Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From

A few days ago I finished reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

As someone truly interested in creativity and innovation and their antecedents I thoroughly enjoyed this book as it gives very wide look at the development of innovation in the world around us (biological and evolutionary), sciences (from almost every imaginable field from pharmaceuticals to air-conditioning) and across different timelines (from Darwin to the invention of Twitter and Youtube). This wide ranging sample of the greatest innovation of the last 600 years gives the book a depth that support some of the interesting hypotheses it makes.

There is some kind of myth we all have in our heads in some form or another of innovation being the result of a lone genius sitting alone at his desk suddenly having this eureka moment based solely on his intellect and thinking power. In reality, while inventions due sometimes occur in this way, it is more the exception than the rule. As Johnson mentions himself in the book:

We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. But ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.


On a basic level, it is true that ideas happen inside minds, but those minds are invariably connected to external networks that shape the flow of information and inspiration out of which great ideas are fashioned

Malcolm Gladwell, makes a similar argument when he compares Michael Ventris, the decipherer of Linear B, with Andrew Wiles, the solver of Fermat’s Last Theorem, in his amazing speech at the New Yorker conference labeled: “Genius: 2012”. Gladwell explained that: “Modern problems require persistence more than they require genius and we ought to value quantity over quality when it comes to intelligence”. Gladwell claimed that he would rather have 13 smart people working on one idea than one genius. 13 smaert people represent so much more opportunities just due to quantity that they are better equipped to deal with modern day problems.

Johnson’s book takes this idea a step forward laying down the seven fundamentals that together – in different combinations and quantities – create innovation or allow creativity to spark: The Adjacent Possible, Liquid Networks, The Slow Hunch, Serendipity, Error, Expatation and Platforms.

Expanding on these concepts, the book is a song of praise to the idea of openness, connectivity and the creation of idea networks and communication channels across disciplines:

It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.

In order to create this “network” we need to actively work on creating environments that cultivate sharing, ideas, discourse, mistakes and communication. This can’t be achieved by walling and protecting ideas, only by creating open platforms:

The premise that innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas, when hunches can stumble across other hunches that successfully fill in their blanks, may seem like an obvious truth, but the strange fact is that a great deal of the past two centuries of legal and folk wisdom about innovation has pursued the exact opposite argument, building walls between ideas, keeping them from the kind of random, serendipitous connections that exist in dreams and in the organic compounds of life.

Johnson creates a compelling argument against the overuse of copyright and patent laws, tools that are put in place to promote innovation but many times work against it:

If there is a single maxim that runs through this book’s arguments, it is that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.

While the book wonderfully explains each of the seven concepts and gives a few interesting prescriptions regarding the creation of a platform that supports innovation in societies as a whole I would have enjoyed a more detailed discussion regarding the implementation of the concepts in building creative environments not only on a nation-wide level but also on a personal, team or organization level. Mostly, we are left with this ending statement, which is powerful, but left me personally waiting for more:

Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.

Bottom line: worth a read as it might spark many interesting ideas for people working in environments where creativity is a must.