Where good ideas come from

It is often claimed that Cape Town’s Table Mountain contains a greater number of plant species than the entire British Isles. So what is it, exactly, that causes certain environments to flourish with biodiversity and rapid evolutionary specialisation, while others lag behind?

Steven Johnson’s latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From, offers several theories. What’s more, it argues that the majority of technological innovations exhibit the same patterns that are successful in natural ecosystems.

Traditionally, any discussion about what is “natural” in human progress will begin and end with Darwin’s idea of the “survival of the fittest”. You can’t have innovation without competition, goes the neo-liberal chorus and our patent laws are set up accordingly. Johnson argues that this stems from an oversimplification of the Darwinian worldview.

It is precisely because some natural environments enable mutual benefit and useful, if unexpected interactions, that its parts can add up to a thriving whole.

And so it is for the internet, which has seen lucrative empires built on top of a network characterised by sharing and collaboration from its very beginning. Twitter, Facebook and Google are in themselves platforms that give other web start-ups their own chance to make it big.

While it deals with the success of several celebrated innovators, Where Good Ideas Come From isn’t about any one innovative discovery as much as it is about all of them. If the majority of our best ideas came from one set of circumstances, Johnson reasons, surely that would change the way we create institutions, make law and even how we live our lives from day-to-day.

In the final chapter of his book, Johnson conducts an experiment to compare what he calls the four quadrants of innovation, illustrated below:


Market innovations represent technologies or ideas that were leveraged to make a profit; non-market innovations are shared for the greater good.

Individual innovations are brought forth by a single, dedicated “genius” while network innovations materialise from the efforts of several contributors.

Economic policy, the law of patents and so many other institutions have long assumed that the first quadrant (and, to a lesser extent, the second) is the primary engine of human innovation.

Johnson’s findings, then, are somewhat surprising. By far the majority of important innovations since 1800 have been on the Networked side of his framework. Still more surprising: Of those, most were developed “outside the marketplace”, which is not to say they were never adapted for commercial use, but rather that these products of collaboration were never held in ownership by any one entity.

Aspirin, Anesthesia and the personal computer did not require patent law to come into being.

This point made, Where Good Ideas Come From doesn’t suggest how the governments, universities and lawbooks of the future must be geared towards fostering innovation, but it does call attention, quite convincingly, to the fact that they probably haven’t figured it out just yet.

More usefully, from start to finish, the book sketches the outlines of a strong personal philosophy based on enabling the creation and the capture of good ideas (A hint: take long walks!).

Johnson’s analysis isn’t the first to declare that technology proceeds along some kind of knowable pattern. But by grounding it in well researched observations about nature, he is bringing something new to the table.

Johnson writes:

“Travelling across these different environments and scales is not merely intellectual tourism. Science long ago realised that we can understand something better by studying its behaviour in different contexts.”

It may be a greater feat than mere “intellectual tourism”, but on that count alone, Where Good Ideas Come From is an essential, perspective-bending read.

Find it on Amazon or Kalahari.net


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