People love to believe in that eureka moment, where a good idea unexpectedly comes out of nowhere. In reality, ideas are born in very different situations. In “Where Good Ideas Come From”, Steve Johnson explores the history of innovation to discover specific surprising patterns that explain the root of good ideas, and what we can do to increase the ingenuity of society.
Johnson brings up a photo of the Grand Café in Oxford to show that this was the first coffeehouse to open in England in 1650. The purpose of this was to show the relationship between the coffeehouse and the crucial development of the Enlightenment, which was one of the great intellectual flowerings of the last 500 years .
Johnson describes the role in the birth of the Enlightenment due to what people were actually drinking before this period. He describes a population of people that were effectively drunk all day, due to the condition of the water; leading alcohol to be the beverage of choice. As people switched from alcohol to coffee and tea (a depressant to a stimulant), naturally people would become more attentive, keener, and would as a result be able to produce more amazing ideas.
In relation to Jason Fried’s talk about why people can’t get any work done at work, the architecture of space is crucial to the development of creativity. Johnson poses the question, “What are the environments that lead to unusual levels of innovation, unusual levels of creativity … What‘s the kind of environmental, what is the space of creativity?” Johnson explains that innovation and creativity are fractal: they transpire by following the same patterns throughout the world, whether it’s the Internet, a city, or a coral reef. Culture evolves the same way nature does.
More particularly, the world proves in both culture and nature that innovation has its best chance of happening when ideas are connected, not protected. As human beings, we tend to romanticize the generation of new ideas as a flash or stroke of insight, an epiphany, a “eureka!” moment, or a light bulb moment. All of these concepts, as ostentatious as they are, share this basic assumption, which is that an idea is a single thing; it’s something that happens often in an illuminating moment . However, Johnson argues that ideas are not single elements, but more like networks.
How can you get your brain into an environment where new networks are going to be more likely to form? For ideas to happen, you have to place the elements at your disposal in settings where more connections can occur in the right way. This is Johnson’s evidence as to why liquid networks are the best kinds of networks . I would agree that liquid networks are great networks, but unfortunately this creates a debate for the electronic network. Society has created an environment that eats, sleeps, and breathes the Internet and social networking; too many people are hiding behind their computer screens and will not accept the value of the liquid network.
Johnson’s metaphor to illuminate the network patterns of the human brain is the example of Timothy Prestero’s organization Design That Matters. Prestero decided to research what the abundant resources are in developing world contexts that would help decrease infant mortality, and concluded that the most common resources were automobiles . As a result, the “neonurture device” was invented, which uses the spare parts from a Toyota, is easily repairable and inexpensive, and will help developing countries with the terrible pressing problem of infant mortality.
The purpose of the metaphor is to not to isolate an idea, but instead, try to connect it to as many places, people, or other ideas as possible . The connecting of ideas and the protecting of ideas are not interchangeable developments, and can cause people to lie about how much linking someone has done from an existing idea. Johnson does talk about the protection of intellectual property, but does not stress enough the environment that electronic networks have created in respect to the sharing of ideas. Innovation occurs when people in networks come together with ideas, and people stitch those ideas together into new forms and create something different .
Johnson describes the researcher Kevin Dunbar who researched where good ideas come from. His findings indicated that breakthrough ideas did not come from under a microscope, but in sync with coworkers at the conference table, where oftentimes people shared their mistakes. Sharing mistakes is important because trying to eradicate every negative element of the network also means eliminating every unpredictable connection. Good ideas are more likely to develop in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error, because this can lead to unpredictability, which in turn leads to innovation.
The time it takes for ideas to connect and evolve into something valuable, is what Johnson refers to as the “slow hunch”. People like to condense their stories of innovation to short time frames. A lot of important ideas have very long incubation periods . This is valid; however, I do believe that people have “light bulb moments” to the degree that the environment the ideas are activated in has in some way influenced their thoughts. However, the finding must be meaningful because constant changing of elements means nothing by itself, there must be a purpose in mind.
Building an environment where brainstorming is constantly running in the background is the ideal way to provoke chance. Here is the perfect opportunity to connect liquid and electronic networks. By looking things up on the Internet, the connections are unquantifiable. If people could recognize the tools they have as actual tools, lingering creativity blocks could by unplugged. In conclusion, Johnson’s presentation was very interesting.
I have learned that it is important and may even be vital to close the Excel file and have conversations in stimulating environments to provoke innovation and creativity especially when trying to solve problems in the workplace. Johnson metaphorically relates the invention of the GPS to the ingenuity of new ideas, “…a great lesson in the power, the marvelous, kind of unplanned emergent, unpredictable power of open innovative systems.” The slow development of the GPS is the perfect example to illustrate how innovation happens.
Johnson concludes with, “…here you have these guys who basically thought they were just following this hunch, this little passion that had developed, then they thought they were fighting the Cold War, and then it turns out they’re just helping somebody find a soy latte.” Chance favors the connected mind . I have learned that when people collaboratively build innovative systems, they will be led to entirely new directions.