Time after time, inventions come from someone combining existing stuff – ideas, spare parts, technologies – in a new, original way. Or, similarly, a new idea or insight is realized by looking at some thing through the lens of a different perspective. In short, the ideas, skills, and “junk” laying around us are the fuel for new ideas and inventions.
This is different from the “romantic” view of some new breakthrough insight completely transcending all known knowledge – the thunderbolt idea or massive-leap-forward invention. Johnson calls bullshit on those. He argues that thunderbolt ideas are extremely rare, and in the natural world, they almost never happen (unless you don’t believe in evolution, in which case that’s another conversation altogether).
Natural evolution – and the progress of human innovation – more often come from the ADJACENT POSSIBLE.
I’ll define the Adjacent Possible in the next post, but first…an example: baby incubators.
Someone came up with the brilliant idea to build baby incubators out of the spare parts of automobiles, because those parts already exist in developing countries. People understand how a car engine works and they know how to repair them. Therefore it makes all the sense in the world to build incubators for the developing world from those same parts. The understanding, knowledge and experience with auto parts is the Adjacent Possible, and out of that space emerges the life-saving idea to make incubators out of the same spare parts.