Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

by Steven Johnson
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation


What are the spaces that have historically led to unusual rates of creativity and innovation?

“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.”


  • Adjacent Possible - idea generator/inventor must use ideas/components that already exist
    • Theory of biologist Stuart Kauffman
    • What could be based on what currently is
    • Helps explain multiple discoveries at the same time

  • Liquid networks - Large cities and the Internet make it possible for loose, informal networks to form, and these enable discoveries
    • Coffee houses and Parisian salons fit here?
    • Where information freely flows between many minds
    • “Cities and markets recruit more minds into the collective project of exploring the adjacent possible.”
    • Kevin Dunbar research on where important ideas happened, it wasn't in the lab by themselves
    • Spillover

  • Slow Hunch - ideas don't come out of nowhere, they build over time
    • Not just time, but accumulation of tangential ideas?
    • Ideas often come from the collision of smaller hunches
    • Time to incubate
    • Commonplace Book - “Part of the secret of hunch cultivation is simple: write everything down.”
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  • Serendipity

  • Error

  • Exaptation - the repurposing of one idea/invention/adaptation for another use

  • Platforms
    • complex constructions which bring other increasingly complex innovations within the realm of the adjacent possible

  • Other/To Organize
    • Chance favors the connected mind
    • Bricolage
    • Johnson's chart of major ideas emerging during the 19th and 20th centuries
      external image JohnsonChart1800.png


  • This book is more about collective creativity than what happens in an individual mind. What books would compliment it for that part of the story? Shelley Carson's Your Creative Brain?
  • Does/do intellectual property, trade secrets, proprietary technology, top-secret R&D labs inhibit creativity/innovation more than they encourage it?
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