Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From explores the environments that nurture the development of ideas, innovation, and invention. Some surprising facts, and some not-so-surprising, fill its pages. Let’s explore them in a little more detail.
Charles Darwin didn’t plan to turn the world upside down with his Origin of Species and the evolutionary breakthrough concept “survival of the fittest.” He was just making observations about life, nature, and biodiversity as he explored the oceans and islands that inspired his works. He observed that so many different life forms inhabit waters that are remarkably nutrient-poor.
What inspired Darwin and others to develop their ideas? Johnson sought his answers in a variety of disciplines. Scientists have know that larger animals have a longer lifespan. Swiss scientist Max Kleiber (Klay-ber) discovered that if you plot an animal’s mass versus it’s metabolic rate on a logarithmic scale, a pattern occurs – there is a mathematical equation that describes the relationship for all animals – called negative-quarter power scaling.
Does this formula apply to the growth of man-made environments, like cities? When comparing populations with the number of services, roads, gas stations, and the like, the formula seems to hold true.But as theoretical physicist Geoffrey West observed, the growth of ideas, innovation and creativity increases at an faster rate. Larger cities seem to breed ideas.
If you look at most of the inventions in mass, one-to-one communicationsof the 20th century, their development and adoptions seem to follow the 10/10 rule. It takes approximately 10 years to build a new platform, and another 10 years for it to reach the masses. But that was before the introduction of the world wide web.
What made it possible for youtube to grow so fast was timing. Youtube was built upon existing platforms that had to be in place before it could be successfully launched – first, the web itself; second, faster internet; third, youtube was based on the Adobe Flash platform which had to be developed; and finally, the development of web 2.0 and its user-generated content.
Sometimes the precursors of an idea are floating in one’s brain, but they are just at the cusp of being formed. Some connection still needs to be made or some concept need to be learned before the idea can take form. This area is the adjacent possible – the place (or time) when most of the pieces are available but not quite in place.
I relate this to Zygovsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development as mentioned in Marina Bers’ book Blocks to Robots– the zone in which a student has almost all the information necessary to learn a concept or perform a task, but needs help, or scaffolding, from teachers, parents, or peers to put it all together; the zone between what one knows and what one doesn’t in which all the pieces come together.
The progress of carbon from its formation in the primordial ooze to its final state as a component of most matter on earth was a process of exploring the adjacent possible. Carbon didn’t automatically join with other elements to make human tissue, or tree bark, or petroleum. Each progression required other events to take place and other connections to be made before moving on to the next phase.
In much the same way, ideas don’t just happen in an instant. They form somewhere in the primordial ooze that is the brain, and make connections with what is known. Sometimes the whisper of an idea can take weeks or months to form, while some take minutes, others can take years. Some ideas never move out of the adjacent possible because the right circumstances have not been met yet.
So how can you encourage ideas to develop? Johnson mentions several things that help foster the propagation of ideas. The environment must be conducive to the flow of ideas, or as Johnson calls is – a Liquid Network.
Ideas can stagnate and die if they are not shared and discussed with others. A liquid network environment encourages the birth of ideas, connections, changes and reconnections that help ideas grow and propagate - connections can be made but are not broken up by movement and disturbances.We are served betted by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.
Serendipity is often described as a happy accident. You can’t create serendipity, but you can create occasions that welcome it. Taking time to read, or go for a walk, or take a bath, allows your brain to remove itself from the active thought process, and lets other thoughts and ideas wander in. One of these errant thoughts may just be the key to realizing an idea.
Most ideas do not occur as eureka moments, but rather as a slow hunch – an idea that has entered the mind and floated around for awhile. Maybe it was forgotten, maybe it was pushed aside, but it lingered somewhere in the back of the brain, waiting to be realized. It is important to revisit your hunches to keep them alive.
Mistakes are not always a bad thing. Plenty of good ideas were borne out of error. Good ideas are more likely to occur in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error. Being wrong forces you explore other options and paths. Johnson stated, the best innovation labs are always a little contaminated.
Good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error. New ideas can meet and connect with old ideas, and form more ideas. An environment that is idea rich helps to breed new ideas. Innovation thrives in discarded spaces.
Originally a French physician StephaneTarnier observed the incubators used to help chicks hatch and utilized the same idea for humans, which greatly decreased the mortality rate of premature infants. Jump ahead a over a century to Indonesia where MIT professor Timothy Prestero re-designed the incubator out of automobile parts so they would be easier to repair and maintain in that environment.
When Tim Berners-Lee developed the world wide web in 90’s he didn’t start from scratch. Universities were already transferring information across phone lines via TCP/IP. Arpanet had been transferring data since the 70’s. Berners-Lee just needed to develop a new language (html- hypertext markup language), and build his “web” on top of the existing platforms. Although he is credited with creating the world wide web, the Internet was already in place.
A patient enters a prestigious regional hospital with a mysterious disease. A team of skilled specialists under the famous dean of diagnostic medicine confer over the patient’s symptoms. They discusss and vascillate among various diagnoses, often putting the patient at further risk because of trial and error, but in the end, a totally unrelated moment of serendipity causes the esteemed doctor to determine the correct diagnosis
The story may be fiction, but the process is real (and a little scary). Good ideas come from old ideas, new ideas, slow hunches, noise, chaos, serendipity. They are built on other platforms. They thrive in liquid networks. They reside in the realm of the adjacent possible just waiting for the right pieces to fall into place. We just need to
Where good ideas come from
Where Good Ideas Come From<br />Observations from Steven Johnson’s<br />Bchimento<br />NJCU <br />4004EDTC625 Using IntgrSftwr Across Curr<br />Dr. Shamburg<br />Johnson, S. (2010). Where Good Ideas Come From. New York: Riverhead (Penguin).<br />
Darwin’s Paradox<br />Darwin’s Paradox – so many different life forms, occupying such a vast array of ecological niches, inhabiting waters that are otherwise remarkably nutrient-poor. <br />http://www.coralreefinfo.com/<br />
Klieber’s law<br />As life gets bigger – it slows down<br />“Negative-quarter-power scaling” <br />Mass vs. metabolism <br />Equal number of heartbeats – just takes bigger animal longer to use theirs up <br />
Energy and transportation growth follow Kleiber’s laws, BUT<br />As cities get bigger, they generate ideas at an even faster clip. <br />Ideas increase with population, <br />Ideas per capita increase.<br />Geoffrey West - but innovation and creativity is 17 times bigger in city 10 times bigger.<br />Man-made environments<br />
10/10 Rule<br />1920 – first AM radio station<br />Late 1920’s – AM radios in American homes<br />1950’s-first color broadcast (NBC Tournament of Roses Parade)<br />1960’s- color broadcast become the norm<br />1969 – Sony creates VCR<br />Early 1980’s – VCR become staples in homes<br />DVD, cell phones, personal computers, GPS – all basically follow the 10/10 rule.<br />
YouTube<br />http://www.youtube.com/<br /><ul><li> Within 16 months of the company’s founding, YouTube was streaming over 30 million videos a day
Why did it grow so fast?</li></li></ul><li>Adjacent Possible<br />http://emergentfool.com/2010/03/11/the-adjacent-possible/<br /><ul><li>Just at the reach of making a discovery
Some bit of information or idea or learning is missing
Other pieces need to fall into place first</li></li></ul><li>Zone of Proximal Development<br />http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/constructivism.htm<br />
The path of evolution is a continual exploration of the adjacent possible.<br />Single carbon atom<br />Compounds<br />Cells<br />Tissue<br />Organisms<br />Plant/Animal/Mineral<br />http://ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu/211_fall2010.web.dir/andy_chamberlain/firstpage.html<br />
Evolution of Good ideas<br />Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and, occasionally, contracts) over time<br />
How to develop good ideas<br />Liquid Network<br />Serendipity<br />Slow hunches<br />Error<br />Noise<br />Exaptations<br />Platforms<br />
Liquid Network<br />Not so rigid that ideas can’t grow and develop<br />Not so much space where ideas can’t reach each other. <br />Free flow of ideas allows ideas to connect, grow, reconnect with others.<br />Liquid networks complete ideas.<br />
Serendipity<br />You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose you bearings serendipitously.<br />Go for a walk, take a shower/bath - remove yourself from the problem; get into an associative state.<br />According to NYTimes, web has pushed culture toward more serendipitous encounters.<br />
Slow Hunch<br />Hunch that developed over time is more common than sudden flash of inspiration<br />Have to keep hunch alive<br />Keep a journal or commonplace book and review it to refresh your hunch<br />Sleeping on the problem actually helps<br />
Error<br />Spark gap telegraph led to the invention of vacuum tubes, which in turn led to computers, television, etc.<br />Fleming discovered penicillin by bacteria accidentally entering his lab<br />Error in reaching for a resistor led from an oscillator that recorded heartbeats to the pacemaker that regulates them<br />
Noise<br />Albert Einstein has been considered the patron saint of useful messiness, and once stated “The cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind; what does an empty desk sign?<br />http://unclutterer.com/2008/06/11/in-praise-of-a-little-mess-be-a-little-scruffy/<br />
Exaptation<br />Defined as using a feature or structure for something other than its original intended purpose.<br />Ex. In Indonesia, Timothy Prestero redesigned neonatal incubators out of automobile parts because the locals had access to and knowledge of automobile engines.<br />
Platforms<br />Tim Berners-Lee<br />Side project at CERN<br />Academic use<br />Military (ARPANET)<br />HTML<br />WorldWideWeb<br />In an open platform, good ideas can come from anywhere.<br />
Good ideas as developed in House,M.D.<br />http://www.housemd-guide.com/season3/316secret.php<br />http://www.housemd-guide.com/season7/716out-chute.php<br />
Build a tangled web<br />An idea does not pass from a single neuron to another single neuron in the brain. Instead it is jumps across the liquid network and connects and reconnects with multiple neurons.<br />http://plantinglines.blogspot.com/2010_09_01_archive.html<br />