conditions, ideas or technologies need to be present before a certain innovation can be executed or envisaged.

The other important theory he discusses is that of “Liquid Networks: (Section II). This is the theory that there is an ideal state of the exchange of ideas and information and the analogy is of the states of matter. If the network is too controlled and rigid then there is not enough exchange of ideas, this is a network that is more like a solid mass. If the connections between the nodes of the network are too loose and chaotic then this network acts a bit like a gas – there is no form or organisation. In between is an ideal state of a liquid network where there is enough organisation to give the network form but the organisation is not so rigid that ideas and information remain stuck in their own area. This is important to facilitate the connections between the adjacent possible.

The next section describes the theory that most great ideas do not come in a blinding flash of inspiration but are more a slow burn process – The Slow Hunch. Many great ideas in history have come from people mulling over an idea and tweaking it, often in interaction with others. If this is true then it poses a challenge to all of us because we need to find ways to keep ideas nurtured and present in our minds otherwise they will just be lost. The author’s solution to this is that we should write things down in an organised way that we can use for reflection. This follows in the tradition of Darwin’s notebooks and John Locke’s commonplace book, which in the view of the author were the basis for the initial set up of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners Lee. The author himself uses a program called Devonthink which is a database where he stores all sorts of things including book chapters.

In section V the author comes to a favourite area of mine. The section is called error and very early on he quotes the British economist William Stanley Jevons as saying “the errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one”. This subject is dealt with two ways. Firstly that having more ideas and possibilities means that there will be more errors and such things should not be shunned. Secondly and more importantly there is a long discussion on errors providing new jumping off points for new ideas: “being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore” Section VI discusses exaption – the taking of a development (in evolution or innovation) and adapting it to a different use. It is the author’s view that this has been at the base of many great innovations – taking what is already known and used but putting them together in a different way and/or in a different field.

If there is a weakness in the book it comes in the conclusion where the author attempts to classify various innovations in four quadrants and then tracks those quadrants to show how innovation has occurred has changed over time. Taking this approach to its logical conclusion this data shows that we have moved steadily towards a non-market networked approach to innovation. This is not an absolute statement but one of where the preponderance of great innovations are now occurring. My criticism of this approach is from a futures perspective. If the same approach had been taken in the past it would not have shown the same result, depending on when the analysis had been done. Therefore I think the book should have looked at what implications there might be for the changes that have been occurring and where they might go in the future rather than just creating a static picture of the present and leaving it at that because the world does not stand still.

A few weeks ago I misspoke when facilitating a workshop for the Victorian Rural Financial Counsellors conference. What I meant to say was that I had just finished this book and it was one of the best books I had every read. What I actually said was that I had just finished a book and it was the best book I had ever written. The slip of my tongue was largely because despite my minor criticism of the conclusion this is the book I wish I had written and I encourage anyone who is in the business of ideas or innovation to read it and reflect on its ideas.