A stroke of genius is rarely a bolt from the blue, it turns out. More often than not, it’s a byproduct of one’s surroundings, says Steven Johnson in his latest counterintuitive book, “Where Good Ideas Come From.”
“Some environments squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly,” he writes in this jaunt through what the subtitle calls “the natural history of innovation.”
Johnson is the author and blogger who brought us the 2005 best-seller “Everything Bad Is Good for You.” This time around, he uses a series of vignettes -- from Gutenberg’s printing press to Twitter -- to show that certain physical and intellectual surroundings are particularly conducive to the cultivation and dissemination of influential ideas. His message: Society can do a better job of fostering innovation.
One key ingredient is the city. Johnson, who lives in Brooklyn, says that inhabiting a metropolis maximizes your exposure to ideas.
For centuries, densely populated areas have been breeding grounds for innovation, because that’s where ideas clash and great thinkers find their peers, he says. Consider the towns of Northern Italy that brought us the Renaissance. Or the Vienna coffeehouses where Sigmund Freud developed his psychoanalytic theories.
“As cities get bigger, they generate ideas at a faster clip,” he writes, echoing an argument familiar from Richard Florida’s 2002 best-seller, “The Rise of the Creative Class.”
While this may sound discouraging to rural readers, the idea factory is just a mouse click away: The Internet, in Johnson’s eyes, is a virtual city.
Groundbreaking insights often come to fruition through one or a combination of the following: a hunch, an unwitting mistake, serendipity or exposure to other ideas, Johnson says. All of those can occur on the Web.
Newcomers to Johnson’s work may recognize similarities in substance and tone to the writings of Malcolm Gladwell, who’s cited more than once in this book. Like Gladwell, Johnson describes scientific concepts in terms palatable to those who haven’t stepped foot in a lab since high school.
Johnson is determined to dispel the myth that most good ideas flow from eureka moments. Though he doesn’t discount serendipity, he uses dozens of examples to show that previous innovations breed new innovations.
“Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and, occasionally, contracts) over time,” he says.
When Joseph Priestley and Carl Wilhelm Scheele isolated oxygen in the 18th century, for example, their discovery depended on novel scales that could measure miniscule changes caused by oxidation, Johnson writes.
The key to unlocking innovation, in his view, is to create open networks where people share and share alike. Though he’s not advocating the abolition of intellectual-property rights, Johnson says laws should be tweaked to allow for more openness.
“When you don’t have to ask for permission, innovation thrives,” he writes. (Never mind that his own publisher states that “no part of this book may be reproduced, scanned or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission.”)
From Darwin to Jazz
By the end, after remarking on the scientific discoveries of Charles Darwin and the musical genius of Miles Davis, Johnson concludes that some segments of society are better equipped than others for harvesting ideas. While private enterprise has had a good run, Johnson argues, the public sector is poised to emerge as the next venue for innovation.
His advice isn’t just for policy makers and academics. Johnson wants everyone to recognize that even relatively small lifestyle changes can increase our exposure to new ideas.
“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.”
That sounds somewhat less daunting than most New Year’s resolutions.
“Where Good Ideas Come From” is published by Riverhead in the U.S. and by Allen Lane in the U.K. (326 pages, $26.95, 20 pounds).
(Timothy R. Homan writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)