‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ by Steven Johnson

My notes from the book (Amazon UK, US), which was a good, easy read. Like many similar books (Shirky, Weinberger, et al) it brings together lots of ideas that in retrospect seem blindingly obvious, but which you would never have put into words before reading.

[Disclosure: Penguin sent me this book for free and I probably wouldn’t have got round to reading it otherwise (as with Johnson’s previous interesting-sounding books). The “uncorrected proof” copy says I shouldn’t quote from it because there might be errors. So there might be errors in my quotes.]

Introduction — Reef, City, Web

6-9 The metabolic rate of animals is governed by “negative quarter-power scaling” — the bigger it is, the slower its heartbeat is. Human settlements follow an inverse rule — the bigger it is, the more innovative. Eg, a city 50 times bigger than a town is “130 times more innovative.” “The average resident of a metropolis with a population of five million people was almost three times more creative than the average resident of a town of a hundred thousand.”

1. The Adjacent Possible

28 “At any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes an happen.” The “adjacent possible”.

32-3 Many inventions/discoveries have happened almost simultaneously in different places — sunspots, batteries, isolating oxygen, etc. Each was only possible once other discoveries had been made.

34-7 The Difference Engine was successful, but the Analytical Engine couldn’t be built because it was not part of the adjacent possible. YouTube could not have succeeded in 1995 because the technology wasn’t ready.


The trick is to figure out ways to explore the edges of possibility that surround you. This can be as simple as changing the physical environment you work in, or cultivating a specific kind of social network, or maintaining certain habits in the way you seek out and store information.

2. Liquid Networks

43 “A new idea is a network of cells exploring the adjacent possible of connections they can make in your mind.”

51-56 When humans were hunter-gatherers, there was no network to propagate good ideas. “Cities and markets recruit more minds into the collective project of exploring the adjacent possible.”

57-9 Kevin Dunbar in early 1990s, monitored and interviewed researchers in four molecular biology labs. The most important ideas happened in meetings of a dozen or so researchers, not in the lab itself.

3. The Slow Hunch


The snap judgements of intuition … are rarities in the history of world-changing ideas. Most hunches that turn into important innovations unfold over much longer time frames. They start with a vague, hard-to-describe sense that there’s an interesting solution to a problem that hasn’t yet been proposed, and they linger in the shadows of the mind, sometimes for decades, assembling new connections and gaining strength. And then one day they emerge into the light of day: sometimes jolted out by some newly discovered trove of information, or by another hunch lingering in another mind, or by some internal association that finally completes the thought. Because these slow hunches need so much time to develop, they are fragile creatures, easily lost to the more pressing needs of day-to-day issues. But that long incubation period is also their strength, because true insights require you to think something that no one has thought before in quite the same way. Flash judgments are often just that — judgments. Is this guy trustworthy or not? Is the sculpture a fake? A new idea is something larger than that: it’s a new perspective on a problem, or a recognition of a new opportunity that has gone unexplored to date.

81 “Part of the secret of hunch cultivation is simple: write everything down.”

82-85 Commonplace books, with elaborate forms of indexing. “You need a system for capturing hunches, but not necessarily categorising them, because categories can build barriers between disparate ideas, restrict them to their own conceptual islands.”

4. Serendipity

115-121 Some people say that the Internet is destroying serendipity because everything is filtered to our tastes or by our friends, or because we rely on direct searches rather than, say, browsing a library.

But the Internet provides many other forms of serendipity. It’s very easy to browse through vast amounts of knowledge, which more people do now than would have browsed a physical library. Newspaper front pages feature fewer stories than their online equivalents. The ability for anyone to publish online creates a greater variety of material, available to anyone. We can search for information on any topic, on a whim, that we’d never have bothered hunting out in libraries etc.

The “limiting” filters are only there because there’s so much more diversity on the Web than in the real world.

5. Error

129-146 “Innovative environments thrive on useful mistakes, and suffer when the demands of quality control overwhelm them.” control overwhelm them.”

6. Exaptation

154 “If mutation and error and serendipity unlock new doors in the biosphere’s adjacent possible, exaptations [adapting an existing feature or technology for a different purpose] help us explore the new possibilities that lurk behind those doors.”

150-156 Examples: Gutenberg adapting the technology of the wine press, combining with the existing idea of movable type, to make the printing press. Feathers first evolved to keep dinosaurs warm, but turned out to be good for flying. Babbage programmed the Analytical Engine by borrowing Jaquard’s invention of punched cards that he made for mechanical looms. Using hyperlinks (designed for navigation) as “a vehicle for assessing quality” and creating Google’s PageRank [Is that a bit tenuous?]. Using the iconography of desktops for a computer interface (files, folders, etc) [isn’t this more a metaphor?].

160-1 Cities are good for exaptation because they have so many different groups of people with different interests and experiences in close proximity.

161-3 [He shoehorn’s Eno and Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in here, citing their use of samples off the radio. “Eno didn’t need a coffeehouse [as a place to mix with a variety of people]. He had AM radio.” Seems a dubious comparison, and I’m not sure this is exaptation.]

163-5 Having a wide and varied social network, and varied experience, makes exaptation much more likely.

167-172 Cross-disciplinary teams and groups are good. Working on several different projects from varied fields (“serial-tasking”) is good.

7. Platforms

175-208 The benefits of being able to build on top of existing platforms, so you don’t have to reinvent everything from scratch each time. Eg, using GPS, RSS, HTML (itself built on top of SGML), Twitter’s API, TCP/IP, etc.

8. The Fourth Quadrant

212-4 To see whether the norm in innovation is the lone individual with a flash of genius in an organisation, or the networked, slow-burning groups, you need to look at all the important innovations and classify them. Also, the difference between profit-driven and open, sharing, non-market innovation.

215-6 Four quadrants: 1, top-left, private corporation or solo entrepreneur; 2, top-right, market place of interconnected private firms; 3, bottom-left, idea-sharing amateurs; 4, bottom-right, open-source/academic, collaborative networks. The fourth quadrant does not fit easily into either capitalism or socialism, but the Internet has made it “a hothouse of innovation.”

220-222 1400-1600, most innovations are in the third quadrant. Information networks are slow, “entrepreneurial economic conventions are poorly developed.” The inventive genius. The few innovations that emerged from networks have their origins in cities.

222-225 1600-1800, quadrants three and four are both popular. Printing, postal systems, population density increases, coffeehouses, formal intellectual institutions. “Collective invention.”

225-228 1800-2000, quadrant one is least popular. Quadrant two is more popular than before, people building for the market, but basing their work on existing innovations, part of a network. Quadrant four is most popular. It is free of the inefficiencies created by copyrights, patents, trade secrets, etc.

229-231 Modern universities are mainly fourth quadrant. Many innovations that go on to have commercial applications have their roots in decentralised networks of academics.


Most of us, I realise, don’t have a direct say in what macro forms of information and economic organisation prevail in the wider society, though we do influence that outcome indirectly, in the basic act of choosing between employment in the private or the public sector. But this is the beauty of the long-zoom perspective: the patterns recur at other scales. You may not be able to turn your government into a coral reef, but you can create comparable environments on the scale of everyday life: in the workplaces you inhabit in the way you consume media; in the way you augment your memory. The patterns are simply, 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 other build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.

14 Nov 2010 at Twitter

  • 08:12am: @stml Welcome home! London has been crying in your absence. It should cheer up now you're back.
  • 09:30am: @schulze You know at the beginning of disaster movies... *everyone's* expecting a calm day then.
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  • 06:22pm: @spaceboy If you blink, Jimmy Wales takes a step towards you. DON'T BLINK! DON'T BLINK!
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  • 08:24pm: @gwire Hello. Please read my personal appeal.
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14 Nov 2010 in Links

Music listened to most that week

  1. Akufen (10)
  2. James Blake (8)
  3. Danger Mouse (4)
  4. Record Club (4)
  5. A.M. (3)
  6. Belle and Sebastian (3)
  7. Billy Stewart (3)
  8. El Guincho (3)
  9. Mystery Jets (3)
  10. Warpaint (3)

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