Where Good Ideas Come From


The Natural History of Innovation

Self-explanatory title. Examines the patterns behind insightful discoveries using the natural world as reference.

Steven Johnson’s blog: http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/


30 second summary


Much in the same way that coral reefs and rain-forests are ecosystems which promote a large number of species, creative environments can be established to foster the generation, diffusion, and adoption of ideas. This book helps you to understand what the key characteristics of those creative environments are. Focus on creating these environments and the ideas will come.


2 more minutes of summary


New ideas come from many places, and Johnson argues that these places are fairly predictable.

One such place is error. Making a mistake is a fantastic and rather common way to stumble upon new ideas or to change your perspective. Don’t be afraid of error.

Re-purposing ideas from one context to another – something called exaptation in nature – is yet another source of innovative ideas. Expose yourself to a wide range of ideas by mixing in a variety of networks.

New ideas are rarely lightning bolts – they usually “fade into focus.” Nurture your hunches. Write them down. Be patient.

Ideas are networks. They are connections. Allow your ideas to connect with other ideas. Foster the diffusion of ideas. Don’t force ideas to compete with one another.

Evolution and adaptation are driven forward through reproduction. Let your ideas evolve. Prototype. Test. Iterate.


The posts below walk through the book’s key concepts

Intro – Cities, Elephants and Mice, Power Laws and Power Couples

Here’s the first idea in the book: dense areas of populations – like large cities – generate ideas much more …

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Cities are the Coral Reefs of the world. Why are ideas more abundant in Cities?

The more people you put together, the more ideas you get. If you remember from the last post, the relationship …

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The Web is, like, really helpful for innovation.

The world wide web – yes THAT web – is an environment that promotes the creation, diffusion, and adoption of …

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Wrapping up Reef, City, Web with a Kumbaya

You now know the what the Reef, City, and Web have in common: they are environments which facilitate the rapid creation, diffusion, …

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Chapter 1 – Spare Car Parts and the Adjacent Possible

Time after time, inventions come from someone combining existing stuff – ideas, spare parts, technologies – in a new, original …

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The Adjacent Possible

The scientist Stuart Kauffman calls the “adjacent possible” the set of all first-order combinations or possibilities that exist at the …

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Knocking on the Same Doors

Here’s a quick post to help reinforce this concept of the Adjacent Possible. There have been many times in history …

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Create Environments which make the Adjacent Possible Available

Johnson references a great scene from Apollo 13 to illustrate a point about the Adjacent Possible. If you’re an engineer …

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Chapter 2 – Ideas are Swarms. Ideas are Networks.

An idea is a connection. When someone thinks to make baby incubators out of spare car parts, they are connecting …

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Ideas are Born in Networks

Just to recap, a network is an adaptable number of connections. The neurons in your brain are a network because …

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Liquid Networks are Best.
Gas and Solid Networks are Shit

Networks describe connected things. A Liquid Network describes a network where those connections can be maintained yet adapted. It describes …

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Liquid Networks Wrap-up

The last few pages of the chapter on Liquid Networks are fantastic. They help to explain the crux of the …

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Chapter 3 – The slow Hunch

The slow hunch. That’s probably not going to make for a very thrilling half-hour drama on TNT, but it does …

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Good Ideas Take Time to Form

Charles Darwin’s idea about evolution is a pretty damn good idea. It’s arguably one of the best ideas ever formed …

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Hunches Need Other Hunches

The Slow Hunch chapter. Recall that big, good ideas don’t typically come into focus quickly – they stew and fester …

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Write on Your Hunches

The final nugget from The Slow Hunch chapter is about documentation. It’s really simple and it has two elements. First, …

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Chapter 4 – Serendipity

Have you ever stumbled across something in one realm of your life that inspired an insight in another realm? If …

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Create Environments That Promote Serendipity

First, if you don’t think it’s a good thing for ideas to bump into other ideas, you’re pretty much missing …

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Serendipity and the World Wide Web

Serendipity. There’s not much more to it than allowing ideas room to run around and collide by chance. Take a …

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Organizing for Serendipity

Johnson mentions the concept of a journal in previous chapters. I summarized how writing down your ideas and hunches is …

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Chapter 5 – Error

Error. Good ideas often come from mistakes. If you can’t think of a single example of this, you clearly haven’t …

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Being right All the Time is Boring

Nobody likes a perfectionist, and nobody should like a perfect experiment. It’s actually inefficient to run an experiment with a …

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Error is the Engine of Evolution. Failure is the Engine of Innovation

That’s a bold headline there. I’m not sure I can really back up a claim like that, but shit, if …

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Chapter 6 – Exaptation

I had never heard the term exaptation before reading this book. I’m actually still not really comfortable using it casually …

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Diversity Helps to Promote Exaptation

Here’s a short and sweet summary for Exaptation. Great ideas can have multiple applications. Be on the lookout for solutions …

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Chapter 7 – Platforms

A platform, in the product development world, is a difficult term to define. I know this because I’m trying to …

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Platforms – Working Smarter, Not Harder

Platforms enable other ideas and products by providing an existing infrastructure. Software languages are platforms in that they enable you …

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Chapter 8 – The Fourth Quadrant

The final chapter of the book is called “The Fourth Quadrant.” Sounds kind of mysterious, right? What is the fourth …

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We Get It – Networks Help Create Ideas

The fourth quadrant is Johnson’s way of categorizing ideas that came from networks of people working without a specific market-incentive …

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