The Origins of Innovation

From aiCIO Magazine: Editor-at-Large Joe Flood executes the ultimate tie-in-reviewing a book on the roots of innovation (whose author shares an editor with Flood) two weeks after our Industry Innovation Awards. Kudos, Flood.

To see this article in digital magazine format, click here. 

It seems only fitting that aiCIO’s Industry Innovation Awards should coincide with a new book on the origins of innovation— Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. It’s an elusive—though fitting—topic for Johnson, a polymaths intellectual and bestselling author along the lines of E.O. Wilson and Malcolm Gladwell, whose career has swung between his own good ideas (Everything Bad Is Good for You, Emergence) and enlightening examinations of the good ideas of others (The Ghost Map and The Invention of Air, about the discovery of the waterborne theory of disease, and of oxygen, respectively). In fact, in the acknowledgments, Johnson writes that this latest book is the finale of an unofficial trilogy that started with Ghost Map and Invention, “both books about world-changing ideas and the environments that made them possible.”

(Before I go any further, I should note that Johnson and I shared an editor at Riverhead Books and I routinely steal facts and structural ideas from him, so I’m more fan and admirer than disinterested reviewer. Glad we got that out of the way.)

Good Ideas opens with arguably the greatest idea-man of the last two centuries: Charles Darwin, 27 years old and in the midst of his five-year scientific journey aboard the Beagle, slowly assembling the ideas that would become his theory of evolution. Darwin’s sea-swept ponderings, along with the creation of the printing press, the Internet, discovery of DNA, and scads of other innovations— mostly scientific and technological, but many others philosophical and artistic—become central exemplars of Johnson’s notion of the origins of good ideas and the seven basic tenets that make them possible. From intellectual borrowing made possible by “liquid networks” (be it the adjacent firing of neurons, “exaptation” of ideas from one field to another, or fertile socializing of coffeehouses) to the slow marination of ideas in the mind of eclectic thinkers, to the good fortune of fruitful mistakes and sheer serendipity, a theme gradually emerges from Johnson’s take on the roots of good ideas: the sheer variety of influences that go into creating them.

In Johnson’s view, the conventional image of the genius inventor striking upon the Eureka! moment rarely captures what truly went into the idea. Guttenberg borrowed many of his ideas for the printing press from German winemakers. Edison and Thomas Watt may be credited with creating the light bulb and steam engine, but both products were the result of countless smaller innovations and tinkerings made by a handful of innovators, all building on each other’s refinements.

It’s perhaps a slightly disillusioning take for those who enjoy the more narratively simplistic and egocentric portraits of innovation, but it’s also a lot more useful for anyone interested in fostering good ideas in their own company. “Hire the next Steve Jobs,” isn’t particularly useful advice. Learning from Apple’s innovative internal structure—where designers, programmers, and engineers work together instead of controlling their own separate fiefdoms—might be.

At times, these profiles in innovation can seem scattered, but there’s an organizing principle at work here: the importance of the broader social, organizational, and personal context most ‘ good ideas spring from. This theme is discussed more explicitly in the book’s lengthy conclusion, The Fourth Quadrant, which asks whether our modern conception of the lone genius working for fame and proprietary fortune is really the most common form of innovation. The answer, in Johnson’s mind and convincing explanation, is more or less no.

He creates four basic categories of innovation: those made by individuals or small groups who planned to capitalize on their ideas (the air conditioner being one example, the Gatling gun another); individuals who wanted their ideas to flow freely into the “infosphere” (Ben Franklin’s lightning experiment); networked groups working in a collective but decentralized fashion and looking to turn a profit (the light bulb); and networked groups not immediately looking to commercialize (the early computer, Internet). Even in the era of industrial, patent-protected profiteering and corporate R&D, Johnson shows, the vast majority of innovative ideas still actually tend to come from this fourth quadrant of decentralized, networked thinkers who let their ideas float freely into the intellectual ether to be borrowed, tweaked, and improved upon. It’s not just some kind of socialist fantasy, Johnson writes, but one with real-world applicability, particularly in the tech world where open-platform creations like Twitter, YouTube, and smartphone applications are open to the world, and still able to produce a tidy profit for their original creators.

It may not be the standard operating procedure on Wall Street, where proprietary trading programs, intellectual property lawsuits, and a zero-sum mentality are de rigeur, but there’s an implicit question lurking in Johnson’s book worth addressing: Does that have to be the way?