What makes innovative environments innovative? Steven Johnson attempts to answer this in his 2010 book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The natural history of innovation.
Johnson proposes several modes for how innovation happens. He gives examples throughout history of how scientific breakthroughs took place, citing Darwin’s journey on the SS Beagle, and life within a coral reef. He discusses the world wide web and the differences between human interactions in the city and the country.
Contrary to what Johnson calls “the Vaseline daubed lens of hindsight,” he says that ideas occur as slow hunches, not Eureka moments. We like to give credit to a moment of genius, because we like to have heroes, but it is very rare that a scientific breakthrough occurs in isolation.
Everyone needs someone to bounce ideas off of. Batman had Robin. The Lone Ranger had Tonto. That’s why the legend of heroes standing alone with new great ideas has lasted.
1890The Sign of the Four Doubleday p 111 EvenSherlock Holmesneeded someone to bounce his ideas off of. How many times did he say: “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
Steven Johnson says, “we want to think of ideas as occurring as a brainstorm or occurring in a dream. There is a narrative thrill that comes from that lightbulb moment of sudden clarity. But if one examines the evolution of ideas more carefully, the slow hunch is the rule.
Darwin’s ideas on natural selection did not happen overnight. He spent several years travelling the world on the SS Beagle, examining species all over the world.
Ideas also happen because of error and exaptations. Examples of happy accidents are vulcanized rubber and plastic. And we can’t forget one of our childhood favorites, Silly Putty, which came about when the US government was funding research to find a replacement for rubber. Or Post Its discovered when a chemist at #M discovered a special adhesive.
Ideas do not work in isolation. We even have to make room in our brains for them. They also must be timely. If Hurley, Chen, and Karim had tried to execute You tube ten years earlier, in 1995, it would have been a flop. One of Johnson’s tenets is that we are better served by connecting ideas than protecting them. Good ideas aren’t conjured out of thin air. They are built out of a collection of existing parts or collaboration.
Before the advent of air conditioning, people actually sat together on stoops and talked about things. A good idea comes from a network. And individuals become smarter because they are connected to a network, even if it is just a neighborhood network.
People search for a place to convene. It is in coffee houses and cafes that some great ideas have been founded.
Johnson believes that starting in the Victorian era, it was the coffee house that encouraged new ideas.
Cafes and salons became the think tanks of the 1920s in the Paris art world.. Artists living in cold water unheated ateliers went out and gravitated to the cafes for warmth and companionship.
Artists such as Picasso and Modigliani, Man Ray, Fernand Leger, Georges Braque, Francis Picabia, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp– we would not have modern art as we know it had not these artists been convening together in the cafes on the boulevard du Montparnasse. It was at this intersection that they all came together.
It was in the cafes that they shared ideas and models.
The salon of gertrude Stein was also a think tank for artists in Paris. Stein purchased work by the then unknown Picasso and uncoventional works by Henri Matisse. She and her brother Leo Stein had a good eye and became the publicists for the new modern art.
The cafes were also the think tanks for the literati. Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, socialized at the cafes and were brought together by Sylvia Beach at her now famous bookstore, Shakespeare and Comapny
Beach and her bookstore, like Stein and her salon were the liquid networks for the artists and writers of the 20th century.
And in New York City, Edward Steiglitz created a liquid network with his gallery 291 for photographers.
In sum, it is human interaction that propels the enhancement of ideas. Johnson says in his conclusion: go for a walk, cultivate hunches, write everything down, keep your folders messy, embrace serendipity, make generous mistakes, frequent coffee houses and let others build on your ideas.
Where good ideas come from1
“Ideas come about on account of slowhunches, serendipity, liquid networks, error, andexaptation.”http://mawuangels.com/video-where-good-ideas-come-from-steven-johnson/
Eureka Moment v. “Slow Hunch”http://christopherplant.com/page/2/
“How often have I said to you, Watson, that when youeliminate the impossible, whatever remains, howeverimprobable, must be the truth.” (Conan Doyle, 111).http://thepowerpointblog.com/2009/03/12/who-is-watson-and-why-is-he-important-to