Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson

A Reflection. Week 7


“The Adjacent Possible” is a phrase that beautifully captures the limits and creative potential of change and innovation. It sits at the border between what is possible and what isn’t. It is strange, yet beautiful, because it expands as you explore the boundries. It is often the tinkerer, not the engineer that is at this cusp. The people who were building the first airplane didn’t know how to do it; they tinkered with bits and pieces of different tools to see how their creation could ever take flight.

We tend to think good ideas come from this mystical eureka moment that only a select few have, the reality is hardly the case. Majority of good ideas are a mix of building on top of current platforms (i.e. standing on the shoulders of giants), being in the right environment, and mixing different things together in the adjacent possible. They are long held hunches that emerge after periods of continuous thought. Einstein was thinking about the theory of relativity for 6 years while working in a patent office. Darwin, who spent 8+ years on a boat going between coastlines and dwelling on a hunch before ever coming up with the the theory of evolution, is another good example.

Some examples of building on top of current platforms include YouTube and the Web. YouTube was able to be built because of the video platforms that emerged and were newly available for YouTube to take and implement it in a new way. Tim Berners-Lee was able to connect different hypertext markup pages to other people because of the TCP network platform already established. Berners-Lee was working at CERN and they provided him with the proper environment to cultivate and work on his idea.

Being in the right environment plays a massive role. The right environment can range from the coral reefs where Darwin began noticing the patterns of evolution (even though he did not have the idea till much later), to the right companies that nurture and cultivate innovative ideas (Apple, Google). Steven Johnson described the environment of cities and coffee houses as contributors to innovation. Looking at the history of technological progress, the vast majority of them took place when cities and civilizations began to take form.

The coffee house was crucial to the spread and development of the enlightenment era. Philosophers, thinkers, engineers, artists, and many different types of people would meet at the coffee house and discuss various ideas. It was the architecture of the coffee house, where different people from different backgrounds could come together, and mix different ways of thinking it is a place where, as Matt Ridley describes it, “ideas could have sex.”

Good ideas boil down to a network of neurons within your brain. This network grows as it is exposed to different environments and different ways of thinking. As you learn and become educated, new networks are being formed. Creativity ultimately happens when you can take pieces of this network and combine them in a unique way.

Timothy Prestero founded an organization called Design That Matters, and his mission has been to solve the challenging problem of infant mortality. Infant mortality in the U.S. is not a major issue due our access to incubators that save many babies’ lives. A standard incubator in the U.S. costs around $40,000. And if it were simply a fixed cost, there could be enough philanthropists willing to pay that to send incubators to the developing world. However, the problem lies in the breakdown and fixing of incubators. They required exerptise technicians to travel and fix the broken pieces (that also costs a significant amount). How do you train people in the developing world to fix these complicated pieces of equipment and send over replacement parts on a regular basis?

A Boston doctor by the name of Jonathan Rosen had observed something interesting in the developing world. They all had a massive amount of cars on the road. They knew how to fix cars. What if we built an incubator out of car parts so that we can just send over the incubator, and a car mechanic could fix it if it broke. Prestero and his team began designing such a machine. Headlights provided the warmth; dashboard fans provided air circulation; door-chimes sounded alarms. If the incubator broke in the developing world, they just needed to know how to fix a broken headlight to get it back up and running.

The NeoNurture device is an example of what typically happens to good ideas. Take an existing platform, couple it with the right environment, and observe other ways of thinking and operating in an attempt to mix together good ideas to form a innovative piece of technology. Flirt with the adjacent possibilities, tinker with the existing platforms, and place yourself in the right environment.


Checkout Seeking Intellect and Subscribe to the Seeking Intellect Newsletter