- Paperback: 344 pages
- Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (4 Oct. 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1594485380
- ISBN-13: 978-1594485381
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.3 x 20.8 cm
- Average Customer Review: 31 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 783,156 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation Paperback – 4 Oct 2011
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"[A] rich, integrated and often sparkling book. Mr. Johnson, who knows a thing or two about the history of science, is a first-rate storyteller."--"The New York Times"
"A vision of innovation and ideas that is resolutely social, dynamic and material...Fluidly written, entertaining and smart without being arcane."--"Los Angeles Times"
"A magical mystery tour of the history and architecture of innovation."--"The Oregonian"
"A rapid-fire tour of 'spaces' large, small, mental, physical, and otherwise... Where Good Ideas Come From may be the ultimate distillation of his thinking on these issues... One admires the intellectual athleticism of Johnson's maneuvers here."--"Boston Globe"
About the Author
Steven Johnson is the bestselling author of Future Perfect, Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, and Everything Bad is Good for You, and is the editor of The Innovator's Cookbook. He is the founder of a variety of influential websites and writes for Time, Wired, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Marin County, California, with his wife and three sons.
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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.
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.
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