“Where Good Ideas Come From: The Seven Patterns of Innovation”

April 1, 2021

By Steven Johnson

How do good ideas happen, and what can we do to help people have more of them? Steven Johnson examines how the innovations that changed the world actually happened, and reveals the pattern of behavior that often underlies them in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From”:

  1. The Adjacent Possible: “Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and, occasionally, contracts) over time.” What we can create is limited to the objects and skills available to us at a given time. But by pushing on the boundary of what is immediately “adjacent,” we actually expand that boundary, like moving through a house, where each door you open leads into a new room. In that room, new parts and skills may be available to us. The potential for new approaches is all around us. But to understand what’s possible, we need an accurate understanding of what is at hand and how we could use it.
  2. Liquid Networks: “An idea is not a single thing. It’s more like a swarm.” Innovators are like carbon, an atom that easily forms bonds with other atoms, making it essential for the creation of all life. They are always open to the potential of making new connections between things, and they spend time in a high-density environment where their chance of coming into contact with others who spark ideas is very high. “The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop.” Your workspace can enable — or disrupt — this flow in big ways.
  3. The Slow Hunch: When we study great ideas that changed the world, it’s easy to focus on the brilliant individuals who came up with them and underestimate the environmental role in the creation and spread of those ideas. Looking at ideas that failed to catch on — such as the FBI agent’s memo in July 2001, roundly ignored, about his hunch that potential terrorists were enrolling in U.S. flight schools — help us see what enables ideas to catch on: not individuals, but networks that share information. Because the FBI’s technology in 2001 did not allow agents to cross-reference visa applications with flight school admissions, there was no easy way to investigate the agent’s hunch. It wasn’t that his idea was bad — it was that the environment limited its ability to spread to the people who could have validated it and, maybe, stopped the terrorist attack.
  4. Serendipity: “A hunch requires an environment where surprising new connections can be forged.” The happy accidents of serendipitous thoughts are only happy because they are meaningful to the person they occur to. Being steeped in the knowledge of the issue and frustrated with its seemingly intractable problems positions the particular person to receive the solution that comes on a walk or in the shower. Bill Gates takes “reading vacations” to take a deep dive into other thinkers’ ideas — and increase the chances he will happen upon a spark.
  5. Error: “The history of being spectacularly right has a shadow history lurking behind it: a much longer history of being spectacularly wrong, again and again.” Making mistakes is not just something you have to endure along the way, but integral to the process of moving away from comfortable assumptions. Have your assumptions confirmed doesn’t teach you nearly as much as having them upended, and then having to explore to find a new explanation. Environments become innovative when they leave room for “generative error.” As Benjamin Franklin said, “Truth is uniform and narrow . . . but error is endlessly diversified.”
  6. Exaptation: Gutenberg invented the printing press by repurposing the screw press used to produce wine. Being open to ideas beyond his specific area of expertise (he was a trained goldsmith) allowed him to borrow a mature technology from an entirely different field and use it to solve his problem. Evolutionary biologists coined the term exaptation to describe traits that get hijacked for a different function than the one they were originally optimized to perform. Feathers originally evolved to help dinosaurs control their body temperature. Only later did they play a role in flight. In order for this kind of repurposing to happen, people need to be in environments where they interact with others who have diverse fields of expertise. They also need to have a lot of overlapping interests or hobbies and the time and space to pursue them.
  7. Platforms: In ecology, an “ecosystem engineer” is an organism that changes the environment in ways that create an entirely new habitat. Beavers are the classic example: by cutting down trees and building dams, they transform temperate forests into wetlands and attract new species: woodpeckers, ducks, geese, kingfishers, frogs, dragonflies, mussels and more. Platform builders don’t just open a door into the adjacent possible. “They build an entire new floor.” GPS is a platform upon which many innovations are built. “Stacked platforms” facilitate even more innovation. YouTube was built from three existing platforms — the Web, Adobe Flash and Javascript — and in a matter of months. All artistic genres (the mystery novel, cubism, reality TV) are the result of building on and breaking the conventions of established platforms. Stacked platforms free the innovator from having to obtain all the knowledge forged by the people who came before. Instead, she or he builds upon that knowledge, moving it in a new direction.

In thinking about innovation in 21st century America, we tend to think too much about the market imperative and not enough about the role of interdependence in solving problems. Charles Darwin was obsessed with the teeming life of the coral reef, like an oasis in the desert of the ocean. “What makes a coral reef so inventive is not the struggle between the organisms but the way they have learned to collaborate . . . borrowing and reinventing each other’s work . . . The reef has unlocked so many doors of the adjacent possible because of the way it shares.”