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Where Good Ideas Don't Come From

Where Good Ideas Don't Come From

Good ideas do not – for the most part – come from inside someone’s head. Instead, they come from outside – specifically from social interaction.

A study conducted in leading research laboratories found that scientists rarely, if ever, had a flash of inspiration or eureka moment alone in the lab. Instead, ideas happen in conversation with colleagues. So want a great idea? Then go to a coffee house and talk with someone.


478 reads

Ideas Come From Stuff

Good ideas don't come from thoughts or visions. Instead, they come from stuff.

Every great idea is a combination or mutation of an idea that has already been brought to life. Ideas brought to life in products that are already out there are the building blocks of innovation – not thoughts.


281 reads

Adjecent Possible

Good ideas do not come from looking forward or back, rather they come from looking left and right, to what is adjacent to us. Tomorrow’s great innovations are built from the stuff of today – specifically from the things around us that can be combined into something new.

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.


295 reads

Seven Questions for Finding Good Ideas

  • What new possibilities are there today, that didn’t exist earlier? (principle of adjacent possibilities)
  • What hunches have you had for some time about what to do? (principle of slow hunches)
  • What do fresh eyes think we should do? (principle of liquid networks)
  • What’s worked that’s surprised us? (principle of serendipity)
  • What’s the biggest learning from our biggest error? (principle of error)
  • What other purpose can our product or service be used for? (principle of exaptation)
  • What big success can we build on? (platform principle)


250 reads

The Path To Innovation

The Path To Innovation

The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts.

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, re-invent.


168 reads

Brand Genetics

With a name like Brand Genetics, we’re predisposed to the central idea that ideas are never ‘created’ out of nothing, but are creative combinations and mutations of existing ideas that have already been brought to life.

The principle of exaptation(finding new uses for existing things) is underused and potentially powerful in innovation. As is the notion of the adjacent possible; don’t look forward, backwards or inwards – but instead outwards to our left and right seems sound advice.


273 reads

Evolution And Innovation

Four billion years ago, carbon atoms mulled around the primordial soup.

First, they had to form simpler structures like molecules, polymers, proteins, cells, primitive organisms and so forth. Each step along the way opened up possibilities for new combinations, expanding the realm of what was possible, until finally a carbon atom could reside in a sunflower.

Both evolution and innovation tend to happen within the bounds of the adjacent possible, in other words the realm of possibilities available at any given moment.


194 reads

The Timing Of Innovation

Great leaps beyond the adjacent possible are rare and doomed to be short-term failures. The environment is simply not ready for them yet.

Had YouTube been launched in the 1990s, it would have flopped, since neither the fast internet connections nor the software required to view videos was available then.


208 reads

Natural Selection Theory

According to Darwin, the theory of natural selection simply popped into his head when he was contemplating Malthus’ writings on population growth. But Darwin’s notebooks reveal that far before this so-called epiphany, he had already described a very nearly complete theory of natural selection. This slow hunch only matured into a fully-formed theory over time.

Only in retrospect does the idea seem so obvious that it must have come in a flash of insight.


72 reads

How The Web Was Born

How The Web Was Born

As a child, Tim Berners-Lee read a Victorian-era how-to book and was fascinated by the “portal of information” he had found.

Working as a consultant at the Swiss CERN laboratory and partially inspired by the book, he tinkered with a side-project which allow him to store and connect chunks of information, like nodes in a network. Later, CERN officially authorized him to work on the project, which finally matured into a network where documents on different computers could be connected through hypertext links.

After decades work, the World Wide Web was born.


79 reads

Platforms: The Catalysts Of Innovation

Ecologists use the term keystone species to describe organisms which are disproportionately important to the welfare of the ecosystem.

Such platforms exist in the sphere if innovation as well, and they are used as springboards to leap into the adjacent possible. The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a good example of such a platform. Originally developed for military use, it has now spurned countless innovations from GPS trackers to location-based services and advertising.


47 reads

Innovation And Evolution Thrive In Large Networks

The most creative individuals have broad social networks that extend outside their own organization, and hence get new ideas from many different contexts.

To better understand the roots of scientific breakthroughs, in the 1990s psychologists decided to record everything that went on in four molecular biology laboratories. One imagines that in a field like molecular biology, great discoveries are made by peering through a microscope. Strikingly, it turned out the most important ideas arose during regular lab meetings, where the scientists informally discussed their work.


54 reads

Collaboration And Competition

Over the past 600 years, the way that great inventions and discoveries are made seems to have gravitated increasingly away from individual inventors and toward networks of people.

And even as the age of capitalism dawned and bloomed, most great discoveries have gone unrewarded by the markets. The World Wide Web, the theory of relativity, computers, x-rays, pacemakers and penicillin are but a few examples where the inventor has not profited.


68 reads

The Origin Of The Species

In the Origin of Species, Darwin himself placed equal emphasis on the wonder of complex collaboration between species as on the natural selection that comes from competition for resources.

Similarly open networks of connections among innovations can be just as generative as vigorous competition. Free markets have greatly spurred innovation, but so has the collaborative, open way of sharing knowledge in networks.


43 reads

How Ideas Are Churned

Water moves and churns, dissolving and eroding everything in its path, thus fostering new kinds of connections between atoms in the primordial soup. Just as importantly, the strong hydrogen bonds of water molecules helped maintain those new connections.

This mix of turbulence and stability is why liquid networks are optimal both for the evolution of life and for creativity. Innovative networks too must teeter on the brink of chaos, in the fruitful realm between order and anarchy, just like water.


32 reads

Random Connections

Random connections drive serendipitous discoveries. Dreams for example are the primordial soup of innovation, where ideas connect seemingly at random.

In fact, neuroscientists have confirmed that “sleeping on a problem” greatly helps solve it. Centuries ago, the German chemist Kekulé dreamt of a mythological serpent devouring its own tail, and subsequently realized how carbon atoms in a ring formed the molecule benzene.


65 reads

Serendipitous Discoveries

Consider the modernist cultural innovations of the 1920s. Many of them were largely a result of artists, poets and writers meeting at the same Parisian cafés. Shared interactions allow ideas to diffuse, circulate and be combined randomly with others.

On an individual level, facilitating such serendipitous connections is simply a matter of simultaneously introducing ideas from different disciplines into your consciousness. Innovators like Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin favoured working on multiple projects simultaneously, in a kind of slow multitasking mode.


37 reads

The Importance Of Cross Referencing

Philosopher John Locke understood the importance of cross-referencing as early on as 1652, when he began developing an elaborate system for indexing the content of his commonplace book, essentially a scrapbook of interesting thoughts and findings. Such books formed his repository of ideas and hunches, maturing and waiting to be connected to new ideas.

On an organizational level, the key to innovation and inspiration is a network that allows hunches to mature, scatter and combine with others openly.


41 reads

Great innovations And The Importance Of Errors

Error is present in both the evolution of life and the innovation of great ideas, and it is not always a bad thing.

Consider natural reproduction: genes are passed on from parent to offspring, providing “building instructions” for how the offspring should develop. Without occasional mutations, meaning random errors in those instructions, evolution would have long ago come to a virtual standstill. The elephant’s tusks or peacock’s feathers would have never emerged if only perfect copies of existing genes would have propagated. Mutations endow creatures with new traits.


41 reads

Innovation Thrives On Reinventing And Reusing The Old

Innovation Thrives On Reinventing And Reusing The Old

Ideas are often similarly repurposed along the way.

Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web as a tool for scholars, but in the course of time, it became a network for shopping, social networking and pornography, among other things.
Johannes Gutenberg found an innovative use for a 1000-year-old invention: the wine screw press used to squeeze the juice out of grapes. Using this ancient technology and his knowledge of metallurgy, Gutenberg created the world’s first printing press.


45 reads

The Overlooked Empty Space

Discarded spaces are also transformed through innovation. Just like the skeletal structure left behind by dead coral forms the basis of the rich and thriving ecosystem of the reef, abandoned buildings and rundown neighbourhoods are often the first homes of innovative urban subcultures. Their unconventional thinking and experimentation often has no place in glitzy mainstream malls and shopping streets initially.

Old buildings allow subcultures to interact and generate ideas that then diffuse and spill over into the mainstream.


55 reads



Deep thinker. Like talking about the world, religion and politics.


Both evolution and innovation thrive in collaborative networks where opportunities for serendipitous connections exist. Great discoveries often evolve as slow hunches, maturing and connecting to other ideas over time.

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