Book Summaries

Book Summary: Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson.

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Where do great ideas come? That is the question that author and media theorist Steven Johnson sought to answer in his book,Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. He identifies the seven key patterns behind genuine innovation, and traces them across time and disciplines.

Chance favours the connected mind.

“This is a book about the space of innovation. Some environments squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly. The city and the Web have been such engines of innovation because, for complicated historical reasons, they are both environments that are powerfully suited for the creation, diffusion, and adoption of good ideas. Neither environment is perfect, by any means. (Think of crime rates in big cities, or the explosion of spam online.) But both the city and the Web possess an undeniable track record at generating innovation”

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.

Johnson distilled them down into seven patterns, each one occupying a separate chapter. The more we embrace these patterns—in our private work habits and hobbies, in our office environments, in the design of new software tools—the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking.

The patterns of innovation according to Johnson include:

  1. The Adjacent Possible
  2. Liquid Networks
  3. The Slow Hunch
  4. Serendipity
  5. Error
  6. Exaptation
  7. Platforms

“We can think more creatively if we open our minds to the many connected environments that make creativity possible.”

The 10/10 Rule

If you look at the entirety of the twentieth century, the most important developments in mass, one-to-many communications clock in at the same social innovation rate with an eerie regularity. Call it the 10/10 rule: a decade to build the new platform, and a decade for it to find a mass audience.

The technology standard of amplitude-modulated radio—what we now call AM radio—evolved in the first decade of the twentieth century. The first commercial AM station began broadcasting in 1920, but it wasn’t until the late 1920s that radios became a fixture in American households. Sony inaugurated research into the first consumer videocassette recorder in 1969, but didn’t ship its first Betamax for another seven years, and VCRs didn’t become a household necessity until the mid-eighties.

The DVD player didn’t statistically replace the VCR in American households until 2006, nine years after the first players went on the market. Cell phones, personal computers, GPS navigation devices—all took a similar time frame to go from innovation to mass adoption.

The history of life and human culture, then, can be told as the story of a gradual but relentless probing of the adjacent possible, each new innovation opening up new paths to explore. But some systems are more adept than others at exploring those possibility spaces

The Multiple

A brilliant idea occurs to a scientist or inventor somewhere in the world, and he goes public with his remarkable finding, only to discover that three other minds had independently come up with the same idea in the past year.


Sunspots were simultaneously discovered in 1611 by four scientists living in four different countries.

electrical battery

The first electrical battery was invented separately by Dean Von Kleist and Cuneus of Leyden in 1745 and 1746.

  • Joseph Priestley and Carl Wilhelm Scheele independently isolated oxygen between 1772 and 1774.
  • The law of the conservation of energy was formulated separately four times in the late 1840s.
  • The evolutionary importance of genetic mutation was proposed by S. Korschinsky in 1899 and then by Hugo de Vries in 1901
  • The impact of X-rays on mutation rates was independently uncovered by two scholars in 1927
  • The telephone, telegraph, steam engine, photograph vacuum tube, radio—just about every essential technological advance of modern life has a multiple lurking somewhere in its origin story.

The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.

Good Ideas

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. Some of those parts are conceptual: ways of solving problems, or new definitions of what constitutes a problem in the first place. Some of them are, literally, mechanical parts.

The history of cultural progress is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.

  1. The Adjacent Possible
    Evolution advances by taking available resources and cobbling them together to create new uses. The evolutionary theorist François Jacob captured this in his concept of evolution as a “tinkerer,” not an engineer; our bodies are also works of bricolage, old parts strung together to form something radically new.The scientist Stuart Kauffman has a suggestive name for the set of all those first-order combinations: “the adjacent possible.” The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. In the case of prebiotic chemistry, the adjacent possible defines all those molecular reactions that were directly achievable in the primordial soup. Sunflowers and mosquitoes and brains exist outside that circle of possibility. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.Yet is it not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field. The number of potential first-order reactions is vast, but it is a finite number, and it excludes most of the forms that now populate the biosphere. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.
  2. Liquid Networks

There are a dozen different metaphors we use colloquially to describe good ideas: we call them sparks, flashes, lightbulb moments; we have brainstorms and breakthroughs, eureka moments and epiphanies.

A good Idea

A good idea is a network. A specific constellation of neurons—thousands of them—fire in sync with each other for the first time in your brain, and an idea pops into your consciousness. A new idea is a network of cells exploring the adjacent possible of connections that they can make in your mind. This is true whether the idea in question is a new way to solve a complex physics problem, or a closing line for a novel, or a feature for a software application.

An idea is not a single thing. It is more like a swarm.


To make your mind more innovative, you have to place it inside environments that share that same network signature: networks of ideas or people that mimic the neural networks of a mind exploring the boundaries of the adjacent possible. Certain environments enhance the brain’s natural capacity to make new links of association. But these patterns of connection are much older than the human brain, older than neurons even. They take us back, once again, to the origin of life itself.

Edge of Chaos

The computer scientist Christopher Langton observed several decades ago that innovative systems have a tendency to gravitate toward the “edge of chaos”: the fertile zone between too much order and too much anarchy. (The notion is central to Stuart Kauffman’s idea of the adjacent possible, as well.) Langton sometimes uses the metaphor of different phases of matter—gas, liquid, solid—to describe these network states.


Think of the behavior of molecules in each of these three conditions. In a gas, chaos rules; new configurations are possible, but they are constantly being disrupted and torn apart by the volatile nature of the environment.


In a solid, the opposite happens: the patterns have stability, but they are incapable of  change.

Liquid Network

But a liquid network creates a more promising environment for the system to explore the adjacent possible. New configurations can emerge through random connections formed between molecules, but the system isn’t so wildly unstable that it instantly destroys its new creations. Those connective carbon atoms swirling in the primordial soup formed a high-density liquid network. The 100 billion neurons in your brain form another kind of liquid network: densely interconnected, constantly exploring new patterns, but also capable of preserving useful structures for long periods of time.

So part of the secret of hunch cultivation is simple: write everything down

3. The Slow Hunch

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 are transformed into something more substantial: sometimes jolted out by some newly discovered trove of information, or by another hunch lingering in another mind, or by an 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. Those kinds of breakthroughs usually take time to develop.

4. Serendipity

Serendipity – First coined in a letter written by the English novelist Horace Walpole in 1754, the word derives from a Persian fairy tale titled “The Three Princes of Serendip,” the protagonists of which were “always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

But serendipity is not just about embracing random encounters for the sheer exhilaration of it. Serendipity is built out of happy accidents, to be sure, but what makes them happy is the fact that the discovery you’ve made is meaningful to you. It completes a hunch, or opens up a door in the adjacent possible that you had overlooked

In a sense, dreams are the mind’s primordial soup: the medium that facilitates the serendipitous collisions of creative insight. And hunches are like those early carbon atoms, seeking out new kinds of connections to help them build new chains and rings of innovation.

Serendipity needs unlikely collisions and discoveries, but it also needs something to anchor those discoveries. Otherwise, your ideas are like carbon atoms randomly colliding with other atoms in the primordial soup without ever forming the rings and lattices of organic life.


A shockingly large number of transformative ideas in the annals of science can be attributed to contaminated laboratory environments.

Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions. Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.

  • Alexander Fleming famously discovered the medical virtues of penicillin when the mold accidentally infiltrated a culture of Staphylococcus he had left by an open window in his lab.
  • In the 1830s, Louis Daguerre spent years trying to coax images out of iodized silver plates. One night, after another futile attempt, he stored the plates in a cabinet packed with chemicals; to his wonder the next morning, the fumes from a spilled jar of mercury produced a perfect image on the plate—and the daguerreotype, forerunner of modern photography, was born.
  • The inventions of radiography, vulcanized rubber, and plastic all depended on generative mistakes that were generative precisely because they connected to slow hunches in the minds of their creators.

When we’re wrong, we have to challenge our assumptions, adopt new strategies. Being wrong on its own doesn’t unlock new doors in the adjacent possible, but it does force us to look for them.

The error is needed to set off the truth, much as a dark background is required for exhibiting the brightness of a picture.- William James


First proposed in an influential 1971 essay by Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba: exaptation. An organism develops a trait optimized for a specific use, but then the trait gets hijacked for a completely different function.

If mutation and error and serendipity unlock new doors in the biosphere’s adjacent possible, exaptations help us explore the new possibilities that lurk behind those doors. A match you light to illuminate a darkened room turns out to have a completely different use when you open a doorway and discover a room with a pile of logs and a fireplace in it. A tool that helps you see in one context ends up helping you keep warm in another. That’s the essence of exaptation.

When Sergey Brin and Larry Page decided to use links between Web pages as digital votes endorsing the content of those pages, they were exapting Berners-Lee’s original design: they took a trait adapted for navigation—the hypertext link—and used it as a vehicle for assessing quality. The result was PageRank, the original algorithm that made Google into the behemoth that it is today.


Platform building is, by definition, a kind of exercise in emergent behaviour. Most hotbeds of innovation have similar physical spaces associated with them: the Homebrew Computing Club in Silicon Valley; Freud’s Wednesday salon at 19 Berggasse; the eighteenth-century English coffeehouse. All these spaces were, in their own smaller-scale fashion, emergent platforms.

The most generative platforms come in stacks, most conspicuously in the layered platform of the Web. (The phrase “platform stack” itself is part of the common parlance of modern programming.) The Web can be imagined as a kind of archaeological site, with layers upon layers of platforms buried beneath every page.

 Ideas are intrinsically copyable in the way that food and fuel are not. You have to build dams to keep ideas from flowing.

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 simple, 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 others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.

All the best in your quest to get better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.

Lifelong Learner | Entrepreneur | Digital Strategist at Reputiva LLC | Marathoner | Bibliophile |

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