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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.

Where Good Ideas Come From

Where Good Ideas Come From

by Steven Johnson


2.03K reads

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 th...

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....

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.

  • 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 net...

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 coffeeh...

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)...

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 w...

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 vid...

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. Th...

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 ...

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 Position...

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 th...

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 unrew...

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 compet...

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 ...

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 ch...

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 suc...

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...

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 mutatio...

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...

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 unco...

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