The natural history of innovation
by Steven Berlin Johnson
It’s fun to watch Johnson’s brain work; that is at least half the pleasure in reading his books. Whether he’s writing about slime mold or television he asks great questions, doesn’t stop looking when he has an obvious answer, and makes unexpected connections. He can also write, and comes up with memorable phrases and descriptions (In a discussion of hydrogen bonds, water “is a fiendishly talented dissolver of things.”)
In his sixth book, Johnson’s big idea is ideas, and where they come from. He’s interested in innovation — useful new ideas — and what sort of environments encourage innovation. His argument boils down to that there are certain properties found “in unusually fertile environments” and he has identified seven patterns important to successful innovation spaces. He was able to identify these patterns by shifting his perspective and developing a framework he calls the “long zoom”. His insight was that in looking at innovation from multiple scales, patterns that would otherwise be obscured become visible, and that this approach doesn’t just yield new metaphors to help our understanding, but gives that it “gives us new facts”:
But when you look at innovation from the long-zoom perspective, competition turns out to be less central to the history of good ideas than we generally think. Analyzing innovation on the scale of indivuals and organizations — ad the standard textbooks do — distorts our view. It creates a picture of innovation that overstates the role of proprietary research and “survival of the fittest” competition. The long-zoom approach lets us see that openness and connectivity may, in the end, be more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms.
Using examples from Gutenberg to Darwin to the inventor of air conditioning and the web, Johnson explains and explores the importance of these patterns and how they allow ideas (which are, literally speaking, networks) to flourish.
The adjacent possible
Coined by theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman, this phrase describes the first-order combinations you can come up with based on what you have. The ingredients for certain molecular reactions were in primordial soup, but you couldn’t go right to blue whale from those ingredients. The thing is, the adjacent possible expands as you explore. The adjacent possible is how you can create an incubator for the third world that runs on spare car parts — you take the materials available (car parts and mechanic’s skillset) and combine them in new ways to create a medical device that saves lives.
Ideas are networks: in your brain, a new idea is a set of neurons firing in your brain in sync for the first time. In other words ideas aren’t isolated things, as Johnson points out, they are more like a swarm. There’s movement, the possibility of making new connections — a nearly literal liquid network, in the case of your brain. The primordial soup from which life on earth emerged was a liquid network; so is MIT’s building 99 with its reconfigurable walls designed for information spillover.
The slow hunch
We tend to think of a flash of insight leading to new discoveries, but often innovations emerge when an idea that has been kicked around for years is combined with other ideas. Hunches need space and time to evolve; if Tim Berners-Lee didn’t work for an employer that made it possible to tinker with ideas and nurse hunches, we might not have the web.
Ideas need to be able to bump into each other; this is how we make new connections that spark. I love that Johnson refutes the wrong-headed notion that the web is killing serendipity — he says that “the irony of the serendipity debate” is that “the thing that is being mourned has actually gone from a fringe experience to the mainstream of culture”. Few browsed library stacks to see what was next to the book they were looking for, but nearly everyone Googles: exposure to new, not intentionally sought information is near-constant on the web.
Johnson uses the example of De Forest being wrong about why his experiment was doing what it was doing, but his work still leading to the development of vacuum tubes and computers, but I like this summation on error best: “Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.”
This refers to the process of taking something that emerges for one use, and repurposing it for another. It is thought that feathers originally evolved to keep a dinosaur warmer, but were exapted for flight. Gutenberg borrowing the technology of the wine press to create the printing press is another example of exaptation. As Johnson more humorously put it, Gutenberg “took a machine designed to get people drunk and turned into into an engine for mass communication.”
Coral reefs are platforms; so is the web. Platforms building is about emergent behavior: beavers don’t set out to create an ecosystem to support kingfishers and dragonflies when they build their dams, but they do. We have consumer GPS systems today because two engineers figured out how to track Sputnik and were asked if they could reverse it (and find an unknown location on earth from a known point in space) for a DOD project. Open platforms, because they allow for more ideas to collide and combine, are more generative.
Throughout his exploration and explication of these patterns, Johnson notes that openness seems to work best. While he acknowledges that the market has been an engine of innovation, it is not the only one, and not necessarily the best one. He believes, and convincingly demonstrates, “that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are protecting them.”
Good ideas my not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.
Armed with awareness of these seven patterns, we can at work or at play, increase the odds we’ll be able to cultivate good ideas. Johnson ends his book with a call to go out and do just that:
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.
[This review based on the advanced uncorrected proof copy I received through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.]