Where Good Ideas Come From

By

Steven Johnson

Read in
April, 2020
My rating:
10
/10

Summary

Eye opening exploration of ideas and (believe it or not) how they are formed and come to be. Fascinating perspective on how innovation truly works and it busts a lot of myths and misconceptions along the way. Strong recommend.

Notes

Reef, City, Web

  • Darwin's paradox - incredibly teeming life, otherwise barren surroundings
  • There were 30 years between the start of Darwin's career and the publication of Origin of Species
  • We are, in many senses, an age of technological acceleration. There are some formats for which this is not true, such as HDTV, that follow the 10/10 rule - 10 years to develop, 10 to propagate throughout society. New things like YouTube borrow from and build upon other protocols to spread at a much faster rate. We have moved from changes in degree (more pixels, better lenses, higher definition) to changes in kind - where the rules are completely different.
  • Kleiber's Law determined the direct relationship between the size of the animal and their lifespan/number of heartbeats etc. This is also comparable and extends to cities in their ability to generate innovation and ideas. Can alos be described as Superlinear Scaling.
  • The patterns of Innovation are Fractal, meaning that while the mind creates ideas you can also zoom in and out from there to find other systems of idea generation, from the DNA through to the city. This can be described by the Long Zoom - on one side is Nature with its brains and DNA and evolution and, on the other, Culture with its cities and organisations and books.

1. The Adjacent Possible

  • Ada Lovelace - world's first computer programmer.
  • The Adjacent Possible is the concept that there are only a finite number of next possible moves in any given environment. If we are in a palace, to explore the palace we must enter one room at a time - the exploration and advance may only happen one room at a time. We cannot open a door to a room on the other side of the building without first moving through the rest of the building in sequence.
  • People or ideas that are described as being Ahead of Their Time are operating in a room that is not within the adjacent possible. They have jumped ahead of the sequence, somehow. Babbage is a prime example of this, with his early computers. The Adjacent Possible is, therefore, as much about limitations as it is about possibility. He simply didn't have the spare parts he needed.
  • The crew of Apollo 13 only had so many components available to them when making their jerry-rigged CO2 scrubbers. This was their Adjacent Possible.
  • Ideas are a Bricolage, a combination of old parts combined into the new. p29

2. Liquid Networks

  • A good Idea is, in and of itself, a Network. At a higher level, big, dense, interconnected networks are a fertile ground for Ideas to flourish within.
  • Good ideas are often constrained by their surroundings.
  • Innovative Systems exist at the edges between order and chaos. They are not solid forms - ordered, rigid and static. Nor are they gaseous - chaotic, prone to disperse, easily disbanded. They are liquid - able to shift shape, stay together, fit the shape of whatever container it is placed inside. Water is at once a powerful solvent and yet able to sustain life.
  • An example of Bricolage in the natural world can be explained in Prebiotic Chemistry, by the Miller-Urey Experiment. This experiment brings together a simulation of the primordial atmosphere (NH3, CH4, H2, H20 as vapour) and energy - in the form of lightning. Over time, this reaction is able to produce the amino acids that form the basis of simple life.
  • Information Spillover happens in liquid networks where things are close enough to diffuse into other areas.
  • It is not enough to have a Liquid Network at any scale, there must be some way to store and process these Ideas. We must be able to let our ideas leak out, and let others leak in. Don't try and plug the gaps - the gaps are valuable.
  • Double Entry Accounting was first codified in 1494 by Franciscan friar and mathematician, Luca Pacioli.
  • Building 20 is a shining example of the influence of an environment on the ability of the people within it to incubate and generate ideas and innovation.

3. Slow Hunches

  • As humans, from time to time, we get Slow Hunches. They linger, they percolate, they hang around. For them to really go anywhere, they need to connect and collide with __other__ hunches to fully complete themselves.
  • There are pros and cons associated with long Incubation of ideas versus snap judgments. Snap judgement can be right and fast, but also very wrong. Incubation and Hunches take a lot of time but they produce creative and useful ideas.
  • Part of the secret to cultivating Slow Hunches is to Write Everything Down. Darwin did this with his many notebooks, which he would regularly re-read to come across new ideas. If it is at all possible, try to write everything down in a single place (much like a Commonplace Book), better yet if you are able to create connections between things as you go.
  • Companies like Google and 3M have institutionalised Innovation by operating rules about personal time for idea cultivation. At 3m, they have the 15% Rule where all employees are encouraged to spend 15% of their time - 75% of 1 day a week - working on their own ideas and projects unrelated to work.
  • Ideas do not always appear fully formed - they can appear as fragments that have to be nurtured over time. It's therefore important to capture and incubate them. #5 Tricks To Never Run Out of Ideas Again
  • When creating ideas, Cultivation is more important than perspiration. Ideas tend to fade into view rather than simply appearing with a flash. That's why it's so important to have somewhere you can sustain and keep your ideas alive in the long term - they stand a greater chance of colliding with others idea you have or keep.

4. Serendipity

  • Serendipity gives us the opportunity to create connections across more traditional boundaries that otherwise night not have been traversed.
  • Disorganised Brains tend to be smarter than most. Our brains flash between chaos and order at intervals, with the chaos modes being a sort of waking dream in which various neurons will fire off. In there, there is the potential for connections. Science does not yet have a full and proper explanation for all of this, though.
  • We can invite Serendipity into our lives by entering into Associative States. This is easier than it sounds. It means we need to take our mind off matters and soak in the bath or go for a meditative walk. Just do anything else and give your brain the chance to combine.
  • Dreams are able to produce ideas, primarily because our brains are busy knocking things into each other while we're sleeping. Dreams are our brains exploring, on our behalf. This is why good Sleep is so important.
  • A Brainstorm is actually a terrible way to come up with ideas. This is because relevant Hunches are probably not happening at the same time and place - the session itself is finite in both respects. The brainstorm is actually very ordered and cloistered.
  • The example of the 9/11 attacks not being seen ahead of time by the FBI because of their use of the Automated Case Support System - Ideas were kept in their silo, with multiple low-level Gatekeepers.

5. Error

  • Inventions created in Error: Penicillin, Daguerreotype, Vacuum Tubes.
  • In our work, Error should not be avoided entirely. It can help us produce results. It can help lead us away from our Comfort Zone, where we have our collection of Assummptions and Biases.
  • The discovery of Cosmic Background Radiation was the result of Error; the scientists - Penzias and Wilson - thought that their telescope was broken. They had to search for the real cause of the noise.
  • The experiments of Charlan Nemeth show us that it is indeed possible to increase our Creativity and our ability to Ideate through the introduction of error into our Thought.
  • Large collectives are not that good for the creation of ideas. They tend towards Herd Mentality and can actually inhibit the creation of new ideas. If you work or orbit within a large collective, it can be beneficial to spend some time away from it or attempt to circle within other groups.
  • Good Ideas are more likely in environments that contain Noise and Error
  • The truth is that Idea Generation is an inherently Messy process. It is not clean. It does not exist inside a lab. It happens at the coffee house, around the conference table, on the walk around the quad, in the bar. The hard work must still take place behind the scenes, but the ideas have plans of their own.

6. Exaptation

  • Exaptation is the process of borrowing a technology from elsewhere - essentially hijacking it - and using it for an entirely different purpose than it was perhaps intended for.
  • Feathers were originally intended for warmth, but Exapted for use in flight when it became clear they could sustain lift.
  • Punch Cards were originally for automated looms, but were Exapted for use in early Computing.
  • HTML and World Wide Web were originally intended for use by scholars but was Exapted by many for use in all kinds of things, notably socialising, videos, photos and porn.
  • Cities are rife with Exaptation - dense interests cluster together and find ways to spill over into one another.
  • The concept of a Third Place is embodied by London Coffee House Culture, with Lloyds of London coming into existence. Freud's Wednesday meetings and so on.
  • Brian Eno's Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is an example of the use of the sounds of commercial radio Exapted for use in his Music.
  • Diverse Networks are 3x more innovative than non-diverse.

7. Platforms

  • We can think of a truly probing Intelligence as looking across different topics, times and scales.
  • Ideas find fertile ground in the many Platforms that they necessarily rest upon. Sputnik, Doppler, Satellite Tracking, GPS. An ecosystem of incredible utility, starting from a simple idea and based upon multiple Platforms.
  • Stacked Platforms - YouTube on video and html and css and TCP/IP and php and computers and screens themselves and electricity and transistors and CPUS...

8. The Fourth Quadrant

  • The Fourth Quadrant is the idea that the most fertile ground for the creation of ideas lies in the arena of the non-market and the networked.
  • Openness and Connectivity are more important for the generation of ideas than competition.

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