Talking about good ideas with Steven Johnson

Getting to chat to Steven Berlin Johnson was one of the highlights of my year so far – he’s a lovely guy, for a start, but he’s also one of those effortlessly interesting types who is just brimming with ideas all the time, and has the gift of being able to make those ideas very accessible without dumbing them down.

The subject of our interview was his book Where Good Ideas Come From, which as well as fulfilling the promise of the title offers a masterclass in non-fiction narrative ingenuity. And yes, that’s a lightbulb, an ingenious invention that has become a hackneyed symbol of ingenuity and inspiration, pictured at the top of the post. I just like the way it looks like an elaborate S logo from underneath…

 

“Nature’s Great Idea Engines”, The Irish Times Innovation Magazine, Friday, March 25th, 2011

It’s an unfortunate truth that we often take ideas for granted – we assume, mistakenly, that they just happen, little gifts from the brain, and that some people are more prone to having good ones than others. Occasionally, we think we can force ourselves to have ideas, usually in brainstorming sessions with markers and whiteboards. Above all, we are under the misapprehension that the best ideas come to geniuses in flashes of fully formed inspiration that we call Eureka moments. These assumptions illustrate how abstract the idea-making process is, how hard it is to conceptualise where ideas come from, and how difficult it is to encourage better ones.

Tackling such theoretical terrain is a difficult task, which is why Steven Berlin Johnson received such unanimous praise when he published “Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation” last autumn. Johnson is an acclaimed popular science author whose work has often engaged with groundbreaking innovators, while his best-selling Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter is required reading for anybody interested in digital culture.

Where Good Ideas Come From, however, was his most ambitious work yet, not only an attempt to illuminate the complexities of idea-making in an engaging, clever read while offering a potted history of innovation, but also an attempt to present a grand thesis of creative thinking. As the venerable technology writer Kevin Kelly summarised it, “It’s a book about how ideas are networks that are made up of a network of ideas,” and the book itself is an intricate network of anecdote and theory that ultimately coheres into a compelling portrait of that most evanescent of mental processes – having an idea.

“This was the hardest one to write of all seven of the books that I’ve written, by a wide margin,” he says on the phone from his home in Brooklyn. “There was a long period where I kind of stalled on it, in part because I was doing other things … and it was partially because the structure wasn’t clear to me. I knew I could make a lot of connnections, but I wanted it to not just feel like a stream of consciousness.”

The structure he decided upon is a clever grouping of “patterns” central to strong ideation, with each chapter devoted to exploring a pattern: the premise of the “adjacent possible”, which describes how each phase of innovation opens doors for even more innovation, allowing good ideas to lead to, and build upon, other good ideas, and so on; “liquid networks” that encourage information flow and collaboration; the long development of “slow hunches” rather than flashes of inspiration, as epitomised by the long gestation of Darwin’s theory of evolution; the vital role played by sheer serendipity and learning from error; the potential of exaptation, or adapting existing innovations for new purposes; and the foundational role played by platforms, such as the tangled banks of coral reefs, cities or the internet. Johnson illustrates each of these concepts with vivid, interlinked anecdotes, an enlightening web of innovation history.

“It wasn’t ready until I had the patterns, with each chapter being a pattern. It took me three years to get to that idea. Originally it was five patterns, then I padded it out to seven. As I said to my editor, “now it’s 20 per cent more innovation” or whatever number that is. It took a long time to figure out a way to make it all work.”

Johnson seems justifiably proud and gratified at the positive reaction that met “Good Ideas” – the chorus of approval made it a zeitgeist-defining must-read.

“When I was putting together the idea and writing it, I thought that innovation as a subject matter was kind of an evergreen one that people were always interested in…But I didn’t think of it as being particularly timely. I think in a weird way that it’s partially the post-economic crisis and being in a recovery period, or making ourselves feel like we’re in a recovery period. To the extent that the book is both about innovation environments and has a special place in its heart for why the web itself has been such a driver of change and new ideas, I think that kind of resonated. If you listen to Obama’s State of the Union address, now I don’t think he’s actually read the book, but there were lines where I thought ‘Wow I could have written that,’” he says, laughing.

Johnson seems like an exceptionally sunny individual, expansive and generous, given to frequent laughter, punctuating his observations with chuckles. There is a sense of irrepressible enthusiasm, a giddy optimism unusual in a 42-year-old, though maybe that’s because we talked just as the “hyperlocal” news site that he co-founded, Outside.in, was being bought by AOL. Yes, on top of being a celebrated thinker, Johnson is also a web entrepreneur – he not only writes about good ideas, he acts on his own, too.

Johnson sees the web as analogous to the diverse biosystem of the coral reef, a teeming platform that encourages innovation by lowering the barriers to entry for anyone with an idea, and he has only been further convinced since “seeing how healthy the web has been through this whole thing [the economic crisis], recognising that there has been something resilient about the web culture, that it just kept innovating right through the crisis – Facebook and Twitter were kind of being built as the rest of the world was falling apart. It was almost like nothing had happened to them.”

That resilience is the hallmark of vibrant ecosystems, and points the way to the next phase of the adjacent possible, a phrase Johnson borrowed from the scientist Stuart Kauffman to describe the exponentially iterative process of innovation. Such a model suggests an ever-increasing rate of technological development.

Some thinkers, however, doubt the sustainability of such improvement. US economist Tyler Cowen, for instance, suggests in his most recent book, The Great Stagnation, that the pace of life-changing innovation has slowed dramatically in recent decades, with much of the changes seen in the 20th century merely representing the “low-hanging fruit” of progress, and that we have reached a “technological plateau”. Johnson isn’t so sceptical.

“The two doors that have just been unlocked are location and social. And we’re just starting to think about what it means to organise everything around true social networks,” he says. “To have that as part of the structure of all the technology that we have, is going to be unbelievably disruptive. All major consumer decisions, I believe, will be predominantly filtered through some kind of social graph in the next five years. You’ll make all your choices through that network. And that is very different, it’s not the way it works now, we still have a mass-culture system, not a system of clusters of 200 people. Walking around with location-aware devices, with a world of data that is geographically tagged, that is just starting to happen. Frankly I think that alone will give us another 10 years of messing around and experimenting and inventing new things,” he says, breaking into a hearty laugh, “and by that point the computers will all be sentient, and then we’ll have plenty of stuff to deal with.”

Along with the notion of the Eureka moment, another myth Johnson was eager to puncture was the belief that innovation stems predominantly from competitive markets. For instance, he uses the story of how Willis Carrier developed air-conditioning in the early 20th century is often held up as “the archetypal myth of modern innovation” – an individual inventor working with the promise of great wealth hits upon a brilliant and lucrative idea. Our collective belief in the Carrier model of innovation is one of the tenets that underpins our faith in market capitalism as an unparalleled innovation engine. In the compelling final chapter of “Good Ideas”, however, Johnson persuasively argues that Carrier is an anomaly, the exception rather than the rule. Innovative thought is more likely to spring from collaborative networks rather than individuals or small groups working in isolation, and market incentives have a surprisingly small role to play in encouraging innovation, which often thrives in non-market environments such as universities and open-source development communities, a space Johnson calls the “fourth quadrant”. Crucially, the more liberal flow of ideas in non-market, nonproprietary networks, as opposed to private firms competing in a marketplace, determined to protect their intellectual property, is more conducive to pioneering breakthroughs.

This conclusion, however, sparked a predictable capitalism versus socialism debate during the Good Ideas book tour. Johnson, who wrote a New York Times article to defend himself from accusations of communism, sounds bemused by the issue now.

“That was totally fascinating… What I realised is that the politics of all this are very interesting, and they don’t fit clear left-right distinctions, because you’re all for decentralisation and open networks, but you’re not just for markets, and you’re not for big government, big state-centralised solutions to things. But you also think that some of the best things ever have come out of non-market environments. Trying to figure out what that means as a political philosophy, not just as a prescription for innovation in society, I think gets really interesting.”

Crucially, the market and non-market networks don’t necessarily function in opposition to one another, and they can’t exist in isolation, either. The problem, Johnson feels, is the lack of a pre-existing political vocabulary to define the “fourth quadrant”. What is most apparent from “Good Ideas” is the organic nature of innovation networks, the various elements of chance and circumstance that is required for them to develop, which would suggest that creating something like a “smart economy” is rather more complex a task than merely investing in computer science departments and broadband. Notoriously, the top-heavy bureaucracies that typify our public sector institutions, from the Government down, are “innovation sinkholes”, in Johnson’s words. In Good Ideas, he suggests that “these institutions have an opportunity to fundamentally alter the way they cultivate and promote good ideas. The more the government thinks of itself as an open platform instead of a centralised bureaucracy, the better it will be for all of us.”

How can this work in practice?

“You know, it was very funny,” he says. “I’ve gone down and talked to some folks at the White House a few times since this book came out, and the intelligence community down there, to talk about the importance of openness and trying to figure out ways to allow ideas to connect in new, surprising and serendipitous forms, and it turned out to be the week that the last big Wikileaks dump happened, so they were all like ‘We’re all full on openness right now, we’re trying to figure out how to close things down a little bit,’” Johnson says, laughing.

“But I think this is one thing the Obama administration have been very good about and very committed to, trying to figure out ways to encourage people outside the government to do interesting things with all the data that governments have. A lot of what government is is a kind of an information problem. There are all these services, all these things they do, all this information about the resources government has, and information about society and where tax dollars are going, and historically they’ve done a terrible job sharing that information, and making it accessible. That has political consequences because governments don’t really advertise for themselves. There’s all this money spent getting politicians elected, in terms of advertising, but almost no money spent saying ‘hey, there’s all these great things that we do’…And so if governments can take some of these systems, and get a lot of people making new tools helping folks realise the value that governments provide, I think that’s a great opportunity.”

Whether Johnson can help governments foster innovative environments remains to be seen, but with Good Ideas, he has gone a long way towards helping us think more clearly about how innovation happens. The process of having ideas just became a lot less abstract.

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