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Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

By Steven Berlin Johnson


The most recent book by Steven Berlin Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, is an interesting read on a topic I suspect few of us have given much consideration how breakthrough ideas, concepts, innovations and technologies are found. Who finds them? What types of things or conditions might contribute to a person finding a great new idea or invention?

Johnson certainly lays it all out. Educated primarily in literature, language and history, Johnson packs his bookfull of historical accounts of the great "ideas" of modern history-astrology, math, science and technology. He begins with the inventions of double-entry accounting (1300 to 1400 AD) and the printing press (1440); extends through the flush toilet (1596), pendulum clock (1656) and bicycle (1787 to 1863); all the way through the World Wide Web (1989 to 1992) and gamma ray bursts (1997).

The book is worth the price just for the exhaustive list of historical, scientific and mechanical breakthroughs and innovations. Included is a brief explanation of each that includes circumstances surrounding the "breakthrough."

Johnson interestingly asserts that ideas are a lot like genetic mutations (or variations). Both are a creation of something new. Both are put to the competitive test, and survive or die based on their utility. Further, both idea creation and genetic mutation rarely take great leaps forward. They occur incrementally. A fish is born with a fin that's just a touch different and happens to allow greater swim efficiency. A grape (wine) press is modified to press letters onto parchment.

A fish did not mutate into a man, and the printing press was not conceived by Gutenberg out of mud and plant material. Johnson explains that, in contrast to conventional wisdom, great ideas are not drawn on white canvas by geniuses sitting in their studies "thinking" about what great ideas they might be able to conjure. No, they're limited to "the adjacent possible." New ideas and adaptations are built incrementally on what has already been created. Idea generation, like natural evolution of living things, is a slow process from simple to progressively more complex. Ideas are built on other ideas just as nature and living things evolved from just a few primordial gases, to simple molecules, to more complex molecules, to simple organisms, to more and more complex organisms.

And as the date ranges suggest in the list above, invention almost always occurs not in a single "ah hah" moment but in an incremental process of discovery over months, years, even decades. Similarly, the process of discovery most often occurs between and among multiple people working on the same or similar problems or concepts. Each borrows from and learns from the successes and failures of the others. Invention is collaboration, trial, error-and discovery. Sure, historians tend to want to pin discovery on a single person or persons, but like a team winning a championship, it's made possible by the work of many people over many years.

But as with many books, the concepts seem to be expanded to fill the desired page count. Not that there are pages of worthless text, but for those wishing to get the data and move on, the pace is a little slow. And I must disagree with one of the themes of the book. Johnson asserts that our patent law system stifles innovation by taking ideas out of public circulation. It is my understanding that filing a patent is a process of public disclosure. Patent filings and patents are available to the public, and each includes a full, precise explanation of the idea or innovation. Thus, patent law serves to release ideas into the world rather than protect them, as Johnson asserts.

Regardless, Where Good Ideas Come From is an informative read for anyone with an interest in history, evolution, invention and idea generation.

Reviewed by David L. Perkins, Jr.
COPYRIGHT 2011 D.L. Perkins, LLC
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Perkins, David L., Jr.
Publication:The Business Owner
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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