Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Reef and the Market

Philosophy professors like asking students where their ideas come from. "I just think them," students are bound to retort. "Aha!" The professor pounces. "But where does the idea of 'I' come from?"  Silence.

Much of philosophy involves trying to explain where various ideas come from. Socrates and Aristotle understood the advance of thought as a process of dialogue which builds upon the ideas of the past. René Descartes argued that the idea of God was at the root of all true ideas. Karl Marx thought many of our ideas, such as religion, are ideology and a product of power relations. W.E.B. DuBois believed that we understand ourselves and others through the lens of race and that these ideas have a contingent history. William James thought our ideas were a product of 'what worked' for us and people like us in the past. Thomas Kuhn argued that scientific theories belong to a history of evolving paradigms.

Stephen Johnson is concerned with good ideas in his book, Where Do Good Ideas Come From? There are three images of innovation that orient his inquiry. Coral reefs, which make up 0.1% of the Earth's surface but have support 25% of all marine species. There is the city, which, as Geoffrey West has shown, increases in innovation in relation to population at a super-linear rate. And there is the web, which has decreased the time required for innovating and adopting new technologies from 20 years to 2.

By looking at innovation from a number of different scales, including at the level of brains, cities, and, ecosystems, Johnson comes up with a framework I summarize in the following way.  Good ideas are fostered by:
  • networks that can change
  • that have some stability
  • that favor chance encounters
  • that embrace error
  • that support re-use
  • that support building on other good ideas

More creativity per capita than any suburb
How can businesses foster innovation? Johnson shows that the majority of major inventions in the last two hundred years did not happen in R&D labs at major firms or in the garages of people who later struck it rich. They usually took place in colleges and universities, or organizations like CERN. This was surprising to me, given my experience in the academy, its silos of rival departments, and its distance from the real world. However, universities do allow people from very different backgrounds to work together and to circulate and build upon others' ideas freely. They allow for experiments to go wrong and let people research controversial things.

Many businesses today taut the importance of innovation, but few allow for failure, the open exchange of diverse ideas, change, or time for reflection. A recent survey of CEO's showed that they spend around 50 hours a week working but have little time to reflect, given the constant interruptions of BlackBerries. Google, on the other hand, requires employees to work on their own projects 20% of the time. Twitter built an open API and then built their services on top of that. Apple, while opaque to outsiders, has a very messy development process where everyone at each step of the development chain is involved with a new product at the very beginning.

Twitter or GM?
More personally, Johnson's book caused me to reflect on when I'm most creative. I'm best in my sleep or in writing after having a discussion with someone. I need time to let ideas simmer, but I'm lucky enough to have lots of smart people to discuss ideas with. Johnson concludes:

"Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build or your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.  Build a tangled bank."


  1. I read something recently -- danged if I can remember where, or I'd provide a link -- that said that the grouping of geniuses in time, say Florence during the renaissance, was not just a coincidence. Rather, the availability of education and the encouragement of government had a lot to do with it. Seems relevant to your (very good) post. I'll be looking for this book. :)

  2. Florence is interesting. Many people argue innovation flourished there because of capitalism. But Johnson notes that double-entry bookkeeping, one of the greatest advancements of the time, was freely shared and appears to have had no originator.

  3. I like this one, Zach. The tangled bank of ideas: a coral reef of the mind; these are good pictures of what the creative brain feels like. It's interesting that these recommendations go against many of the things we harp on with students: be organized; be clear; be direct; make connections explicit, etc.

    Also: thinking of the creative mind as a liquid network seems to me to imitate the structure of the internet. Not sure what the implications there are.

  4. One of the main points of the book is that you have to navigate the two extremes of too much order and too much disorder. I found the example of office design pretty interesting. If you have a totally open office design, people hate it, because they're constantly getting interrupted. But if everyone is stuck in their own offices, they never talk to each other. Microsoft just built a building (called Building 99) where all the walls are movable according to need. You can also write on all of them. Pretty cool!


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