Saturday, February 11, 2012

Where Good Ideas come from

I've been reading Steven Johnson's book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, and thoroughly enjoyed it. He says good ideas are about connecting existing pieces:


[Good ideas] are, inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. But ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. 


The 'Adjacent Possible'

He discusses several channels of innovation. Perhaps the most important is the "adjacent possible."

The scientist Stuart Kauffman has a suggestive name for the set of all those first-order combinations: “the adjacent possible.” The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. 

It is like exploring a house. You can take doors which lead to adjacent rooms. But it is difficult to skip over rooms altogether to the other side of the house. Much innovation is just thoroughly exploring the nearby.

Recall the question we began with: What kind of environment creates good ideas? The simplest way to answer it is this: innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts—mechanical or conceptual—and they encourage novel ways of recombining parts. 

It is important to get more parts to recombine on the table.

Part of coming up with a good idea is discovering what those spare parts are, and ensuring that you’re not just recycling the same old ingredients. This, then, is where the next six patterns of innovation will take us, because they all involve, in one way or another, tactics for assembling a more eclectic collection of building block ideas, spare parts that can be reassembled into useful new configurations. 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. 


Liquid Networks


He adds another important element - a liquid network, which enables mixing to the right degree. In fact, life probably began that way - carbon atoms with a igh propensity to bond with many other elements in many ways, and liquid water.

And so, when we look back to the original innovation engine on earth, we find two essential properties. First, a capacity to make new connections with as many other elements as possible. And, second, a “randomizing” environment that encourages collisions between all the elements in the system. On earth, at least, the story of life’s creativity begins with a liquid, high-density network: connection-hungry carbon atoms colliding with other elements in the primordial soup. 

The right amount of order and disorder is crucial, though.

In a low-density, chaotic network, ideas come and go. In the dense networks of the first cities, good ideas have a natural propensity to get into circulation. They spill over, and through that spilling they are preserved for future generations. For reasons we will see, high-density liquid networks make it easier for innovation to happen, but they also serve the essential function of storing those innovations. 

Cities are just that kind of liquid network, which explains why they are hotspots of innovation.

But, in a crucial sense, the pattern of Renaissance innovation differs from that of the first cities: Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, and da Vinci were emerging from a medieval culture that suffered from too much order. If dispersed tribes of hunter-gatherers are the cultural equivalent of a chaotic, gaseous state, a culture where the information is largely passed down by monastic scribes stands at the opposite extreme. A cloister is a solid. 

Innovation also tends to be social and connected. A Canadian scientist studied exactly how and when innovation happened in a large science lab by meticulously filming events.

 .. Dunbar’s study showed that those isolated eureka moments were rarities. Instead, most important ideas emerged during regular lab meetings, where a dozen or so researchers would gather and informally present and discuss their latest work. If you looked at the map of idea formation that Dunbar created, the ground zero of innovation was not the microscope. It was the conference table. 

Exchange and interaction and cross fertilization are at the heart of innovation. 

Dunbar’s research suggests one vaguely reassuring thought: even with all the advanced technology of a leading molecular biology lab, the most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop. 

 The social flow of the group conversation turns that private solid state into a liquid network. 

In fact,


 In The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler argued that “all decisive events in the history of scientific thought can be described in terms of mental cross-fertilization between different disciplines.” Concepts from one domain migrate to another as a kind of structuring metaphor, thereby unlocking some secret door that had long been hidden from view.


Another important mechanism is repurposing parts to do something different.

Evolutionary biologists have a word for this kind of borrowing, first proposed in an influential 1971 essay by Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba: exaptation. An organism develops a trait optimized for a specific use, but then the trait gets hijacked for a completely different function. 

The Internet is a perfect example.

The history of the World Wide Web is, in a sense, a story of continuous exaptation. Tim Berners-Lee designs the original protocols with a specifically academic environment in mind, creating a platform for sharing research in a hypertext format. But when the first Web pages crawl out of that scholarly primordial soup and begin to engage with ordinary consumers, Berners-Lee’s invention turns out to possess a remarkable number of unanticipated qualities. A platform adapted for scholarship was exapted for shopping, and sharing photos, and watching pornography—along with a thousand other uses that would have astounded Berners-Lee when he created his first HTML-based directories in the early nineties. 

Cities are are another example.

Cities, then, are environments that are ripe for exaptation, because they cultivate specialized skills and interests, and they create a liquid network where information can leak out of those subcultures, and influence their neighbors in surprising ways. This is one explanation for superlinear scaling in urban creativity. The cultural diversity those subcultures create is valuable not just because it makes urban life less boring. The value also lies in the unlikely migrations that happen between the different clusters. A world where a diverse mix of distinct professions and passions overlap is a world where exaptations thrive. 


 This is why the 18th century coffeehouse or the Homebrew Computer Club of the 1970s were hotspots of innovation. 


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