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Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation

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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 patterns behind genuine innovation, and traces them across time and disciplines. From Darwin and Freud to the halls of Google and Apple, Johnson investigates the innovation hubs throughout modern time and pulls out the approaches and commonalities that seem to appear at moments of originality.

326 pages, Hardcover

First published October 1, 2010

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About the author

Steven Johnson

116 books1,676 followers
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, and Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and three sons.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,007 reviews
8 reviews
July 5, 2013
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 for a functional cell to be formed then because the number of fortuitous collisions would've been staggering. Cells could be formed once their simpler components were present in the environment. Innovation takes simple components and makes slightly more complex products in a continuous cycle.

2. Liquid Networks- Because the adjacent possible is unlocked through random collissions in components, it makes sense that innovation would thrive in so-called "liquid environments" in which component ideas are able to flow freely. Cities are such liquid environments. The internet is the ultimate liquid environment. Offices are trying to become more liquid environments thorugh encouraging collaboration.

3. Slow Hunch- The narrative of the "Eureka moment" is seldom accurate. More often than not innovation occurs once a slow hunch has reached maturity. Slow hunches can reach maturity by colliding with other ideas. hus, keeping one's slow hunches alive is advisable to promote innovation. Keeping a commonplace book is an excellent way to cultivate and keep alive a slow hunch. Innovation is also promoted by cross-polination between different fields. Many famous scientists and thinkers have switched what they are spending their time on every couple of days. This puts the original thought in one's sub conscious.

4. Serendipity is obviously important to innovation because with increased serendipity comes increased collisions between slow hunches. Information overflow encourages creativity. The internet promotes the ultimate information overflow.

5. Error- "Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore." Sometimes the noise is the signal, humans have a natural tendency to dismiss error. Our body maintains some error in DNA replication to continue the evolutionary drive (whether this is by evolutionary design or by the inability for a perfect system is unknown).

6. Exaptation- Taking an idea or thing from one field and applying it to another field. Gutenberg with the screw press. In dense urban centers exaptations are more likely. Weak-tie expatation. Utilizing the weak-tie of Connectors to exapt ideas. Apple development cycle is more like a coffehouse than an assembly line; Everyone plans it all together instead of designers followed by other people. In the latter method there is a tendrency for the thing to be whittled down.

7. Platforms - Ecosystem engineers. Generative platforms come in stacks. Platforms encourage and amplify hunches. Twitter's open-source software allows different people to run twitter machines which increases popularity. Hashtags and @ also came from early twitter users because of the platform. API=open platform in software

8. The Fourth Quadrant (non-market, networked) has provided a proportionally high amount of innovation.The problem with Quadrant One(market, networked) is that it encourages us to build artificial walls (patents etc.) around information. When information flows free everyone benefits.
Profile Image for Arjen.
160 reviews86 followers
May 18, 2011
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 more anecdotes. It's nice to read an anecdote now and then but after three chapters it gets really annoying. And whereas the idea of breaking down 'idea generation' into seven patterns is a nice, and the patterns in itself are interesting enough subjects, the way Johnson treats the patterns and elaborates on the patterns is really disappointing. There is no real deep original insight or new thought from the side of the author.

And where the first three chapter could keep my attention and approval, from the fourth chapter (serendipity) Johnson really misses the point, in my opinion. He describes serendipity well enough but in his apologia of the critique that the Internet prevents serendipity, he is blabbering sheer nonsense. He states that since we can use Google and wikipedia, we can much easier deepen and extent our serendipitous encounters and hunches. But that is a posteriori, the serendipitous event has already taken place when I start searching Google for 'The process church of holy judgement' after seeing, the never heard of before Sabbath Assembly, opening up for Earth, realising they base their music on the same cult from the sixties where Cleveland's Integrity built their 'Church of holy terror' thinking on.

In the final chapters there is some inexplicable flirting with Darwinian evolutionary ideas which are interesting in themselves but I didn't really see the analogy or their role as argument in the point he is trying to make.

The final, conclusive chapter is actually quite nice but nothing more than paraphrasing Kevin Kelly's ideas from 'New rules for a new economy'.

I was doubting between 2 and 3 stars but since I did enjoy most of the read I give it 3 stars. On the other hand, I wouldn't recommend this book, go read Kevin Kelly instead.

UPDATE: I just subtracted one star. I forgot to mention that it increasingly annoys me that these so called 'popular science' books tend to have pages and pages of useless appendices, bibliographies, indices etc. All are defendable in some way but to me it seems that they are just there to make the book look thicker or more voluminous. This book for example has about 40 pages (which is almost 20% of the number of pages of the actual story) with a 'Chronology of key innovations 1400-2000' ???????. There is absolutely no single bit of new information in there. What's next? Including a list of most used words in the book? 'Translation of the most important concepts into three forgotten languages'? Please include a link to a web page or something. Besides that the total number of pages is 326 of which about 245 are story.
Profile Image for Julie.
65 reviews21 followers
December 17, 2010
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 developing the idea of the survival of the fittest while reading Malthus.

The only problem is that it's wrong.

Through this book, Johnson points out that most innovative ideas come not from the brilliant lightbulb moment of a lone genius but rather through slow hunches cultivated for months, years, or decades over liquid networks. One of the reasons why big cities are so much more innovative than small towns is that you have more diversity, more "spillover" of ideas, and more chance for the ideas to mingle around together. Ideas don't appear whole-cloth, but often develop slowly, as the scientist or inventor keeps them on the back burner while pursuing other interests. One day, perhaps, he encounters someone else with another "slow hunch," and they click and complete each other. Johnson points to other features that tend to nurture innovation, like making lots of mistakes and stealing ideas from other domains (the Gutenberg printing press relied on Rhineland wine-press technology).

If you like, you can read through this book as a guide to making your own life or your company more innovative. There are even a few guidelines: take lots of walks (to expose yourself to different stimuli), write everything down, expose yourself to different ideas and disciplines as much as you can, having diverse hobbies, let other people build upon your ideas. But even if you do none of these things, Where Good Ideas Come From is a fascinating look at how we got where we are, and is well worth the read.
Profile Image for Courtney Johnston.
370 reviews148 followers
January 24, 2011
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 me the sense that I was reading an extended blog post, and by and large, reaching the end of the book hasn't much changed my first reaction.

Johnson identifies seven key situations or characteristics and one key context that foster innovation. The introduction defines that context: the city. In the same way that a coral reef nurtures a vast biodiversity compared to the same square meterage of empty sea, closely packed urban environments nurture in one discipline are more likely to come into contact with ideas from another. From here we tumble through the seven situations/contexts:

The adjacent possible The phrase comes from scientist Stuart Kauffman, and describes the situation in which life originated on Earth. At one time, Earth was awash with a small number of simple molecules. Each of these could combine with the others in a finite number of ways, given certain catalysts, and then go on recombining and catalysing. This handful of simple molecules couldn't transform over night into a dandelion or an ostrich, because a whole bunch of innovations have to happen before then (like respiration). But surrounding each instance of each molecule was the adjacent possible - a slightly hazy boundary of what might happen. With each combination and transformation, the boundaries of the adjacent possible become bigger. Innovation fuels innovation.

Liquid networks Information and ideas travel best in liquid networks. Scientific breakthroughs occur not just in the lab setting - perhaps not even most often in the lab setting - but in discussion groups and cafeterias, where different perspectives can be brought to bear on a set of findings, or the 'error' in an experiment can be revised into proof for another concept. From here we move into modular office design, blah blah blah.

The slow hunch Ideas brew over time. Evidence is slowly gathered. Hunches work when they're connected to other bits of experience and evidence: this is why the Phoenix memo about 'suspicious persons' enrolling at American flight schools in mid 2001 didn't trigger any alerts that might have prevented 9/11 :it was filed into the FBI electronic black box, which is structured to prevent pieces of information from rubbing up against each other

Serendipity The chapter heading pretty much sums it up, although Johnson does a nice job of rebutting the argument that the web, and in particular being able to search for information, has driven serendipity out of our lives. Also - stop working, go for a walk, it might help you process information better than labouring over it.

Error Some inventions are the outcome of wrong outcome after wrong outcome after wrong outcome. The guy who invented vacuum tubes did so without ever figuring out how they actually worked. Xrays and daguerreotypes were both accidental discoveries. You get the picture.

ExaptationThis is where Johnson draws heavily on the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Exaptation is when an adaptation is further utlised for another end. Feathers were originally evolved to provide insulation: down feathers continue to perform this function, whereas flight feathers act as airfoils. An idea or finding from one field can be adapted into another. It's like the notion of weak ties ("popularised by Malcolm Gladwell") but somehow better

Platforms Stacked platforms don't just help information move; they recycle and amplify it. Coral reefs, beavers' dams, satellites and APIs. Government as platform. Twitter twitter twitter. You know the drill (or you don't, in which case this chapter might be a real eye-opener for you: the kind of thing you make your dumb-ass Web Strategy Advisory Group read so they'll go hey, yeah, go ahead, API everything!)

In the final chapter, 'The Fourth Quandrant', Johnson proposes two ways of investigating and visualising the history and conditions of innovation. One is the deep drill-down into a single case-study, where you hope the reader will take the points you're making and extrapolate them out. His book on Joseph Priestly and the 'invention' of oxygen is such an example. The second is to go wide, and try to categorise millennia or centuries of innovation and look for trends (as Johnson does here, looking at the speeding up of innovation before and after the establishment of cities, and looking at the last 500 years of invention in terms of individual vs. collaborative/distributed invention, and market vs. open contexts).

The book is subtitled 'The natural history of innovation', and Johnson like to reach down into the primordial soup* of neurons and evolution to draw parallels to human innovation. Darwin is his key motif; his musing on coral atolls open the book, and he is returned to frequently, on topics like slow hunches, serendipity and error. The thing is, I know my Gould. I've got a bit of a grip on Darwin. And recently, Nick Lane has thoroughly schooled me on evolution. While it's always a satisfying feeling to play 'snap' with an author (ah hah! I know that reference. I see your observation, and raise you this contradictory hypothesis!), I felt like all this bolstering was (a) a bit of a stretch - are neuron networks really like well-planned open offices? and (b) light weight compared to the reams and reams and reams of information that are out there - Johnson's few pages on the advantages of sexual reproduction compared to Lane's chapter, for example.

As a result, a lot of the book felt familiar, and often a little thin compared to richer examples of many of the topics that I've read elsewhere. Perhaps ironically then, the one theme I wish Johnson had focused on in more depth - perhaps even written about exclusively - was that of the commonplace book, the tradition of writers and thinkers keeping notebooks full of passages and quotations, mixed in with observations and recordings of their own. The commonplace book lay somewhere between self-help book, memory tool, encyclopedia, and meditative device. (Montaigne kept one, naturally, and also had his favourite passages inscribed on the rafters of his library.)

The English philosopher and physician John Locke started his first commonplace book in 1652, during his first year at Oxford. Over time he developed a method for indexing these books, a method he felt sufficiently important to warrant writing up as an appendix to his major work, 'An Essay Concerning Human Understanding'. Working within the limits of two pages in each commonplace book being reserved for the index, which had to swell to encompass whatever he transcribed into it, he structured his index in this way:

When I meet with any thing, that I think fit to out into my common place book, I first find a proper head. Suppose for example that the head be EPISTOLA, I ook unto the index for the first letter and the following vowel which in this instance are E.i. if in the space marked E.i. there is any number that directs me to the page designed for words that begin with an E and whose first vowel after the initial letter is I, I must then write under the word Epistola in that page what I have to remark.

Even I recognise the 'if X, then Y' pattern of storing and retrieving data going on here. The commonplace book both stores information and allows one to retrieve it, and in the process of doing so, revisit and enrich the ideas once has already had.

From Locke, Joseph Priestly, and Erasmus Darwin, Johnson steps through to 'Enquire Within Upon Everything', a hugely popular Victorian how-to guide for everything from making flowers in wax to burying relatives. Tim Berners Lee named the first iteration of what would the world wide web 'Enquire' after a copy of this manual he remembered from his childhood.

Johnson himself uses DevonThink, an app that allows him to store and search texts, which has a search algorithm that forges relationships between them. It's interesting to see him recounting using Devon Think as a writing tool:

I write a paragraph about something - let's say about the human brain's remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask DevonThink to find other passages in my archive that are similar. Instantly, a list of quotes appears on my screen ... Invariably, one or two of these triggers a new association in my head ... and so I select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of passages similar to it. Before long, a larger idea takes shape in my head, built upon the trail of association the machine has assembled for me.

[Apropos this, I found a lovely article over summer called The Theatre of Memory, about libraries as more than data storage, you should totally read it.]

So all up: I think this might be one of those reviews that means you don't need to read the book yourself, unless you having a burning desire to do so. Instead, go out and read Nick Lane, and Steven Jay Gould, and all sorts of other people writing about all sorts of other good things - that's where the good ideas come from.

*I read an essay recently by Michael Chabon where he talked about how he'll get obsessed with a word, and for days on end he'll have to fit the words 'monkeys' or 'washer' into conversation over and over again. He said this slipped into his published writing - an unusual word, say 'shrivelled', will appear twenty times in a single book, and occasionally get picked up by readers. Someone needed to go through 'Where good ideas come from' and edit out every second instance of the phrase 'primordial soup'.
Profile Image for Taras.
51 reviews2 followers
February 18, 2012
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 peddling.

All of the above would lead to a one-star review (I'm so disappointed in The Economist for recommending this) if it were not for the discussion of "adjacent possible". I recommend that people read "Chapter 1: The Adjacent Possible" and skip the rest of the book. In this chapter the author convincingly argues that the pop culture notion of a genius inventor is bullshit. As proof the author presents numerous important inventions that were invented by multiple people around the same time. There is a follow up chapter on how ideas usually don't strike like lighting, they often take decades to develop.

The book itself is very short, the last quarter of the book is padding consisting of author's notes, listing important inventions, etc. The list of inventions is somewhat random. Invention descriptions are overly brief and unsatisfying. The following notes section is evidence that the author is good at research and sucks at turning that into prose.
Profile Image for Simon Eskildsen.
215 reviews938 followers
January 27, 2020
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 has happened 1,000s of times. Johnson, quoting Kauffman, calls the space of what's possible given the doors we now have opened the 'adjacent possible.' This can be a simultaneous encouraging and depressing thought... is everything then inevitable?

The adjacent possible gives us a nice way to think about timing. Something that's "too early" is something that's leaping too many generations into the adjacent possible (there's also an aspect of maturity involved). Bell invented the picture-phone in the 70s, but it was just not worth it to have a phone-booth size thing in your home. Many attempted massive multi-player online games in the 90s, but home bandwidth, latency, etc. wasn't ready. Of course, it's possible to push through many generations of the adjacent possible rapidly: Manhatten Project, Apollo, Micro-processors, etc.

This by far was the most interesting aspect of the book to me, but it's riddled with good observations by someone who's clearly devoured many pages on scientific history, leaned back, and written this book as a discourse on the big picture. The adjacent possible is just one chapter I've chosen to highlight of many on other patterns in the history of innovation.
Profile Image for Andrej Karpathy.
110 reviews3,294 followers
November 30, 2015
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 the mind of one person, but instead happen over time through "slow hunches" that incubate inside an obsessed mind, while that mind is engaged in liquid networks of other minds.

These two core tenants are supported with several briefly-discussed fun historical examples. However, I think the book could have been slightly shorter, it rambles a bit and stretches some assertions a bit, but overall it gives some food for thought. 3/5.
Profile Image for JJ Khodadadi.
376 reviews87 followers
August 21, 2022
زندگی انسان از زمان پیدایش تا کنون دچار تحولات و پیشرفت‌های زیادی شده‌است. تک‌تک اختراعات و پیشرفت‌هایی که انسان در زندگی خود داشته‌است (از ابداع زبان و الفبا تا پیشرفته‌ترین اختراعات و نوآوری‌هایی که هرروز شاهد آن هستیم) از یک ایده خلاقانه نشات گرفته‌اند.

طبق تعریف استیون جانسون، کارآفرین و نویسنده این کتاب، یک ایده، حاصل روشنایی ناگهانی یک چراغ نیست بلکه حاصل روشنایی تدریجی شبکه‌ای از چراغ‌ها است.

جانسون در این کتاب، با بررسی تحول زندگی بشری و تاریخچه علم، به توضیح عوامل ایجاد سیر تکاملی زندگی انسان و ایده‌های بنیادی درطول زمان می‌پردازد. همچنین به مخاطبان خود می‌آموزد تا چگونه در زندگی شخصی و حرفه‌ای خود خلاق‌تر باشند.
Profile Image for Joel.
110 reviews49 followers
October 3, 2019
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 backs them up nicely with real-life case studies and adds some nuanced insights.

I’ve read his earlier book, The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, and in my review of that book, I complained that the author grasps too desperately at a grand philosophical point instead of just telling a good story. After reading this book, I understand where he was coming from and what motivates his thinking. I'm especially sympathetic because his outlook very closely aligns with mine, and his stated motivation for writing those books is exactly why I like to read them. He likes to do a 'deep dive' into a specific invention as a way to extrapolate an understanding of how ideas develop in general. This book really explains what he was trying to get at with his earlier books. The author says as much explicitly in the acknowledgements - he sees it as a sort of concluding volume in a trilogy that includes The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World and The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. After this book, I'd really like to complete the 'trilogy' and read 'The Invention of Air'.

A weakness of the book, which is probably the publisher’s fault, is that it smacks too much of the glib business advice you find in many bestselling management books; for example, the ideal office layout to cultivate innovative thinking in a company. Boring. I have a feeling he was forced to include that by his publisher, so they can market it as a business book and boost sales.

However, the biggest weakness by far of the entire book was the final chapter entitled 'The Fourth Quadrant'. He tries to prove that market forces are not a particularly strong element in encouraging innovation. To prove it, he makes a list of what he considers 'good ideas': 'Washing Machine', 'Absolute zero', 'Accelerating expansion of the universe', 'Pencil', 'Piano', 'E=mc2', etc. and counts how many of them fall into each of one of four quadrants: 'Market/Individual', 'Market/Networked', 'Non-market/Individual', and 'Non-market/Networked'. He then goes to show that most good ideas fall into what he calls the 'Fourth Quarter': Non-market/Networked.

The resulting study is sheer stupidity. For starters, he doesn't clearly define his criteria for classifying ideas as market/non-market or individual/networked. Does 'market' mean motivated by profit while non-market means motivated by the greater good? For example, he classifies the piano as non-market/individual. Why? The Appendix offers a clue: because the inventor was employed by the Medici court. That's a weak argument. The inventor clearly indented to get paid. Another example: the light bulb is market/networked. Why is it not 'individual' which the author defines as ‘a small co-ordinated team'? Because it was simultaneously invented by multiple other inventors? That doesn't make sense - many inventions are like this and he includes them in other quadrants. Plus, as the rest of the book makes clear, the key insight of many of these good ideas was to apply it in a novel way. All inventions are networked by this definition. And then, the author mixes scientific discoveries - like the accelerating expansion of the universe, or E=mc2 together with technological inventions, which doesn’t make sense. Science is often done outside the corporate system. Then there's also the issue that many of these inventions were accidents but subsequently commercialized to great success. Does that make them 'non-market'? This also severely overestimates scientific ideas, because a single technological invention relies on numerous individual scientific components.

In short, this last chapter ends up being a confusing mess, and completely silly. I think what the author is trying to get at (as the end of the chapter makes clear) is that patents don't encourage innovation; they stifle it. That would have been a much more interesting discussion. Patents is an interesting topic. Instead, the author conflates that discussion with 'the market' and gets completely side-tracked due to his weak understanding of that ‘the market’ is. A much more insightful analysis of 'the market' comes from the author himself, in chapter 2 (Liquid Networks) in his discussion of the invention of double-entry accounting (page 57):

"...when economic systems shift from feudal structures to the nascent forms of modern capitalism, they become less hierarchical and more networked. A society organized around marketplaces, instead of castles or cloisters, distributes decision-making authority across a much larger network of individual minds. The innovation power of the marketplace derives, in part, from this most elemental math: no matter how smart the "authorities" may be, if they are outnumbered a thousand to one by the marketplace, there will be more good ideas lurking in the market than in the feudal castle. Cities and markets recruit more minds into the collective project of exploring the adjacent possible..."

As good as an argument against central planning and in defence of a distributed market economy (i.e. capitalism) as any. These ideas are very similar to what Matt Ridley talks about in his books and talks. Johnson draws on Ridley a little in this book, but mostly from his book on sex. Johnson would do well to read Ridley’s work and incorporate those ideas into his thinking.

Despite those weaknesses, the merits of the earlier chapters are overwhelming and this book is packed with many good ideas for such a small book.
Profile Image for Bianca A..
214 reviews148 followers
January 6, 2021
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 equal, that all ideas are unique, and that good ideas may happen at any moment irrespective of time, place and person or people who are conceiving them. That they take time to be formed as they require a background of knowledge and work.
I liked the blend of science and example and I find that the author reached his goal with the book. Many great observations that make you think.
Profile Image for Kressel Housman.
966 reviews217 followers
February 8, 2017
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 scholarly and a more challenging read.

A warning to my religious friends: this author is a Darwinist. He opens up with Darwin’s observations on the variety of life forms to be found in a coral reef and extrapolates the analogy to human environments where ideas can thrive and grow, like cities and the World Wide Web. He uses other analogies from the theory of evolution throughout the book, namely, “the lucky accident” as opposed to the “argument from design.”

Now, I welcome the idea of embracing error as part of progress. The testing culture of our schools makes us way too afraid of being wrong, and not only does it inhibit creativity, it doesn’t reflect the real world. Nobody makes progress without trial and error. But I find it very hard to believe that dinosaurs evolved feathers for warmth, even though feathers just happen to be perfectly structured for flight, and the dinosaurs discovered this by experimental movements. Yes, the discovery of penicillin was one lucky accident. But the feather thing is pushing it.

Even still, I can’t give the book less than a five even though some parts went right over my head. My favorite part was learning about the “commonplace notebooks” or journals the Enlightenment thinkers used to keep of their reading. It sounded just like Goodreads, and it got me to write in my hand journal again for the first time in months. But the coolest part was that someone who read one of those notebooks as a child was instrumental in designing the web as we know it. (That was in the chapter called “The Slow Hunch.” From a seemingly unrelated train of thoughts, brilliant connections can arise if you wait long enough.)

My other favorite part was the Appendix at the end in which the author gives short chronological summaries of inventions and discoveries from the Middle Ages to the present. He credited Charles Townes and not Gordon Gould for the invention of the laser, but fine, no author can be perfect. So Darwinism aside, I probably will read more from Steven Johnson. He’s got plenty to teach.
Profile Image for C.
1,078 reviews1,052 followers
April 28, 2013
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 Fourth Quadrant, which explores innovation in market-based (profit-seeking) and non-market-based environments.

The book’s last paragraph gives advice on having good ideas, which is a concise summary of the book: “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 others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.”

The appendix contains an interesting chronology of key innovations from 1400-2000 AD, which shows that many innovations were discovered independently by separate innovators, and that many were based on years of research built on previous ideas.

I read this because it was listed in .net Magazine’s The top 50 books for web designers and developers. The list has since been updated, and no longer includes it.

The Adjacent Possible
• Good ideas are constrained by the “parts” (physical or conceptual materials) and skills that surround them.
• Ideas are limited by the “adjacent possible”; the realm of options made reachable by previous ideas.
• The best environments for creating good ideas are those that help people expose the adjacent possible, by exposing a diverse sample of mechanical or conceptual parts, and encouraging novel ways of recombining them.
• Bad environments punish experimentation, obscure branches of possibility, and make the current state so satisfying that no one explores.
• To have good ideas, don’t sit in isolation and think big thoughts; get more “parts” on the table.

Liquid Networks
It’s not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. Individuals get smarter because they’re connected to a social network.

The Slow Hunch
Hunches need space and time to evolve.

How to trigger serendipitous thoughts: go for a walk, take a shower or bath, read, get away from work and tasks.

Errors force us to rethink our biases and contemplate alternatives, spurring innovation.

Great innovators have many hobbies, and ideas from different projects make connections that lead to insights.

The Fourth Quadrant
• “Market-based competition has no monopoly on innovation. Competition and the profit motive do indeed motivate us to turn good ideas into shipping products, but more often than not, the ideas themselves come from somewhere else.”
• From the 1800s on, innovation has increasingly taken place in collaborative groups (“collective invention”), inside and outside the market.
• Why do some good ideas flourish without economic incentives? Non-market environments are more efficient because they’re more open than market environments, which have barriers like copyright, patents, and trade secrets. People can focus on creating new ideas rather than spend time and money protecting old ones.
77 reviews15 followers
February 25, 2011
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 ideas and concepts that quietly govern our surroundings and environments with or without our knowledge.

Highly recommend.
Profile Image for David.
45 reviews
April 21, 2011
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!
Profile Image for Kristine.
139 reviews2 followers
September 29, 2010
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 myself away. Definitely a book I'll be re-reading--and don't even ask to borrow my copy.

As a scientists especially, I appreciated his treatment of the collaborative nature of ideas and innovations especially. May of the best, most innovative ideas in science come out of collaborations, not from the apocryphal lone scientist toiling away in a secluded lab. Certainly, a breakthrough can happen to someone working alone, but he makes a compelling argument that interaction with others, or at the very least broad exposure to ideas, fertilizes the mind, priming it for creativity. Johnson presents the best justification for conference attendance ever.

I only had a couple of criticisms that pulled this down from a five star to a four star. He mentions the importance of the commonplace book--essentially a diary for ideas--and then essentially advertises his own favorite version of a digital commonplace book (from DEVONthink) for the remainder of the chapter. While I'm sure the DEVONthink product is a good one, and I'm glad to know such products exist (since I'd never have thought to even look for one on my own) I'm sure there are other systems out there for taking notes and organizing ideas that would be equally good.

That minor quibble aside, I really enjoyed this book!
Profile Image for Rebecca.
20 reviews7 followers
October 8, 2012
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 spare parts
2. Platforms - Creating a generative environment where different kinds of thought can productively collide and recombine
3. Liquid Networks - To create a good idea, the environment needs to be densely populated with ideas but capable of adopting new configurations
4. The Slow Hunch - Good ideas are a series of small hunches that come together over a long time
5. Serendipity - Hunches require environments where surprising new connections can be forged over time
6. Error - Innovations often come from unexpected results because error creates a path out of your comfortable assumptions
7. Exaptation - Taking on one evolution of an idea for another purpose: recombining, often through diverse, horizontal social networks where you act as a bridge between tight clusters
Profile Image for Candice Carpenter.
18 reviews12 followers
April 19, 2012
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 came to mind when I read his book are: open-source communities can have profound effects on technological, educational, and social aspects of our lives, if properly leveraged; we can make ourselves more interconnected to various diverse networks (be they intellectual, social, cultural, or otherwise) to become more creative and inventive; deep dive reading sabbaticals are not just for socially sanctioned geniuses like Bill Gates, but for people like me who want to creatively catalyze their thinking and productivity.
Profile Image for Derek Neighbors.
236 reviews26 followers
March 17, 2013
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.
Profile Image for Lyubov.
352 reviews194 followers
May 5, 2016
3 звезди заради убийствено скучния стил на писане и озадачаващия на моменти превод.

"интернетен вестник", "Апъл" - сириъсли?!

Иначе книгата съдържа интересни факти, теории и научни експерименти, но трябва да си с железни нерви, за да отсееш зърното от плявата. Добре че съм литературен мазохист :)
Profile Image for Doa'a Ali.
137 reviews31 followers
November 2, 2021
يقدم الكتاب مقاربة ذكية للإبداع البشري عبر دراسة آليات إبداع الانتقاء الطبيعي بتطور الكائنات الحية، عملية نسخ الdnaالتي يحدث فيها أخطاء وطفرات وتكيفات مع البيئة تؤدي إلى ظهور صفات جديدة او قفزات نوعية، باستخدام الممكن المجاور، أو بالاستفادة من الشبكات المائعة، أو عن طريق الحدس البطيء او المصادفة السعيدة او حتى الخطأ، واهمها هي التحور الوظيفي (ظهور وظيفة جديدة لشيء موجود اصلا)..
الكتاب مبني على دراسة موسعة للمشهد الإبداعي، قد يسقط منها بعض التفاصيل
Profile Image for Veronica.
101 reviews63 followers
October 12, 2021
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 Oldenburg's 'third place' (a connective environment distinct from the more insular world of home and office), networks of enterprise. Reminded me of a more academic version of Steal Like An Artist at times.

"A new technology developed in one idea-space can migrate over to another idea space through these long distance connections; in that new environment, the technology may turn out to have unanticipated properties, or may trigger a connection that leads to a new breakthrough. The value of the weak tie lies not just in the speed with which it transmits information across a network; it also promotes the exaptation of those ideas."

"Our thought shapes the spaces we inhabit, and our spaces return the favor. The argument of this book is that a series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments."

"Patterns of innovation and creativity are fractal: they reappear in recognizable form as you zoom in and out, from molecule to neuron to pixel to sidewalk...when life gets creative, it has a tendency to gravitate toward certain recurring patterns, whether those patterns are emergent and self-organizing, or whether they are deliberately crafted by human agents."

"In The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler argued that 'all decisive events in the history of scientific thought can be described in terms of mental cross-fertilization between different disciplines.'"

"Good ideas may not want to be free, but they want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete."

"The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible."

"The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed the concept of 'flow' to describe the internal state of energized focus that characterizes the mind at its most productive."

"Imposing too much order runs the risk of orphaning a promising hunch in a larger that has died, and it makes it difficult for those ideas to mingle and breed when you revisit them. You need a system for capturing hunches, not necessarily categorizing them, because categories can build barriers between disparate ideas, restrict them to their own conceptual islands. This is one way in which the human history of innovation deviates from the natural history. New ideas do not thrive on archipelagos."

[Information spillover] "captures the essential liquidity of information in dense settlements."

"Dreams are the mind's primordial soup: the medium that facilitates the serendipitous collisions of creative insight."

"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 others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank."
Profile Image for La mia.
359 reviews34 followers
February 14, 2015
Un libro molto interessante, scritto molto bene, che entra nei meccanismi con cui le idee nascono, evolvono, proliferano. Con un approccio multidisciplinare Johnson costruisce una storia in cui ci racconta come la favola del genio che crea nel buio della sua stanzetta sia appunto una favola. L’innovazione nasce dall’interazione, è un processo che per sua natura si nutre di connessioni casuali, di intuizioni lente, di errori. L’innovazione si muove nell’ambito del “possibile adiacente” ovvero solo per crescita progressiva e non per balzi, si alimenta di “trasferimenti” da un campo della conoscenza all’altro, necessita di “piattaforme” di sapere comune in cui ogni innovatore si appoggia su quanto altri hanno fatto prima di lui. La conclusione, molto equilibrata ma anche molto netta, riguarda la valutazione sugli ambienti che sempre più spesso favoriranno l’innovazione: le reti collaborative, capaci di interconnettere esperienze diverse, e gli ambienti scarsamente formalizzati e dotati di poche barriere alla diffusione delle idee (segreti industriali, brevetti etc.). Aziende, persone e istituzioni stanno comprendendo che la protezione della proprietà intellettuale – nata per dare valore economico all’idea e favorire quindi gli investimenti - finisce in realtà per ridurne le potenzialità, e limitarne quindi la crescita di valore. Il modello vincente sarà quello dei “network liquidi”, con regole ridotte al minimo, dove lo scambio è più importante dello sfruttamento immediato dell’idea a fini commerciali. Una evoluzione naturale che tende a superare la contrapposizione tra capitale privato e potere dello Stato, tra modello capitalistico e modello socialistico, verso qualcosa che ancora non abbiamo compreso bene, ma che è già realtà.
Profile Image for Lindsey.
1,003 reviews24 followers
September 20, 2010
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 bit long, Johnson drew some interesting conclusions and tied all the themes together in a very satisfying way. The reason it stands out for me, however, is that he starts with a story that seems to disprove his point and then carefully shows that his conclusions, while good, are not the only method of good innovation. This is a book that seeks to elucidate and enlighten, not spout doctrine.

In the end, I cannot recommend this highly enough for a wide range of people: engineers, managers, scientists, sociologists, and all those who are just curious about the world around them.

Disclaimer: I won this book for free through FirstReads.
Profile Image for Parker.
155 reviews25 followers
October 31, 2010
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 Good Ideas Come From looks a lot like that kind of book, but I'm happy to say it isn't. It's a short book, especially if you don't count a long appendix, but Johnson makes about six or seven really solid points that are each interesting and worth thinking about. Of course, there are plenty of anecdotes for illustration, but a majority were unfamiliar to me and well told.

I'm not sure this book is a classic or anything, but it's definitely an entertaining read, and could certainly provide a spark to a creative person who is having trouble conceptualizing the process of having an idea. I certainly enjoyed it, and will probably apply the good ideas Johnson discussed to my own thinking.
6 reviews4 followers
April 19, 2011
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 principles in action. Cases like the invention of the Internet (the ultimate liquid network, and the preeminent platform), the exaptation of car parts into incubators that third world citizens understand how to maintain (adjacent possible), and the FBI's pre-9/11 antiterrorist unit (slow hunches that failed to materialize because of frozen, nonliquid networks) will inspire your creativity in ways you may not even consciously know are possible. If you need any kind of creative inspiration (business, art, etc.), read this book! This book will hopefully be the inspiration of my own successful business venture, and could be for yours. This is perhaps one of the best books I've ever read.
Profile Image for Yazdan.
26 reviews11 followers
May 14, 2018
این اولین کتاب از مجموعه کتاب هایی هست که بچه های خوب پادکست استرینگ بوکس‌ هر فصلشو رو خلاصه کردن و به صورت پادکست منتشر کردن. من هم از روی همون این کتاب رو دنبال کردم که شامل نه قسمت سه تا هفت دقیقه هست. از اسم کتاب موضوع کتاب مشخص هست :)) و من چیزی نیست که بتونم اضافه کنم. توصیه میکنم که به کانال تلگرام استرینگ بوکس برید یا از طریق اپلیکیشن های پادکست دنبالشون کنین
Profile Image for Bran Gustafson.
Author 1 book56 followers
September 17, 2016
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.
Profile Image for Wasim Khan.
28 reviews8 followers
February 27, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Anastasija.
22 reviews3 followers
October 24, 2022
Reading several books at once is not crazy, it's called literature synergy 💫✌️
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