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Where Good Ideas Come From

by Steven Johnson

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Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
© Riverhead
Riverhead, October 2010

The connection between an abundant coral reef that Charles Darwin explores on his Beagle voyage and recent technological developments such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube might not be immediately apparent. But in his latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson builds the compelling case that these disparate aspects of history are more closely related than we might think.

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson traces what he calls "the natural history of innovation." His previous two books - bestsellers The Ghost Map and The Invention of Air - focus on forward-thinking individuals and their contributions to the advancement of science. But in his latest, Johnson takes a wider view and considers the environments that produce great ideas rather than the singular minds that harbor them.

A natural history of innovation? The idea sounds murky at first, but Johnson is quick to present a clear focus for the exploration at this book's core. As one of the most thought-provoking writers on the topics of new media and the evolution of information technology, Steven Johnson is more than qualified to take up a subject that might initially seem complex.
Johnson carefully explains his subject matter in simple terms, and straightaway: "The argument of this book is that a series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments." Some environments, he says, squelch new ideas, and others seem to breed them effortlessly. Johnson's more concerned with the latter, and he offers seven patterns, each one occupying a separate chapter in this book, that help artists and business professionals alike tap into their "extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking."

Some of the patterns Johnson describes might not be familiar, such as "The Adjacent Possible," "Liquid Networks," and "Exaptation," but others such as "The Slow Hunch," "Serendipity," and "Error" are concepts that readers probably already know-but just haven't previously associated with the process of innovation. In this way, Johnson blends new concepts with common knowledge in order to further his argument in an easy-to-follow progression.

Even though each chapter of this book focuses on a different pattern, Johnson wants his readers to understand that a single maxim runs as a thread through them all. It's the idea that "we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them." Good ideas, he says, want to "connect, fuse, recombine." Johnson draws upon an interesting array of examples that range from the invention of vacuum tubes to the construction of the World Wide Web in support of this claim.
In the book's first chapter, Johnson confronts what might come up as a criticism of this book, and of others that seem to make "conceptual leaps from biology to culture without blinking." He claims that a study of "these different environments and scales is not merely intellectual tourism." The content of Where Good Ideas Come From isn't merely intellectual tourism, but some of it certainly is. Readers who want to travel with Johnson on this journey of the mind will revel in those moments, but others will want him to snap back to a more tangible reality. And he does that, too.

Just when an idea seems as if it's going to escape from the page, Johnson latches it to a concrete example, and he keeps returning to the book's primary theme. He draws us in by providing suggestions about how the patterns he's uncovered can be integrated into everyday life. "Go for a walk," he says, "...cultivate hunches; write everything down...embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes," for a start.
Those who come to Where Good Ideas Come From enticed by the idea of the "natural history" in its subtitle will find themselves more deeply immersed in the realm of science and technology than in the arena of nature and environment, at least as these topics are commonly construed. However, Johnson blurs the traditional boundaries of these fields in a way that brings them together. And in doing so, he writes a book on innovation that's more innovative for it in the end.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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