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Book Review: 'Where Good Ideas Come From' by Steven Johnson

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Where Good Ideas Come From

The Natural History of Innovation

Steven Johnson

Riverhead: 326 pp., $26.95

Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation" is misnamed. Natural history was pioneered by 18th century naturalist Gilbert White, and its blend of scientific fieldwork, travel writing, physical geography and anthropology was meant to convey the majesty and intricate interdependency of God's creation. The time-traveling Johnson overshot his mark by a couple of centuries. "Where Good Ideas Come From" reveals hidden relationships between disparate realms, decodes ancient mysteries, argues that we all have untapped powers and shows how to turn everyday materials into valuable ones. In short, it's a Renaissance alchemical guide.

Granted, the everyday materials Johnson writes about in his fluid, accessible book are not lead or dross, but people, places and very tiny animals. But today's alchemist wouldn't be interested in materials. Recently, Facebook was estimated to be worth about $33 billion, and gold was selling for nearly $1,400 an ounce; that means the social networking company was worth more than 700 tons of gold. We live in a world in which Farmville is worth a lot more than Sutter's Mill.

So what's the philosopher's stone for creativity, the elixir for making innovative places?

A "series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments," Johnson argues, be they companies, cities or coral reefs. Good ideas, whether expressed as patents or paintings or DNA, flourish in liquid networks stocked with old ideas and physical resources that can be cannibalized, recycled and repurposed. Liquid networks give creative groups the chance to explore the "adjacent possible," the new functions or capabilities opened up by incremental innovations; discover new uses for old ideas; and explore potentially fruitful errors. Finally, they serve as a proving ground for ideas, making it easier to experiment, fail quickly and cheaply and iterate faster. (Maddeningly, though, it's not clear how liquid networks select good ideas. In nature, species thrive when they fit their environments; but good ideas aren't inherently good — they can be counterintuitive and perverse — and "Where Good Ideas Come From" never quite explains whether markets are better than patrons, or tastemakers better than crowds, at identifying them.)

What emerges is a vision of innovation and ideas that is resolutely social, dynamic and material. Despite its trendiness, Johnson's perspective is at times wonderfully, subtly contrarian. Ideas don't spring from the minds of solitary, Galtian geniuses: They may start with smart people, but they're refined, extended and finished by creative cultures that are shaped by their physical environments. But good ideas also don't emerge magically from crowdsourcing and promiscuous networking; they're slow hunches that "fade into view" during years of reflection, tinkering and exploring dead ends. Creative ferment may be accelerated by the Internet, but place still matters. And innovation is driven much less by competition than by obvious and subtle forms of cooperation: Even the most radical-looking invention builds on old ideas and recycled parts.

Like all of Johnson's books, "Where Good Ideas Comes From" is fluidly written, entertaining and smart without being arcane. But is it any more successful than Renaissance recipes for turning lead into gold? "The more we embrace these patterns" in innovative spaces, Johnson says, "the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking."

I'm not sure it's that easy. Fish might not mind artificial reefs, but humans sure seem to. Efforts to create innovative spaces still yield results that feel like computer animations: bright, sharp and unreal. For example, Frank Gehry designed the Stata Center at MIT to encourage serendipitous connection and intellectual cross-fertilization among computer scientists. But people are most innovative when they make their own creative spaces and connections, not inhabit someone else's. It's hard to do the kind of appropriation and reinvention of space that supports real innovation when you're working in a building that reflects a creative vision as distinctive as Gehry's. The surrounding Cambridge neighborhood, on the other hand, is a bricolage of old houses, small factories and warehouses set on streets blazed by cows in the 1600s. It's flexible and can be repurposed endlessly — and it works brilliantly.

In other words, Cambridge (like Hollywood or Silicon Valley) is itself a good idea, the product of serendipitous connections, slow hunches and rich trial and error. If this is so, then creative environments can only be described, not designed. For all its promise to reveal the elixir of innovation, maybe "Where Good Ideas Come From" is a natural history after all.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is an associate fellow at the Saïd Business School at Oxford University, and founder of Future2.org, a Silicon Valley consulting company.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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