Bodong Chen

Crisscross Landscapes

Notes: Where Good Ideas Come From



Citekey: @johnson2010

Johnson, S. (2010). Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Riverhead Hardcover.


Resources from this book

  1. Howard Gruber, who studied Darwin’s notebook2. Antonio Damasio, who studied brain-damaged patients whose inability to make intuitive snap judgments
  2. Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink focused on instant hunch

Darwin’s Paradox

In Darwin’s own words, stumbling across the ecosystem of a coral reef in the middle of an ocean was like encountering a swarming oasis in the middle of a desert.

Darwin’s Paradox: so many different life forms, occupying such a vast array of ecological niches, inhabiting waters that are otherwise remarkably nutrient-poor.

Days later, back on the Beagle, Darwin pulls out his journal and reflects on that mesmerizing clash between surf and coral.

The long-zoom approach lets us see that openness and connectivity may, in the end, be more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms.

I. Adjacent Possible

Prestero had a vested interest in those broken incubators, because the organization he founded, Design that Matters, had been working for several years on a new scheme for a more reliable, and less expensive, incubator, one that recognized complex medical technology was likely to have a very different tenure in a developing world context than it would in an American or European hospital.

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 history of life and human culture, then, can be told as the story of a gradual but relentless probing of the adjacent possible, each new innovation opening up new paths to explore.

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 those parts.

II. Liquid Network

If we’re going to try to explain the mystery of where ideas come from, we’ll have to start by shaking ourselves free of this common misconception: an idea is not a single thing. It is more like a swarm.

The second precondition is that the network be plastic, capable of adopting new configurations.

With that increase in population came a crucial increase in the number of possible connections that could be formed within the group. Good ideas could more readily find their way into other brains and take root there. New forms of collaboration became possible. Economists have a telling phrase for the kind of sharing that happens in these densely populated environments: “information spillover.” When you share a common civic culture with thousands of other people, good ideas have a tendency to flow from mind to mind, even when their creators try to keep them secret.

In 1964, Arthur Koestler published his epic account of innovation’s roots, The Act of Creation. The book was an attempt to explain how breakthrough ideas in science and art come about. But he seems to have had little interest in the environments that make those collisions possible: living environments, office environments, media environments. On a basic level, it is true that ideas happen inside minds, but those minds are invariably connected to external networks that shape the flow of information and inspiration out of which great ideas are fashioned.

Koestler was hardly alone in his interest in the roots of scientific breakthrough. Thomas Kuhn’s even more influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions had been published two years before The Act of Creation. Since those two books were published, countless dissertations and scholarly essays have explored the psychology and sociology of scientific progress.

Dunbar to get around one of the major failings of traditional studies that rely on retrospective interviews: people tend to condense the origin stories of their best ideas into tidy narratives, forgetting the messy, convoluted routes to inspiration that they actually followed. Dunbar and his team transcribed all the interactions and coded each exchange using a classification scheme that allowed them to track patterns in the flow of information through the lab. In group interactions, for instance, exchanges between scientists could be formally coded as “clarification” or “agreement and elaboration” or “questioning.” Most important, Dunbar tracked the conceptual changes that occurred over the course of each project: a researcher baffled by persistent problems in achieving a stable control result who suddenly realizes that the control problem could be the basis for a whole new experiment; an exchange between two scientists working on different projects who recognize a surprising and important connection between their work.

Dunbar uncovered a set of interactions that consistently led to important breakthroughs during lab conversations.

But 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. * very much like deb roy’s study of the birth of a word!

Dunbar’s generative conference room meetings remind us that the physical architecture of our work environments can have a transformative effect on the quality of our ideas. MIT’s legendary Building 20 Microsoft’s building 99

Two decades ago, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed the concept of “flow” to describe the internal state of energized focus that characterizes the mind at its most productive.

But office design is moving in that direction, away from the crystal palaces of Organization Man, with their corner offices and anonymous cubicles. And with that increased fluidity—all those new ideas jostling against each other, in rooms expanding and contracting to meet their needs—it’s not hard to imagine the space generating a reliable flow of innovation in the years to come. Exploring the adjacent possible can be as simple as opening a door. But sometimes you need to move a wall.

III. Slow Hunch

Phoenix memo and Minnesota hunch that might prevent 911

And so, most great ideas first take shape in a partial, incomplete form. They have the seeds of something profound, but they lack a key element that can turn the hunch into something truly powerful. And more often than not, that missing element is somewhere else, living as another hunch in another person’s head. Liquid networks create an environment where those partial ideas can connect; they provide a kind of dating service for promising hunches. They make it easier to disseminate good ideas, of course, but they also do something more sublime: they help complete ideas.

The problem with Ken Williams’s hunch was environmental: instead of circulating through a dense network, the Phoenix memo was dropped into the black hole of the Automated Case Support system. Instead of seeking out new connections, the Phoenix memo was deposited in the equivalent of a locked file cabinet. Hunches that don’t connect are doomed to stay hunches.

The Minnesota hunch has become intellectually fashionable in recent years: the gut instinct, the “emotional brain” flash assessment of a situation that defies the slower calculations of logic—but which nonetheless turns out to be uncannily accurate. The interest in this kind of hunch dates back to the 1980s and António Damásio’s experiments with brain-damaged patients whose inability to make intuitive snap judgments produced startlingly irrational behavior. Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink focused almost exclusively on the power (and the occasional danger) of the instant hunch.

But the snap judgments of intuition—as powerful as they can be—are rarities in the history of world-changing ideas. Most hunches that turn into important innovations unfold over much longer time frames. They start with a vague, hard-to-describe sense that there’s an interesting solution to a problem that hasn’t yet been proposed, and they linger in the shadows of the mind, sometimes for decades, assembling new connections and gaining strength. And then one day they are transformed into something more substantial: sometimes jolted out by some newly discovered trove of information, or by another hunch lingering in another mind, or by an internal association that finally completes the thought.

Sustaining the slow hunch is less a matter of perspiration than of cultivation. You give the hunch enough nourishment to keep it growing, and plant it in fertile soil, where its roots can make new connections. And then you give it time to bloom.

The Vaseline-daubed lens of hindsight tends to blur slow hunches into eureka moments. But if one examines the intellectual fossil record closely, the slow hunch is the rule, not the exception.

Example of “eureka”: Darwin and Malthus.

But in the early 1970s, a psychologist and intellectual historian named Howard Gruber decided to revisit Darwin’s copious notebooks from the period, reconstructing the elaborate dance of speculation, fact-marshaling, and internal debate that led to Darwin’s breakthrough in the fall of 1838. What Gruber found in the notebooks was a story very different from the account relayed in Darwin’s Autobiography. All the core elements of Darwin’s theory are present in the notebooks well before the Malthusian epiphany, which the notebooks explicitly date at September 28, 1838. It is not merely that Darwin possesses the puzzle pieces but fails to put them together in the right configuration.

It is simply hard to pinpoint exactly when Darwin had the idea, because the idea didn’t arrive in a flash; it drifted into his consciousness over time, in waves. In the months before the Malthus reading, we could probably say that Darwin had the idea of natural selection in his head, but at the same time was incapable of fully thinking it. This is how slow hunches often mature: by stealth, in small steps. They fade into view.

Keeping a slow hunch alive poses challenges on multiple scales. For starters, you have to preserve the hunch in your own memory, in the dense network of your neurons. So part of the secret of hunch cultivation is simple: write everything down… We can see Darwin’s ideas evolve because on some basic level the notebook platform creates a cultivating space for his hunches; it is not that the notebook is a mere transcription of the ideas, which are happening offstage somewhere in Darwin’s mind. Darwin was constantly rereading his notes, discovering new implications. His ideas emerge as a kind of duet between the present-tense thinking brain and all those past observations recorded on paper. (Darwin’s notebooks lie at the tail end of a long and fruitful tradition that peaked in Enlightenment-era Europe, particularly in England: the practice of maintaining a “commonplace” book. Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters—just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book.) Others, including Priestley and both Darwins, used their commonplace books as a repository for a vast miscellany of hunches… Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality… Each rereading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation.

But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession… You need a system for capturing hunches, but not necessarily categorizing them, because categories can build barriers between disparate ideas, restrict them to their own conceptual islands.

Tim Berners-Lee–the inventor of WWW.

Google’s “Innovation Time Off”–Google famously instituted a “20-percent time” program for all Google engineers: for every four hours they spend working on official company projects, the engineers are required to spend one hour on their own pet project, guided entirely by their own passions and instincts.