A recipe for idea soup: Steven Johnson on Where Good Ideas Come From

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Connectivity and serendipity are key factors in the generation of ideas. Steven Johnson 8034188wrote Where Good Ideas Come From and gives us advise how to create your own idea generating ecosystem.

The community of ideas
Johnson uses the phenomenon of natural selection as a metaphore for the how successful ideas and innovation come about.
He also describes the surprising finding that according to studies, where men live in larger communities, innovation increases.

“A metropolis fifty times bigger than a town is 130 times more innovative.”

And goes into the analysis on how this happens to be so.

“Something about the environment of a big city was making its residents significantly more innovative than residents of smaller towns. But what was it?”

Johnson´s main premise is that ideas are most fruitfully created and enriched not in isolation, but in connections with other ideas, where ideas reinforce and generate new ideas.

“If there is a single maxim that runs through this book’s arguments, it is that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.

“A good idea is a network.”

A similar notion we have find in Hwang and Horowitt – The Rainforest (see also the article rainforesthere).
Hwang says that for innovation today, a social context is key. It’s not just about creating the brain power, but also the entrepreneurial context to turn this brainpower into something marketable. The trick is to create a social environment where cross-fertilization takes place.

Where Hwang talks about a soup of entrepreneurial elements, for Steven Johnson, a “flow” should be created igniting an entrepreneurial life form in a soup of creative ideas to turninto an idea machine, where new ideas flourish and new ideas are created from other ideas.

The next thing possible
The state of technology, concepts, societal state leads to the concept of “the next thing possible”. Developments push forward in small steps and concepts, until a final drop pushes the water over the edge and a flow of water or maybe better : soup is released.

“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.”

As an example of the adjacent possible (an I love these little facts) Steven Johnson takes The Difference Engine as an example. Charles Babbage invented this Difference Engine in the 19th century and soon after several innovations and products were created for mechanical calculation on the basis of the concept of the Difference Engine. One example is William S. Burroughs.

“In 1884, an American inventor named William S. Burroughs founded the American

WIlliam Burroughs (the writer)

Arithmometer Company to sell mass-produced calculators to businesses around the country. (The fortune generated by those machines would help fund his namesake grandson’s writing career, not to mention his drug habit, almost a century later.) “

The stirring of the soup
No only is this concept of idea soup a societal phenomenon, it also applies on the personal level. The more stirring in the brain soup, the better it is for connecting ideas in the brain. A brain scientist Robert Thatcher studied this in children and found.

“Thatcher then compared the brain-wave results with the children’s IQ scores, he found a direct correlation between the two data sets. Every extra millisecond spent in the chaotic mode added as much as twenty IQ points. Longer spells in phase-lock deducted IQ points, though not as dramatically. Thatcher’s study suggests a counterintuitive notion: the more disorganised your brain is, the smarter you are.”

Serendipity, some level of chaos, collisions, mistakes, and for us, readers, Johnson adds that reading is an ideal idea generator.

“While the creative walk can produce new serendipitous combinations of existing ideas in our heads, we can also cultivate serendipity in the way that we absorb new ideas from the outside world. Reading remains an unsurpassed vehicle for the transmission of interesting new ideas and perspectives.”

Stephen Jay Gould

Johnson further sees similarities in the biological concept of exaptation.

“… 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 classic example, featured prominently in Gould and Vrba’s essay, is bird feathers, which we believe initially evolved for temperature regulation […] A feather adapted for warmth is now exapted for flight.”

Exaptation can be found in cultural developments, such as the evolution of the novel, but also in scientific and technological evolutions.

” 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.”

Whether it is caused by stirring the soup, or by exaptation, the key lies in the combination of different cultures, lifestyles, professions, passions. The layering and combinatorial movements of different perspectives feeds innovation. These are the rainforests from Hwang. This is an explanation for the superlinear scaling of creativity in urban environments. And this is not driven by economic incentives, these are driven by open networks. People will innovate regardsless the economic benefit, or even more strongly: economic benefits may get in the way where these will lead to protection of innovations, instead of sharing.

Johnson ends with some advise on how to build an idea generating environment for yourself, your own little rainforest, or coral reef, Johnson’s metaphor for such a innovative environment.

“… you can create comparable environments on the scale of everyday life: in the workplaces you inhabit; in the way you consume media; in the way you augment your memory. The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.”

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