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Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  12,526 ratings  ·  908 reviews
The printing press, the pencil, the flush toilet, the battery--these are all great ideas. But where do they come from? What kind of environment breeds them? What sparks the flash of brilliance? How do we generate the breakthrough technologies that push forward our lives, our society, our culture? Steven Johnson's answers are revelatory as he identifies the seven key patter ...more
Hardcover, 326 pages
Published October 5th 2010 by Riverhead Books (first published October 1st 2010)
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Mar 31, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Book operates around 5 major concepts:

1. The Adjacent Possible- contrary to popular belief innovation seldom changes the game completely by creating something incredibly advanced. More often, innovation unlocks a realm of the adjacent possible (That which can be achieved given the components that are already in existence). Ex: in the primordial soup of Earth pre-life, amino acids could be formed spontaneously through random collisions of atoms and functional groups. It would've been impossible f
May 18, 2011 rated it it was ok
Hmm, here we go again. Another 'popular / best selling' author with a 'great' book full of 'new' insights.

Johnson describes where good ideas come from (hence the title) by breaking it down into 7 patterns: the adjacent possible, liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity, error, exaptation, platforms. Each chapter describes a pattern by starting out with an anecdote of some inventor x in city y in year z. Then the pattern is defined / described and finally a bit elaborated upon with possibly m
Dec 17, 2010 rated it really liked it
I first became acquainted with Where Good Ideas Come From through Steven Johnson's TED talk, which I highly recommend if you've got a spare 17 minutes. In that talk -- and the book -- Johnson argues that most people are wrong when they imagine where new, innovative ideas come from. Many people have in their mind a lone scientist working in his lab, suddenly arriving at a "Eureka" moment, perhaps with a proverbial light bulb over their head. It's the apple falling on Isaac Newton, or Darwin devel ...more
Courtney Johnston
I tend to avoid reading this kind of book. The Cluetrain Manifesto, The Tipping Point, Freakonomics, The Black Swan. They all hit the web, and they all pass me by in a largely undifferentiated wash of bold typography, sentence-length sub-titles and (too) easily summarised central points.

I'm not sure now why I ordered 'Where good ideas come from' at the library, but having done so, I dutifully picked it up and settled in to read it over the long weekend. The double line spacing immediately gave m
Feb 18, 2012 rated it liked it
This book can be summarized as - where good ideas die. I expected to book to serve as a guide as how inventions evolved into new inventions. Instead the book turned out to be a cross between something like a business book "how to foster new ideas" and a self-help one "how to be more inventive". The fact that it's written by a yuppie Silicon Valley entrepreneur makes it that much more difficult to stomach - the book raves about twitter as a platform and plugs some data-mining wares the author is ...more
Feb 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is a very insightful survey of the elements that make innovation possible. The ideas are all taken from a variety of other sources, but Steven Johnson organizes them into a nice framework. There are seven chapters with titles such as 'The Slow Hunch', 'Serendipity', 'Error', etc., but most of them get at the same thing: new ideas flourish best when they are allowed to flow through a network and come in contact with each other. Most of the author's arguments seem self-evident, but he really ...more
Simon Eskildsen
Jan 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Have you ever heard with half an ear how Leibniz and Newton discovered calculus around the same time? That the same happened for Oxygen? The light bulb? The telephone? Jet engine? Even the transistor? Imagine a place where each door leads to a room with more doors. That's scientific exploration. Movable type, paper, ink, and the wine press had each opened doors, and Gutenberg found himself in a place to invent the printing press. If he hadn't done it, someone else would. Throughout history, this ...more
Andrej Karpathy
Nov 21, 2015 rated it liked it
There are really only two core ideas in this book: 1. That innovations are best modeled as ideas having sex, in the sense that they don't pop into existence but instead each idea is formed by the process of mixing elements from previous ideas (recombination), or slightly improving on an aspect of the idea (mutation). This view makes all of our innovations look similar to intellectual animals, with their own family trees. And 2. That these innovations don't happen in sudden eureka moments inside ...more
Bianca A.
Jan 05, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2021, speed-read
Published in 2010 by Steven Johnson, popular science author of 12 books and media theorist that writes regularly for The NY Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, The Financial Times and a few others. He also hosts the podcast "American Innovations".
For people who are creators or interested in what drives creativity.
Very skillful explanations with good examples of how good ideas came to be formed in the past and the supportive material that was a precursor. Good emphasis that not good ideas are
Kressel Housman
Dec 31, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I love origin stories. I especially love the ones that are about some familiar product or invention that I know and use, but if there’s a good story behind something I don't use – like that the glass eye was invented by a doll maker whose grandchild lost an eye in an accident – I’m interested. So I’ve read quite a few books on innovation over the years, but this one was something unique. Those others have more anecdotes and “pop” appeal. This one had more hard science. That made it both more sch ...more
Apr 10, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ideas
I picked up this book after hearing Steven Johnson's interview on CBC's Spark. His arguments are compelling, and the book is chock full of invention origin stories - a very interesting read! ...more
Sep 17, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
I won this book from Goodreads. This is a fascinating book I would recommend to anyone even remotely interested in creativity and the history of the ideas that changed our world and the way we interact with it. He tackles the similarities in how ideas form, from Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection to the internet and twitter. Johnson's writing is tight and engaging--his ideas scream for contemplation and incorporation into one's intellectual life, yet I found it difficult to pull m ...more
Candice Carpenter
Apr 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
Within the first 20 pages, I was hooked with this book. For anyone with an entrepreneurial bent or fiendish desire to understand the workings of innovation and creativity, this is the book for you. Johnson elegantly and eloquently debunks the so-called myth of the lone genius innovating in a vacuum. Instead, he asserts that several underlying principles --of serendipity, error, liquid networks, and adjacent possibilities--help to propel new inventions. Some of the inspirational thoughts that cam ...more
Stephen Brownell
Feb 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
The first few chapters especially are just incredible. Amazing concepts clearly presented. Johnson is an entertaining polymath with a highly compelling view of why things work the way they do.

His use of the word "ideas" in the title implies a more narrow focus than what is presented. By "ideas" he means something bigger than what we're associating it with, particularly human ideas. The idea of evolution, of the formation of life, of why cities are more productive than rural areas per capita. The
Derek Neighbors
Sep 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Johnson's books are just plain good. This one is no exception. So much great information. This is a must read for anyone wanting to increase serendipity, innovation or creativity in their organization or community. ...more
Chad Warner
Apr 28, 2013 rated it liked it
Recommended to Chad by: .net Magazine
Shelves: non-fiction, business
This book shows that “good ideas” (or key innovations) are generally products of prior discoveries, experimentation, and collaboration, not the Eureka moments of isolated geniuses. I found the historical anecdotes interesting and the lessons somewhat insightful, but overall the book wasn’t especially fascinating. I also felt that Johnson’s repeated comparisons of human ingenuity to evolutionary ecology were stretching the metaphor and didn’t contribute to his points. My favorite chapter was The ...more
Aug 28, 2010 rated it really liked it
I won this book from Goodreads, and asked our Manager of Innovation to comment on it:

"Unfamiliar with Johnson's previous books, I was ill-prepared for the density of his work. This current text probes the various methods in which innovations evolve, since contrary to popular belief they don't occur in a vacuum or eureka moments.

Based on his research, Johnson has broken innovation into seven segments of development; the adjacent possible, liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity, error, exap
Oct 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
One of the better books on innovation, Steven Johnson makes connections between biological and technological patterns in how to create innovative environments. The illustrations are vivid and memorable, which help me remember the difference components of an innovative ecosystem. This is definitely the kind of book that I like to have on hand and lend to people.
1. Adjacent Possible - Good ideas are built from a collection of existing parts, the following six patterns assemble a wider variety of s
Aug 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing
A very impressive book that examines the validity of the lone genius story throughout modern history. Johnson takes a diverse number of subjects and shows the parallels between them, drawing strong comparisons between human engineered systems and naturally evolved systems, particularly their generative power. Written in a conversational lecture mode, the topics covered in this book are understandable for anyone from high school on up.

The best part of the book is the conclusion. Although it was a
Oct 24, 2010 rated it really liked it
Regardless of its origin, sometimes a good idea forms the entire basis of a non-fiction book. Often this idea is capable of being summed up in a single pithy sentence which serves as the title--maybe "The Tipping Point," or "The Long Tail,"--and after the concept is explained in the first few paragraphs, chapters full of anecdotes flesh out the work to book length, business publications praise it, and the author can command some serious speaking fees at conferences and corporate events.

Where Goo
Nicholas M
Apr 19, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic! The single most important book for anyone looking for an accurate and comprehensive description of the creative process that they have heretofore been unable to verbalize. Johnson breaks creativity down to 7 basic underlying principles: the adjacent possible, liquid networks, slow hunch, serendipity, error, exaptation, and platforms. In doing so, he not only allows readers to become more conscious of the patterns that creativity follows, but he also provides inspiring examples of the ...more
Bran Gustafson
Sep 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: creativity
This fascinating study of ideas disproves the notion that ideas come quickly and to a few chosen geniuses. Instead, most of our best ideas come through years of hunches, open sharing of information and working together. It's a great read if you're a creative person. ...more
Dec 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Positive feedback loops from clustering, emergent plot forms, repositories, intellectual bricolage, modern research university as the antithesis of markets, liquid networks (dense and plastic) leading to information spillover, accretive development, the characterization of scientific paradigms as not overturning old ideas but building upon them, the failure of Kleiber's law as applied to urban spaces, networked collective distributed processes, exaptation, Moretti's distant reading approach, Ray ...more
Wasim Khan
Feb 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A well researched and well written book on the source of good ideas and the many things that should be done to foster them. It's not just a book on ideas - it's like on a non-conventional story telling of some major discoveries stripped of their Eureka Moments. ...more
Jan 09, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is one of those books which, without presenting a wealth of original material, do a great job summarizing and structuring existing ideas. I really liked the examples that Johnson uses: instead of focusing on business ideas, which I guess is what most people would associate with innovation, he brings examples from the history of science and from biological evolution, making it all seem one coherent picture.
The author presents 7 (or 8, depending on your count) characteristics of an innovation
Kevin Anderson
Feb 28, 2018 rated it liked it
I like the core point of this book, but the author is not an amazing writer. He relies on the "I am going to show you a lot of examples" way of convincing which, for me, just got kind of boring and I lost track of why he was telling me anything at all. I think this book needed a brutal editor to keep it focused rather than rambling.

My take-away from the book is that encountering lots of different ideas, working with people who are different from you, and generally being curious and cooperative
Troy Tegeder
Dec 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
A descriptive, example-driven book whose thesis is that ideas are primarily spawned from networks. In biology, networks of molecules that can combine into different molecules. In industry, networks of people with many different ideas that can combine. In individual brains, networks of neurons firing in new and different ways. Though the author presents some biological theories as facts which are in actuality far from conclusive, the theory of ideas evolving faster and better within networks is v ...more
Brian Eshleman
Aug 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
Compellingly specific stories of innovation along with the big-picture patterns forces bigger than individuals that make good ideas more likely.
Dec 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What kind of environment and circumstances best breed innovation? This book is a fascinating read on technological development, progress and the conditions that foster innovation. I read this book after earlier reading the author Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. While I enjoyed the first book I read more this one still was quite gratifying to read.
In eight chapter (I count the conclusion since it’s a long chapter in its own right) author Steven John
Jack-Edward Oliver
Mar 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
From the opening explorations and observations of Darwin, perched upon the reef - this book on the surface seemed like a listicle of how to have good ideas.

What I instead discovered was a paradigm shift in thinking. Part history, part opinion, Johnson delivers a framework for understanding ecosystems.

The interconnecting strands that hold our universe together in both the material, and social fabrics of modern society.

Exploring the reef as a metaphor; a case is made for coexistence in perpetui
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Steven Johnson is the bestselling author of twelve books, including Enemy of All Mankind, Farsighted, Wonderland, How We Got to Now, Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, and Everything Bad Is Good for You.
He's the host of the podcast American Innovations, and the host and co-creator of the PBS and BBC series How We Got to Now. Johnson lives in Marin County, California,

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