Steven Johnson on Where Good Ideas Come From (Transcript)

Steven Berlin Johnson examines the intersection of science, technology and personal experience. Full bio here

“People often credit their ideas to individual “Eureka!” moments. But Steven Johnson shows how history tells a different story. His fascinating tour takes us from the “liquid networks” of London’s coffee houses to Charles Darwin’s long, slow hunch to today’s high-velocity web”.







Steven Johnson – Author

Just a few minutes ago, I took this picture about 10 blocks from here. This is the Grand Cafe here in Oxford. I took this picture because this turns out to be the first coffeehouse to open in England in 1650. That’s its great claim to fame, and I wanted to show it to you, not because I want to give you the kind of Starbucks tour of historic England, but rather because the English coffeehouse was crucial to the development and spread of one of the great intellectual flowerings of the last 500 years, what we now call the Enlightenment.

Coffeehouse – Enlightenment

And the coffeehouse played such a big role in the birth of the Enlightenment, in part, because of what people were drinking there. Because, before the spread of coffee and tea through British culture, what people drank — both elite and mass folks drank — day-in and day-out, from dawn until dusk was alcohol.

Alcohol was the daytime beverage of choice. You would drink a little beer with breakfast and have a little wine at lunch, a little gin — particularly around 1650 — and top it off with a little beer and wine at the end of the day. That was the healthy choice – right? — because the water wasn’t safe to drink.

And so, effectively until the rise of the coffeehouse, you had an entire population that was effectively drunk all day. And you can imagine what that would be like, right, in your own life — and I know this is true of some of you — if you were drinking all day, and then you switched from a depressant to a stimulant in your life, you would have better ideas. You would be sharper and more alert. And so it’s not an accident that a great flowering of innovation happened as England switched to tea and coffee.

But the other thing that makes the coffeehouse important is the architecture of the space. It was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise, and share. It was a space, as Matt Ridley talked about, where ideas could have sex. This was their conjugal bed, in a sense — ideas would get together there. And an astonishing number of innovations from this period have a coffeehouse somewhere in their story.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about coffeehouses for the last five years, because I’ve been kind of on this quest to investigate this question of where good ideas come from. What are the environments that lead to unusual levels of innovation, unusual levels of creativity? What’s the kind of environmental — what is the space of creativity?

And what I’ve done is I’ve looked at both environments like the coffeehouse. I’ve looked at media environments, like the world wide web, that have been extraordinarily innovative. I’ve gone back to the history of the first cities. I’ve even gone to biological environments, like coral reefs and rainforests, that involve unusual levels of biological innovation.

And what I’ve been looking for is shared patterns, kind of signature behavior that shows up again and again in all of these environments. Are there recurring patterns that we can learn from, that we can take and kind of apply to our own lives, or our own organizations, or our own environments to make them more creative and innovative? And I think I’ve found a few.

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But what you have to do to make sense of this and to really understand these principles is you have to do away with a lot of the way in which our conventional metaphors and language steers us towards certain concepts of idea-creation. We have this very rich vocabulary to describe moments of inspiration. We have the kind of the flash of insight, the stroke of insight, we have epiphanies, we have “eureka!” moments, we have the lightbulb moments, right? All of these concepts, as kind of rhetorically florid as they are, share this basic assumption, which is that an idea is a single thing, it’s something that happens often in a wonderful illuminating moment.

But in fact, what I would argue and what you really need to kind of begin with is this idea that an idea is a network on the most elemental level. I mean, this is what is happening inside your brain. An idea — a new idea — is a new network of neurons firing in sync with each other inside your brain. It’s a new configuration that has never formed before.

And the question is: how do you get your brain into environments where these new networks are going to be more likely to form? And it turns out that, in fact, the kind of network patterns of the outside world mimic a lot of the network patterns of the internal world of the human brain.

So the metaphor I’d like the use I can take from a story of a great idea that’s quite recent — a lot more recent than the 1650s. A wonderful guy named Timothy Prestero, who has a company called… an organization called Design That Matters. They decided to tackle this really pressing problem of, you know, the terrible problems we have with infant mortality rates in the developing world.

One of the things that’s very frustrating about this is that we know, by getting modern neonatal incubators into any context, if we can keep premature babies warm, basically — it’s very simple — we can halve infant mortality rates in those environments. So, the technology is there. These are standard in all the industrialized worlds.

The problem is, if you buy a $40,000 incubator, and you send it off to a mid-sized village in Africa, it will work great for a year or two years, and then something will go wrong and it will break, and it will remain broken forever, because you don’t have a whole system of spare parts, and you don’t have the on-the-ground expertise to fix this $40,000 piece of equipment. And so you end up having this problem where you spend all this money getting aid and all these advanced electronics to these countries, and then it ends up being useless.

So what Prestero and his team decided to do is to look around and see: what are the abundant resources in these developing world contexts?

And what they noticed was they don’t have a lot of DVRs, they don’t have a lot of microwaves, but they seem to do a pretty good job of keeping their cars on the road. There’s a Toyota Forerunner on the street in all these places. They seem to have the expertise to keep cars working.

So they started to think, “Could we build a neonatal incubator that’s built entirely out of automobile parts?” And this is what they ended up coming with. It’s called a “neonurture device.” From the outside, it looks like a normal little thing you’d find in a modern, Western hospital. In the inside, it’s all car parts. It’s got a fan, it’s got headlights for warmth, it’s got door chimes for alarm — it runs off a car battery. And so all you need is the spare parts from your Toyota and the ability to fix a headlight, and you can repair this thing.

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Now, that’s a great idea, but what I’d like to say is that, in fact, this is a great metaphor for the way that ideas happen. We like to think our breakthrough ideas, you know, are like that $40,000, brand new incubator, state-of-the-art technology, but more often than not, they’re cobbled together from whatever parts that happen to be around nearby.

We take ideas from other people, from people we’ve learned from, from people we run into in the coffee shop, and we stitch them together into new forms and we create something new. That’s really where innovation happens.

And that means that we have to change some of our models of what innovation and deep thinking really looks like, right. I mean, this is one vision of it. Another is Newton and the apple, when Newton was at Cambridge. This is a statue from Oxford. You know, you’re sitting there thinking a deep thought, and the apple falls from the tree, and you have the theory of gravity.

In fact, the spaces that have historically led to innovation tend to look like this, right. This is Hogarth’s famous painting of a kind of political dinner at a tavern, but this is what the coffee shops looked like back then. This is the kind of chaotic environment where ideas were likely to come together, where people were likely to have new, interesting, unpredictable collisions — people from different backgrounds.

So, if we’re trying to build organizations that are more innovative, we have to build spaces that — strangely enough — look a little bit more like this. This is what your office should look like, is part of my message here.

And one of the problems with this is that people are actually — when you research this field — people are notoriously unreliable, when they actually kind of self-report on where they have their own good ideas, or their history of their best ideas.

And a few years ago, a wonderful researcher named Kevin Dunbar decided to go around and basically do the Big Brother approach to figuring out where good ideas come from. He went to a bunch of science labs around the world and videotaped everyone as they were doing every little bit of their job. So when they were sitting in front of the microscope, when they were talking to their colleague at the water cooler, and all these things.

And he recorded all of these conversations and tried to figure out where the most important ideas, where they happened. And when we think about the classic image of the scientist in the lab, we have this image — you know, they’re pouring over the microscope, and they see something in the tissue sample. And “oh, eureka,” they’ve got the idea.

What happened actually when Dunbar kind of looked at the tape is that, in fact, almost all of the important breakthrough ideas did not happen alone in the lab, in front of the microscope. They happened at the conference table at the weekly lab meeting, when everybody got together and shared their kind of latest data and findings, oftentimes when people shared the mistakes they were having, the error, the noise in the signal they were discovering.

And something about that environment — and I’ve started calling it the “liquid network,” where you have lots of different ideas that are together, different backgrounds, different interests, jostling with each other, bouncing off each other — that environment is, in fact, the environment that leads to innovation.

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