Where Good Ideas Come From – the Natural History of Innovation

Where Good Ideas Come FromIdeas. Everything we do, everything we build, everything around us not found in nature begins with an idea. When you think about it that way, improving our idea generating skills would seem to be a good idea in itself. Steven Johnson decided to dig into the process, examining some of the biggest and best ideas we humans have had, to see what clues they left behind. While we often give credit to the person associated with a particular idea, Johnson wondered if there might be more to it, patterns of activity or certain environments that produce more of those "AHA!" moments. If so, maybe we could use that knowledge to become better idea generators ourselves.

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson looks at many breakthroughs throughout history, searching for the triggers leading one person to see what others missed. It's nice to think that if we concentrate really hard we can just come up with a creative breakthrough, apply enough effort and Eureka!, great idea, but it's often quite a bit different, brute force seldom works and Johnson goes on to identify seven patterns and environments conducive to innovative thinking.

The first section deals with the concept of the "adjacent possible," the technology and ideas already in existence that you have to work with in the time and place where you need a solution. He gives the example of infant incubators. A common and highly advanced bit of technology in hospitals throughout the developed world, they aren't suited for use everywhere. After the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, eight incubators were donated to a hospital in Indonesia, but a few years later, due to power surges, humidity, a lack of spare parts and no trained technicians, none of them worked. An organization, Design That Matters, working with a Boston area doctor, Jonathan Rosen, had the idea to design an incubator using the spare parts and skills available in Indonesia. The NeoNurture incubator is the result, it uses car parts; sealed beam headlights provide warmth, the blower motor circulates the air, the door chimes and lights serve as alarms, while a motorcycle battery and car charger provide backup power when the incubator must be used in transport and it can easily be serviced by the many people in the area who understand automotive technology. A good idea for what is possible there.

The adjacent possible might mean ideas or inventions in unrelated fields, without which, an otherwise brilliant idea simply won't work. Charles Babbage, back in the 1800s, designed the Difference Engine, an extremely complex mechanical calculator (finally built in 1991) and the Analytical Engine, what would have been the first programmable computer. Unfortunately, without at least a vacuum tube to act as a switch, let alone solid state electronics, in place of gears and levers, the designs were almost impossible to build, even though theoretically sound. The adjacent possible in the 1800s didn't have the necessary spare parts.

Ducati V8This concept of the adjacent possible applies to the projects you see right here on The Kneeslider. Once you see something like the Ducati Elenore V8 or the inverted 3 cylinder engine, your thinking can take those into account when tossing around ideas about motorcycle engines. Seeing how some builders have transformed bikes like a Yamaha Maxim or Suzuki Boulevard in ways you didn't consider can trigger ideas when you combine those ideas with something you might have tried yourself at another time to create a new idea of your own. Even if you think their idea isn't a good one, your own improved version might be a real breakthrough. In that case, their wrong answer helped create your better one. Let's face it, some folks, like many who show up here, seem to overflow with innovative ideas, making creative leaps in all directions while others sometimes get stuck. What you see here might help to "unstick" your thoughts. You could think of The Kneeslider as an additional energy source for your own idea generator.

Greek philosophers said nothing comes from nothing, a new idea, actually a new anything, is simply a rearrangement or unique new combination of things that already exist. When you think of it that way, coming up with new ideas isn't about having that mysterious "creative" ability, it might be more about a willingness to try lots of new combinations to see what might work, and, hey, anyone can do that, you just need desire and effort.

Johnson goes on to cover six more patterns and environments, like the power of networks and why making errors is good. It's the kind of book that readers of The Kneeslider will most likely find very interesting. Johnson's plentiful examples illustrate what he means in each section and there are some good tips for creating environments where you can increase your own idea generating capabilities.

Johnson's last chapter surveys the results over the centuries of environments and motivations in terms of how productive they were at producing ideas, forming a quadrant matrix of individual vs network and market vs non-market followed by a somewhat subjective list of inventions or ideas in each block. It's here where I disagree with his conclusions. He shows the immense idea generating power found in non-market networked environments, the "open source" model, compared to the others, but seems to miss what I think is obvious, that non market networks tend to produce "thoughts," not things. When you must produce real things instead of virtual ideas, who will take the risk to invest capital in equipment and materials in a non market environment, especially when the "non-market" he references is at odds with intellectual property? Open source works, but not for everything. Though we disagree on that point, I don't want to take away from what I think is, for the most part, a very enjoyable book. It's a good read and you might find a few new methods to turn on your own idea generator. Check it out.

Link: Where Good Ideas Come From


  1. Grumpy Relic says

    A basic ingredient seems missing. Recognizing your abilities. Yes,you have to have a focused interest in obtaining an solution.(a good salary does help your focus) You have to have a good background in the technology as well as what I would call collateral technologies. Now, consider the car salesman who wishes he could build his own bike but says he lacks the “creativity”. Yet yearly he manages to come up with innovative ways to sell cars. He watches the housing market, interest rates and job stats. With this he manages to produce one new sales strategy after another. Is this not creative? You have to make yourself aware of what is locked inside yourself and only then you will better understand your own creativity. No, it won’t necessarily make you money but you will achieve a comfort level like what you get with hot chocolate on a cold winter night.

  2. says

    Thanks Paul, looks like a must read. My experience was as stated….taking a combination of ideas present, and creating my own. JF

  3. Lowrider88 says

    As an old timer, I remember a BBC series called Connections which was narrated by the author, James Burke, of the book with the same title. His premise was that any new significant invention required the discovery of or invention of unrelated items that were required in order for the new invention to work. If you can find the DVD version of Connections or the book, I highly recommend it.

  4. woolyhead says

    Connections was an astounding series ! From personal experience, thinking is the most fun you can have with your pants on…….many a fleeting moment has produced solutions to problems that perplexed me just by drawing in my head…..much quicker than any pc program…try it……..

  5. todd says

    it’s all been summed up before; necessity is the mother of invention. If I could afford to buy a new motorcycle every year or so I wouldn’t need to figure out how to fix the one I got now – or build the one I want to have.


  6. Paulinator says

    I am an R and D consultant for a company in a specialized market. Our team has been stone-walled on a component – a timing device – that goes into a new product with firm orders and delivery commitments. This afternoon my boss, aware of the problem and nervous of the situation, said “why don’t you try something like I have in my RV cabinets?”. I jumped on my high-compression, ported, polished, big-bored, cammed-up and straight-piped little scooter and headed down the street (at a brisk pace) to the local cabinet hardware supplier. Two hours and a little bit of fabricating later, we’re all shaking our heads and grinning about how simple and inexpensive and readily-available the solution turned out to be. We didn’t have to invent it. One of us just had to recognize it.

    I’ll have to read the book.

    p.s. I was a huge fan of James Burke’s Connections.

  7. kneeslider says

    Connections was always “must see TV” for me. I loved it. I have the book that went along with the series but the TV series was just so cool. James Burke had a way of presenting things that a book can’t capture. It’s the kind of show that could get a a young kid interested in technology. It’s available on DVD.

  8. says

    The more experience one has in their field to draw from, the more possible solutions become available. Example would be a 20 years experience carpenter’s solution to a mechanic’s difficult situation or problem. Probably won’t help like another mechanic with a lifetime of experience solving mechanical challenges. Although a fresh set of eyes can toss in some off the wall ideas that the experts burried in a problem can’t see sometimes.

    My best ideas usually come at night laying awake, on an airplane when I’m forced to relax or on a vacation, far away from everyday interuptions. Brain space gets free’d up and the creative lobe gets to relieve itself.

    I once read that Thomas Edison realized that he would dream right when he was waking up and always had some wacky ideas while dreaming. How could get the most out of that situation? Or experience it more often? So he’d sit in a big easy chair with pencil and paper near by. Then he would place two metal pie tins on the floor, underneith the arms of the chair. While he would relax himself to sleep, he would be holding a large ball bearing in each hand. As he nodded, the bearings would drop into the pans and wake him up. The pencil and paper nearby to record any worthy ideas!

    He would repeat the process over and over.

  9. Emmet says

    Just ordered this along with The Myths of Innovation (Scott Berkun).
    Always giving excellent literature recommendations, Paul. Give us more!