Oct 042010
 
Steven Berlin Johnson at the Writers on Writin...
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Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

WHERE do good ideas come from? That is the question posed by Steven Johnson, a writer known for the agility with which he makes interdisciplinary analogies, in his latest book. His “natural history of innovation” provides a taxonomy of seven ways in which new ideas can sprout from old ones. But this is no management text: for each of his seven patterns of innovation, Mr Johnson provides wide-ranging examples from technology, the natural world and culture.

The first of the patterns is “the adjacent possible”: the innovations that build logically on previous breakthroughs. In technology, this results in the common phenomenon of several people inventing the same thing at the same time, because it seemed the obvious next step. Similarly, life itself emerged as a cascade of increasing complexity, and the forking paths of evolution allow one innovation to lead to another, such as the semi-lunate carpal bone that made velociraptors more dexterous predators, but subsequently led to the evolution of winged, flying birds. Cultural and social life is also an exploration of the adjacent possible, as one unexpected door opens and then leads to others.

In a similar vein Mr Johnson explores the “liquid networks” that foster innovation, whether online, in coffeehouses or in ecosystems, and the “slow hunch” whereby an idea develops slowly and often wrongly, before suddenly becoming the right answer to something. He also examines the benefits of serendipity and error, which can each lead to beneficial insights; the notion of “exaptation”, in which an innovation in one field unexpectedly upends another (Gutenberg’s press combined ink, paper, movable type and, crucially, the machinery of the wine-press); and “platforms”, from operating systems to coral reefs, which provide fertile environments for new developments.

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