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Chance favours the connected mind
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.