Where innovation comes from

To stay ahead in business, a firm must continually re-invent itself. In the twentieth century, firms could compete on execution. Winners were those who played the game well.

No longer. Today’s standouts are game changers. They continually re-write the rule books. They are edgy. They invent new business models. In sum, they innovate.

Steven Johnson has written a book that looks at innovation from all angles. He explains what nurtures innovation. I’m adding his thinking to my concept of the workscape. Innovation = working smarter. This is Johnson’s best book since his must-read tour of complexity science, Emergence. Most of the words below were lifted directly from the book.

Where Good Ideas Come From, The Natural History of Innovation is a book about the space of innovation. Some environments squelch new ideas; others seem to breed them effortlessly. The city and the Web have been such engines of innovation because, for complicated historical reasons, they are both environments that are powerfully suited to the creation, diffusion, and adoption of good ideas.

If we want to understand where good ideas come from, we have to put them in context. Our thought shapes the spaces we inhabit, and our spaces return the favor. Johnson’s book argues that a series of shared properties and patterns recut again and again in unusually fertile environments. The more we embrace these patterns–in our private work habits and hobbies, in our office environments, in the design of new software tools–the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking. The amplification and adoption of useful innovation exist throughout natural history as well as human.

What we’ve lacked is a unified theory that describes the common attributes shared by all those innovation systems. Johnson calls that vantage point the long zoom. It can be imagined as a kind of hourglass, with nature on top and culture below:

global evolution









information networks

The long zoom approach lets us see that openness and connectivity may, in the end, be more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms. Those patterns of innovation deserve recognition–in part because it’s intrinsically important to understand why good ideas emerge historically, and in part because by embracing these patterns we can build environments that do a better job of nurturing good ideas, whether those environments are schools, governments, software platforms, poetry seminars, or social movements. We can think more creatively is we open our minds to the many connected environments that make creativity possible.

We are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them. Like the free market itself, the case for restricting the flow of innovation has long been buttressed by appeals to the natural order of things. But the truth is, when one looks at innovation in nature and in culture, environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run that more open-ended environments. Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual orders. They  want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.

The Adjacent Possible

Stuart Kauffman calls the potential first-order combinations of things that currently exist “the adjacent possible.” This explains why most discoveries occur in several places at once. The adjacent possible might include, say, the internal combustion engine and the carriage. When both are available, lots of people stick them together to invent cars. It’s rare to find an invention that wasn’t discovered in several places simultaneously.

Liquid Networks

A good idea is a network. In a famous experiment in 1953, scientists at the University of Chicago assembled a closed system of glass tubes and flasks that simulated the early conditions of the prebiotic earth: methane, ammonia, hydrogen, and water. They shot an electric charge through this soup to simulate lightening. At the end of a week, the soup contains the organic compounds essential of life: sugars, lipids, and twenty-two amino acids.

This was possible because the elements were immersed in water, a liquid network. The combination of water’s fluidity and solubility makes it marvelously adept at creating new networks of elements, as they churn through the ever-shifting medium, colliding with each other in unpredictable ways. The essentials here are a capacity to make new connections with as many other elements as possible and a “randomizing” environment that encourages collisions between all the elements in the system.

Innovative systems have a tendency to gravitate toward the “edge of chaos”: the fertile zone between too much order and too much anarchy. It’s like the phases of matter–the solid state is ordered and fixed, the gas is chaotic, the liquid is a more promising environment for a system to explore the adjacent possible, i.e. to try things on for size.

In prehistoric times, our hunter-gatherer ancestors led a chaotic existence. With agriculture, people locked into rigid patterns. And when the population mushroomed, new configurations became possible. More people, more possible connections. The result: information spillover. Cities beget connections. Before cities came along about seven thousand years ago, innovation was rare. Boats first appeared 50,000 years ago; sewing emerged 30,000 years later. Once people began living in cities, all manner of innovations started popping up: alphabets, candles, aqueducts, currency, rulers, papyrus, sewers, ploughs, soap, cement, writing, silk, paving, canals, sailing, bread, wheels….


Double-entry accounting illustrates a key principle in the emergence of markets: when economic systems shift from feudal structures to the nascent forms of modern capitalism, they become less hierarchical and more networked. (The quickest way to freeze a liquid network is to stuff people into private offices behind closed doors, which is one reason so many Web-era companies have designed their work environments around common spaces where casual mingling and interdepartmental chatter happens without any formal planning.) In a sense, the designers of Microsoft’s Building 99 built the water-coolers first, and then designed an office building around them. The building sees information spillover as a feature, not a flaw. Think flow: the feeling of drifting along a stream, being carried in a clear direction, but still tossed in surprising ways by the eddies and whirls of moving water.

Visiting Cotweet with Dave Gray

The Slow Hunch

Most great ideas come into the world half-baked, more hunch than revelation, but hunches that don’t connect are doomed to stay hunches. Sustaining the slow hunch is less a matter of perspiration than of cultivation. (The Vaseline-daubed lens of hindsight tends to blur slow hunches into eureka moments.) Write it down! The humble notebook saves hunches from oblivion.


Dreams are the mind’s primordial soup: the medium that facilitates the serendipitous collisions of creative insight. And hunches are like those early carbon atoms, seeking out new kinds of connections to help them build new chains and rings of innovation. (A German chemist dreams of the structure of the benzine molecule….) Sometimes, the more disorganized your brain, the smarter you are. If google can give its engineers one day a week to work on anything they want, surely other organizations can figure out a way to give their employees dedicated time to immerse themselves in a network of new ideas.


“Fertility of imagination and abundance of guesses at truth are among the first requisites of discover;y but the erroneous guesses must be many times as numerous as those that prove well founded.” Good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error. Innovative environments thrive on useful mistakes, and suffer when the demands of quality control overwhelm them. Fail faster.


All decisive events in the history of scientific thought can be described in terms of mental cross-fertilization between different disciplines. The coffeehouse model of social networking: broad social networks that extend outside the organization and involve people from diverse fields of expertise. The “third place.” Chance favors the connected mind.


The real benefit of stacked platforms lies in the knowledge you no longer need to have. You don’t need to know how to send signals to satellites or parse geo-date to send that tween circulating through the Web’s ecosystem.

The Fourth Quadrant

Innovations can be market-driven or not. They can be created by individuals or networked. During the Renaissance, individual innovation was the rule. Now the breakthroughs come from collaborative environments. Most innovation hubs exist outside the marketplace.

History books like to condense slow, evolutionary processes into eureka moments dominated by a single inventor but most of the key technologies that powered the Industrial Revolution were instances of “collective invention.” James Watt did not single-handedly invent the steam engine; dozens of innovators refined the device and made it workable. For every Alfred Nobel, inventing dynamite in secret in the suburbs of Stockholm, there are a half dozen collective inventions like the vacuum tube or the television, whose existence depended upon multiple firms driven by the profit motive who managed to create a significant new product via decentralized networking.

Market-driven innovation is hamstrung with deliberately built inefficient markets: copyrights, patents, and trade secrets stifle innovation. Bet on non-market networking for innovation in the future.

I’ll be back with more on this topic, for I truly believe it’s the way we’ve got to go.

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