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Where Good Ideas Come From

The Natural History of Innovation

By Steven Johnson
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Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

Where Good Ideas Come From (2011) examines the evolution of life on Earth and the history of science. This New York Times bestseller highlights many parallels between the two, ranging from carbon atoms forming the very first building blocks of life to cities and the World Wide Web fostering great innovations and discoveries.

In addition to presenting this extensive analysis, replete with anecdotes and scientific evidence, Johnson also considers how individual and organizational creativity can be cultivated.

Key idea 1 of 10

Evolution and innovation usually happen in the realm of the adjacent possible.

Four billion years ago, carbon atoms mulled around in the primordial soup. But as life began, those atoms did not spontaneously arrange themselves into complex life forms like sunflowers or squirrels.

First, they had to form simpler structures like molecules, polymers, proteins, cells, primitive organisms and so forth. Each step along the way opened up possibilities for new combinations, expanding the realm of what was possible, until finally a carbon atom could reside in a sunflower.

Similarly, eBay could not be created in the 1950s. First, someone had to invent computers, then a way to connect those computers, then a World Wide Web for people to browse, and then a platform that supported online payments.

Both evolution and innovation tend to happen within the bounds of the adjacent possible; in other words, the realm of possibilities available at any given moment.

Great leaps beyond the adjacent possible are rare, and doomed to be short-term failures if the environment is simply not yet ready for them. Had YouTube been launched in the 1990s, it would have flopped since neither the fast Internet connections nor the software required to view videos was available then.

The predominance of multiples in innovation highlights how the adjacent possible is constrained by existing parts and knowledge. A multiple occurs when several people independently make the same discovery almost simultaneously.

Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Joseph Priestley isolated oxygen in 1772 and 1774 respectively, unaware of the other’s advancement. But they did share the same starting point, because their search for oxygen could not begin until the gaseous nature of air was first understood. Thus it was inevitable that some scientists would reach their discoveries at around the same time.

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