Reading suggestion: “Where Good Ideas Come From”

Steven Johnson’s 2012 book “Where good ideas come from” is definitely an eye-opening introduction to the history of innovation and to how we can design our environments so that they allow innovation to happen. Steven Johnson illustrated about 200 examples of innovation processes and the features they have in common. We can draw several lessons from these processes, even if the paths the innovators took to make their ideas happen were sometimes very straight-forward, almost linear, or some other times quite a “quirky” process.

The book is a great way to get an insight into how to recognise environments that are innovation-friendly and what to pursue or encourage to make our work, our life or even our community more prone to innovation. Here are some interesting points the author makes in this sense:

  • Innovation has generally happened based on “slow hunches.” Building up an idea usually takes time, sice the process of putting the pieces of the puzzle together can be quite a lengthy one. Darwin is given as an example of a scientist who had been wandering around taking different approaches to explaining his theories, until he reached a clearer thinking on the theory of the origins of species.
  • While this slow conceptualisation process happens, the “adjacent possible” principle is at work: New products or new ideas have generally appeared within the realm of already existing technologies or the scope of knowledge of the designer / discoverer, building upon them.
  • Recycling / recombining ideas is another important step in the innovation process. New ideas have always borrowed some features of existing products but used them for different purposes. Plus, this has been the result of several iterations along a “trial and error” mechanism. Ideas travel and end-up in different combinations constantly. We can make the leap forward and bring a completely new product or service to life in a technological or scientific field by applying an existing technology, idea or conceptual framework to a totally new domain.
  • Serendipity – innovation happens when ideas merely got connected by chance, by clicking with one another in a natural, organic process. What’s more, it helps a ton if these ideas come from completely different directions, or domains. Imagine ideas simply bumping into each other, and then the innovator instantly grasping the moment and giving meaning to the ideas’ encounter in a flash of inspiration. However, one needs to be able to recognise and grab the opportunity for the idea breakthrough when it comes along,  even in the weirdest of moments. Keeping an open mind and always being in search mode does help.

While these processes seem like common sense and have been taking place for ages, how many of us can say that they are following similar patterns in their work? Or how many of us can say that they are trying to create the proper environment for making their ideas happen, and are trying different approaches to solving problems? In other words: What’s keeping us from pursuing more creative processes? How can we overcome these barriers?

Steven Johnson advocates for supporting the innovation processes by creating an “architecture of serendipity” and setting the scene where ideas can more easily bump into each other and multiply. I list another short series of ideas I drew; the book has lots more to offer:

  • A huge role can be played by platforms or spaces for encounters and exchanges of ideas, which allow us to connect those “slow hunches” easier.
  • Building  “inspiration networks” can also help to foster innovation in so many different dimensions of our society. They can take various forms, from meeting friends for drinks, to being a member of a professional community or a part of an industrial cluster.  
  • This is why pure R&D labs are not enough, as innovation happens not only in the closed walls of an R&D department. Rather, external factors such as cooperation, co-creation and linkages cutting across domains can lead to innovation. Steven Johnson proves this empirically by analysing over 200 innovations, starting from the discovery of the solar system, to penicillin, or the internet. Several of these innovations have started from traditional R&D projects, but a tremendous amount of new ideas, especially during the past decades, have come up through the organic process of building upon several contributions in open and fluid networks.  It is not (only) competition for resources or patent rights that drove the innovation process, but rather cooperation and openness. These are factors that support the development and diffusion of innovations.
  • Steven Johnson (and other innovation enthusiasts) call this environment an “ecosystem” for innovation, where the idea generators are subject to different external stimuli, in a dynamic feedback process that build up innovations.

These are among the ideas that can be taken as basic guiding principles for how to start / continue innovating and let creativity flow. While this is not a recipe, some of these ideas are already pursued in big corporations like Google, in social innovation projects or in smartly designed public policies. We will debate more on such issues in future posts. For now, I leave you with a sketch of Steven Johnson’s book illustrating the broad lines of how innovation comes about, giving a hint to answering one of the questions that are guiding CRIDL’s journey: How might we make Romania more innovative?

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