In my favorite scene in the movie Apollo 13, the engineers at Mission Control have 15 minutes and a bunch of random equipment (duct tape, suit hoses, bags) to invent something that will save the astronauts from running out of oxygen. In WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM, Steven Johnson refers to this scene as an illustration of problem-solving when the needed parts are available. Without getting into too much detail, it relates to the notion of the “adjacent possible,” how we make connections to pre-existing things (ideas, inventions, resources, tools) to create new things (ditto).
Johnson’s book is both commonsensical and fascinating. He makes compelling arguments about the various ways in which good ideas emerge, provides ample anecdotal evidence, then heaps on even more evidence in the end. In short, he’s pretty convincing.
I love Johnson’s point that we get smarter when connected to a network. The reverse is also true: operating in isolation can be devastating. For example, he notes, “the FBI in the months leading up to 9/11 was a hunch-killing system.” Several agents in the field had hunches, but they were not able to connect to others who had similar hunches in time to connect the dots.
Johnson discusses the idea-generating value of liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity, error, exaptation, and platforms. I won’t go into all of them, but in case you’re wondering, exaptation (a term coined by Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba in 1971) refers to applying a technology from one field and using it to solve a problem in a different field. Example: in the mid-1400s, Johannes Gutenberg realized that he could use the technology from a wine press to create a printing press.
My only complaint with this book is that the title is almost unfairly enticing. But I can’t really complain because it does deliver the goods.