Where good Ideas come from — Summary

This book identifies the key patterns behind genuine innovation

Innovation depends on the adjacent possible

Innovations don’t just happen at random. In the primordial soup of atoms four billion years ago, life didn’t just develop from a rearrangement of carbon atoms.

First simpler structures like molecules, proteins, polymers, cells, and so on had to build the basic structure for more complex life to develop.

A modern example of this rule is Ebay. Ebay couldn’t have been created before computers, and the World Wide Web were invented because Ebay is a shopping platform which runs on top of that other technology.

This principle of new innovation and creation is called the adjacent possible. The adjacent possible is what defines the realm of possibilities at any given moment. Seldom does innovation succeed outside of the adjacent possible. For example, had YouTube been invented in the 90’s, it would have failed because the Internet connections were too slow.

An excellent demonstration of the adjacent possible are multiples of innovation. Multiples of innovation are discoveries which happen at the same time but independently. For example when two people in different countries make the same discovery without having had any contact.

For example, Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Joseph Priestley isolated oxygen in 1772 and 1774 respectively, unaware of each other’s advancement. Their common adjacent possible was the understanding of the nature of air. Which was a prerequisite for their discovery of oxygen.

Great ideas often come in slow hunches

Instead of sudden breakthroughs, world-changing ideas often develop slowly. A perfect example is Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. His notebooks revealed that he had already developed something close to the theory of evolution before he experienced his epiphany while reading Malthus’ writings on population growth. Which then made his theory mature.

Platforms are like springboards for innovations

Keystone species are terms used by ecologists to describe organisms which play an important role in the balance of an ecosystem.

Wolves on a small island with no other predators, keep the population of sheep under control. Without the wolves, the sheep would take over the island’s vegetation and collapse the ecosystem.

Around two decades ago ecologists discovered a specific type of keystone species which they called ecosystem engineers. Ecosystem engineers create habitats for other organisms. They build a springboard for further life forms to flourish.

Coral reefs in the ocean, for instance, provide an ecosystem for a plethora of other life forms. Beavers transform forests into wetlands by building dam rivers.

In our modern world, technology is full of such platforms. The internet forms the basis for thousands of other technologies. The internet once again couldn’t exist without computers, which form another platform.

One platform often forms the foundation for another one. Woodpeckers use the trees felled by beavers to drill nesting holes in them. Once woodpeckers have left, these holes are used by songbirds. The platform, in this case, was built by the woodpeckers.

Networking promotes Innovation and Evolution

Many people maintain their ideas in secret out of fear that someone will rip their benefits. But this fear is entirely irrational and illusionary. Ideas want to complete each other much more than they want to compete.

Carbon forms the basis of all life on earth because it is fundamentally good at connecting with other atoms. That ability to connect enables the formation of more complex structures. In an analogous manner, human innovation works better when there is something which supports the formation of more complex ideas. That’s why networking is fundamental to exchange information and ideas. Without connections, a noble idea would disappear with the person who had it. But the existence of connections with other people enables good ideas to spread. That’s why good ideas rise in crowds.

In the 1990’s psychologists performed a study in which they recorded everything that happened in molecular biology laboratories. One might suppose that discoveries are made by peering through microscopes, but it turned out that the best ideas arose during lab meetings when scientists informally discussed their work.

Other studies showed that creative individuals have broader social networks and hence get exposed to a greater variety of ideas from many contexts.

Our very civilization is based on such large networks, cities, for instance, are large networks which enable a vibrant exchange of ideas. That’s why large cities are disproportionally more creative than smaller towns.

The biggest network is the Internet, which has no borders and forms a giant network which connects the entire world. It forms a unique platform for the diffusion and evolution of ideas.

The lesson: If you want to do better with creativity, surround yourself purposefully with people of diverse background and interests.

Randomness drives serendipity

Evolution depends on the presence of a randomizing force. One such force is water. Water moves and churns, resulting in the formation of new kinds of connections between atoms in the primordial soup. The strong bonds of water molecules help maintain those connections.

Turbulence and stability are essential for life and creativity. Innovative networks evolve in the realm between order and anarchy. New, often random connections lead to serendipitous discoveries.

One area of such randomness are dreams. Neuroscientists have discovered that sleeping on a problem helps greatly in the solution of it. Through history, many mathematicians and scientists have made great discoveries thanks to their dreams.

Serendipity on an individual or collective level

At a collective level, serendipity can be facilitated through physical spaces. For example, take the modern cultural innovations of the 1920’s. Many of them were a result of poets, writers, and artists meeting at the Parisian cafés. Those interactions lead to the diffusion and combination of ideas.

On an individual level, serendipity is a matter of introducing different ideas into your consciousness. Benjamin Franklin made use of this principle by working on multiple projects simultaneously. Doing so enabled him no form new connections between projects.

Philosopher John Locke understood the importance of cross-referencing back in 1652. He indexed the content of his commonplace book, a scrapbook of interesting thoughts and findings. The book helped him connect new ideas and hunches.

Neurons, chaos, and creativity

It seems that chaos at the neurological level plays an important role in creativity. New ideas happen when new connections are formed between neurons. And for those new connections to arise some chaos is needed.

That chaos happens in intervals in the brain, for some reason neurons alternate between states of chaos — where they fire out of sync — and phase-lock states where large clusters of neurons fire at the same frequency.

Studies have shown a correlation between the length of the spells of chaos in a person’s brain, and that person’s intelligence.

Error can be good for innovation

Error plays a major role in the evolution of life. Without random mutations in DNA, evolution would have come to a virtual standstill.

Similarly, error plays a significant role in science. It is thanks to errors that often new approaches are taken and theories challenged.

Use old elements to create Innovation

Exaptation in Evolutionary Biology is a trait which was developed for a specific purpose but eventually obtained an entirely different functionality. Feathers for example initially were evolved to regulate as a mechanism to regulate temperature, but today birds use them to fly.

In a similar way, many innovations were invented by reusing old ideas and concepts. Johannes Gutenberg for example, used the concept of a 1000-year-old invention, the wine screw press, to create the world’s first printing press.

In the book Smarter Faster Better, the author mentions a study which found that the most creative papers were those which viewed a great amount of prior knowledge from a different ankle and made unusual connections and combinations.

The lesson: Unconventional uses of old ideas spur innovation.

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Also published on Medium.