on 15 November 2010
The common image of the individual operating alone in the laboratory dreaming up brilliant flashes of inspiration is countered by Johnson with the argument that ideas are generated by crowds where connection is more important than protection.
Steven Johnson's technique is the personalisation of his theme, drawing unexpected conclusions from the personal story and then weaving it into the next story. For example he brings to life through stories his assertion that good ideas are built on previous work and depend upon the variety of other stimuli around them. He recounts how in the late 1870's a Parisian obstetrician named Stephane Tarnier took a day off from his work at Maternite de Paris and paid a visit to the nearby Paris Zoo where chicken eggs were being incubated. It gave Tarnier the inspiration to develop incubation for babies leading to a medical advance that rivals any more well known innovations, such as radiation therapy or double heart bypass, in terms of giving humans longer life. Then follows the sequel about Timothy Prestero, an MIT professor who visited the Indonesian city of Meulaboh after the 2004 Indian Tsunami. He discovered that eight baby incubators, donated by a range of international organisations, were broken down through lack of spare parts. Prestoro and his team decided to build an incubator out of car parts that were abundant in the developing world - an idea that had originated with a Boston doctor named Jonathon Rosen. From this Johnson asserts that good ideas develop like this NeoNurture incubator. "The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table."
The astounding detail in this short paragraph brings a richness to his arguments about the generation of ideas.
Johnson counters the colloquial description of good ideas as sparks, flashes or eureka moments and likens them to networks. For new ideas the sheer size of network is needed and it needs to be plastic - capable of reconfiguration. Innovation thrives on a wide pool of minds. The eureka moment is usually preceded by the slow hunch like Darwin's theory of evolution that developed over many years.
Johnson extols the power of accidental connections or serendipity in the recognition of the significance of the new ideas. Innovation prospers when ideas can be serendiptiously connected and recombined with other ideas, when hunches can stumble across other hunches. Walls dividing ideas such as patents, trade secrets and proprietary technology inhibit serendipidy. Open environments are more conducive to innovation than closed.
Error which creates a path that leads you out of your comfort zone and exaptation , which are traits optimised for a specific use getting hijacked for a completely different use (birds feathers evolved for warmth proving useful for flying) are key paths to innovation. The history of the world wide web designed for the academic environment now used for shopping, sharing photos and Google.
Johnson classifies sources of key innovations from 1400 to the present day according to whether they were driven by the individual or a network and whether they were market driven or non market. He concludes that non market, open platform networked approach is now far more prolific. Witness Google, Twitter, Amazon.
Powerful , often controversial but immensely readable. The appendix alone describing the key innovations from 1400 to now is a fascinating read.
on 14 November 2010
I enjoyed Steven Johnson's "Ghost Map", but have found his other books curiously unsatisfying, rather like having a skinny latte for lunch and realising a few hours later that something more substantial was needed. This latest one I found particularly frothy.
The problem is that I think I know something about the area. My professional career has been spent in the area of scientific discovery, invention and market innovation, I think the three are highly distinct, and saw little benefit in Johnson's amalgamation into an all-embracing category of "good ideas". The processes for discovery, invention, and the reduction to practice which constitutes innovation are distinctly different. The great chemical technolgies of the 20th century (nitrogen fixation, oil refining, dyestuffs, for example) all owe their existence to human efforts and organisations outside Johnson's model. And what does he make of crop rotation, possibly the most important agricultural technology of all?
Of course there are good bits, and it was very pleasing to see Stuart Kaufmann's notion of "the adjacent possible" given some time. This idea is the basis not just of evolution and invention, but also is the basis of how politics and politicians work, at least in a democracy.
What I missed was any sense of how institutions shape the posibility of new ideas, especially the growth of universities, think tanks and research laboratories. Of course Google and Apple featured, but they would, wouldn't they?
on 18 November 2011
The subject of innovation is one of the great hot current cults in business and management thinking, so what good a new book on such a well trodden patch?
Steven Johnson comes at the subject with his usual clarity, penchant for clear structure in his thinking, and almost total avoidance of jargon. This is a great advantage when comparing this book to any of the hundreds of titles on the subject written by business gurus, business school professors, etc. What results is a lucid, very readable, in depth analysis of the process of innovation.
I also found this book particularly valuable because the framework Mr. Johnson lays out lends itself beautifully to practical application.
Finally, the stories and illustrations the author uses to support his thesis are not the usual stories that one reads in books of this kind--in other words not the well trodden cases. When he does refer to histories that we all know, his emphasis and focus is fresh and aspects of the story that we might not have known, so the effect is convincing, and also entertaining.
This book goes down easy, which is an absolute rarity for one dealing with such a complex subject. I can't think of a more stimulating book I have ever read on the subject of strategy, innovation, business, etc. A must read.
I enjoyed this book - it provides further evidence against the idea that creativity is something that happens to lone individuals in a flash, something that is annoyingly peddled in many books and institutions, especially art colleges where students are encouraged to sit alone, waiting for inspiration to strike.
The truth is, good ideas come from the clash of knowledge and speculation that occurs when people from different backgrounds get together and talk. The coffee shops of the Enlightenment provide a good example of this, but more recent instances of serendipitous conversations between people from medicine and electronics, to take just one example, lead to the innovations we take for granted today.
This is a salutory lesson for governments (or the present British govt in particular) which is seeking to force universities to specialise in "economically beneficial" subjects such as science, maths and engineering, without understanding that economic benefit stems both from the mixture of all those disciplines and the arts and humanities and, more importantly, usually from ideas and discoveries made just for the sheer hell of it. People who begin researching a specific question with a clear economic advantage don't seem half as productive as those who pursue one simply because it is interesting. The latter group of people often find things out that are combined with other ideas to produce something advantageous.
The lesson of this book is that good ideas come from accidental collisions of thinking that derives from the sheer joy of thinking. The idea that universities should abandon thinking for the hell of it in favour of serving the economy is a short road to nowhere.
My only real complaint with the book is that half of it is taken up with short descriptions of famous discoveries. These are interesting, but I couldn't help but feel cheated. The book really should have gone in to education and government policy, and suggested ways in which the two could permit great ideas to foster. Without these it is merely a collection of interesting stories and half-developed ideas. But that notwithstanding, it provides a lot of food for thought and is well worth purchasing and reading. It is easy to follow, and thought-provoking. If you thought good ideas came in flashes of lightning, you'll soon change your mind. Start hanging out with people from different areas, not with people you share common interests. Who knows, you might end up coming up with a few good ideas yourself.
on 7 June 2012
This is actually a better read than its "Seven Patterns of Innovation" subtitle would suggest it's going to be. Basically a general history of invention/discovery; the author dismisses the idea of the "eureka moment" and catalogues the "slow hunches" and serendipity/errors which actually led up to their appearance. The author's main point is that most innovation is existing ideas being pieced together to access "the adjacent possible", and the importance of "liquid networks" in allowing such combinations to occur. The book repeatedly uses Darwin's evolutionary theory and evolutionary process itself as a common thread to tie everything together. Most interesting new thing I learned from it was actually about the ~17th century habit of keeping "commonplace books"; an antique equivalent of bookmarks/blogging/"links" pages/StumbleUpon perhaps? The author has written for Wired so it's no surprise that it all ends on a gung-ho optimistic note that increasing connectivity and open collaboration means that innovation has never had it so good, but he does at least provide some nice evidence for this, based on classifying the origins of 200 ideas from different eras. Not exactly a "deep" book, and probably longer than it needs to be, but entertaining enough.
on 30 July 2014
I had an expectation that this book might have laid out options for an innovation strategy at the level of a firm or as a society. It didn’t give me that, but it was useful in giving an outline of various methods by which key concepts (e.g. evolution) are recognised and developed. Three key takeways – there really isn’t a ‘light-bulb’ moment, keys ideas bubble around in the mind of the inventor/discover for months/years and only in retrospect does the author seem to recognize an epiphany; new products can only be invented by using the technology of the times, e.g. Babbage’s Analytical engine had to wait for the electronic valve – there’s a great illustration of this from the Apollo 13 hack, the engineers on the ground were put in a room with only stuff that was available in the lunar module and told to devise a filter; the sheer power of trial and error – there’s a lovely story of the inventor of the Triode, the inventor saw the phenomenon, but never understood its cause, but pursued the product nonetheless.
As Steven Johnson explains, "The argument of this book is that a series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments. I have distilled them down to seven patterns, each one occupying a separate chapter. The more we embrace these patterns - in our private work habits and hobbies, in our office environments, in the design of new software tools - the better we are at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking." I strongly agree with Johnson that there is much value to be found in seeking commonalities between and among most (if not all) forms of creativity and innovation. Further, I also strongly agree that "we are often better served by [begin italics] connecting [end italics] ideas than by protecting them.
Clearly, Johnson endorses the open business model about which Henry Chesbrough has so much of value to say in two of his books, Open Innovation and Open Business Models. Both in nature and in culture, "environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments. Good ideas may not want to be free but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete"...if indeed compete at all.
Co-creation has great power externally for those who forge strategic alliances but it also has great power internally for others such as Apple, a company that "remains defiantly top-down and almost comically secretive in its development of new products." Although Apple has largely adopted a fortress mentality toward the outside world, "the company's internal development process is explicitly structured to facilitate clash and connection between different perspectives." Indeed, its development cycle looks more like a coffeehouse than an assembly line." Insofar as co-creation is concerned, innovation is not a zero sum game: teams of great innovators can - and do - thrive in both internal and external cross-disciplinary environments as can each individual within her or his own private work routines.
To me, some of the most valuable material is provided in Chapter IV, "Serendipity," as Johnson explains how and why a pattern of what he characterizes as a "slow hunch" can crystallize into a "dream-inspired epiphany." If I fully understand this pattern as Johnson explains it (and I may not, at least not the chemical aspects), it suggests a phenomenon of co-creation in which both the conscious and subconscious domains of the mind are involved. He cites a number of sources (e.g. Friedrich August Kekuylé von Stradonitz, Robert Thatcher, William James, Stuart Kauffman, Henri Poincaré), each of whom has contributed to the development of a better understanding of the role that serendipity (i.e. accidental and beneficial connection of ideas) can play throughout the process of creation and innovation.
Johnson examines a formidable challenge: How to create environments "that foster these serendipitous connections, on all the appropriate scales: in the private space of your own mind; within larger institutions; and across the information networks of society itself." Indeed, such fortuitous connections can occur almost anywhere on the planet, given what Cass Sunstein has characterized as the "architecture of serendipity." Johnson asserts, and I agree, that the Web "is an unrivaled medium for serendipity if you are actively seeking it out," given the potential access it offers for collisions, connections, and recombinations.
Throughout his lively narrative, Johnson substantially increases our understanding of how and why some environments ("spaces") nourish innovation and others don't. The seven patterns that he discusses with both rigor and clarity come about as close as any explanation can to equating a coral reef (or rain forest) with the invisible layers of software that support today's Web. He also shares what he perceives to be "the ultimate explanation" of Darwin's Paradox: "the reef has unlocked so many doors of the adjacent possible because of the way it shares." He could have been describing various social media and all of the different "tribes" (as Seth Godin characterizes them) that also "compulsively connect and remix that most valuable of resources: information."
This is one of very few books in recent years about which I felt impending sadness as I began to read the final chapter and then an appendix in which Johnson provides a "Chronology of Key Innovations, 1400-2000." I think so highly of it that I plan to re-read it again soon, curious to know the extent to which, thanks to Steven Johnson, the seven patterns continue to "unlock so many doors of the adjacent possible" in both the conscious and subconscious domains of my mind.
on 2 January 2014
An other reviewer compared this book to a skinny latte, but I prefer to compare it to a chinese meal: quite tasty, but leaves you still hungry.
Steven Johnson writes well, collecting interesting stories till the last chapter.
However, I was quite disappointed by the conclusion, too short, as if he did not have time to reflect more on what he had written.
His conclusion is, that the majority of innovations today come from "the forth quadrant", from non-market, network origins. It would have been very interesting and useful, to advance proposals, to favor more innovations.
on 12 December 2015
Probably the most fundamental book you'll read about the ecosystems that make innovation work. By drawing a continuous and rich parallel with Darwinian approaches of competitive and indeed cooperative evolution, and also illustrated with many other well recounted stories of innovation, this book made me take a whole new look at innovation. It also helps to put a framework on some things we know intuitively - i.e. the role of cooperation and interdependence, and the evolution of ecosystems and the non-directed flow of ideas. A must read if you're involved with innovation.
on 3 April 2011
I enjoyed this book a lot. It questions our perceptions on 'innovations' and 'good ideas' in general, and proposes 7 types of environments/factors that flourish them. It gives insightful perspectives, and the language has a very nice flow, with small example stories of some famous ideas connected nicely to each other with the flow of thoughts. At the end, it also presents a counter-example point of view to challenge the book as well. If you like books that make you think, this is for you.