Where Good Ideas Come From

I just finished Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  It’s great read; I went straight through in one sitting, en-route to San Francisco.

At the start, Johnson sketches out his ambitions for a “natural history of innovation” by looking at three different kinds of environments that have been extremely conducive to innovation: coral reefs and their enormous biodiversity; cities and the rich cultural and subcultural diversity they generate; and the Internet, the key generative platform that underlies so many of the most celebrated innovations of recent years.  Patterns of innovation are fractal, he says, with recurring features to be found for ecological and macroevolutionary innovation, microevolutionary innovation, the physiology of innovation (that is, the neuroscience of how ideas come about), habits and lifestyles that foster innovation, innovation-friendly work environments, and social and political structures that promote widespread innovation.  So Johnson takes a “long zoom” approach, using examples from every level of zoom–but primarily, the stories of particular scientific and technological developments–to identify seven patterns that are part of innovative environments.

Johnson also makes clear at the outset his overall conclusion, which will be familiar to anyone involved with the free culture movement: “we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.”

The seven chapters on Johnson’s seven innovation concepts are fun and interesting.  I won’t go into detail; I’ll just say that each of them—the adjacent possible, liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity, error (as a goad to try new things), exaptation, and platforms (upon which further innovation can be built)—is a useful tool for thinking about innovation.  Johnson doesn’t convince me that this is any sort of natural or complete set of concepts for understanding innovative environments, but I don’t think he really tries to (despite the definitive subtitle: The Natural History of Innovation).  Others attempting a similar analysis of innovation would no doubt frame it in terms of different concepts.  Nevertheless, Johnson’s chosen concepts are satisfying and he puts them to good use.

It’s the concluding chapter that leaves me frustrated.  Here, Johnson tries to generalize about innovative environments using a framework from Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.  He plots four “quadrants” where innovation might take place: market-focused individual environments (the entrepreneur inventor working alone), market-focused network environments (the group of firms or individual entrepreneurs sharing ideas and collaborating), non-market individual environments (the amateur inventor, the cloistered academic), and non-market network environments (the academic community, amateur open-source projects).  He categorizes two hundred “good ideas” (with no defined criteria for how they were selected) according to these four quadrants, and concludes that markets (with their intellectual property regimes that produce artificial scarcity for ideas) are not the ideal drivers of innovation they are often characterized as.

I agree with the conclusion itself, but I don’t think Benkler’s framework is a particularly useful way to categorize innovation here.  As Johnson notes, ideas happen at the level of individuals (with an enormous role, of course, for their environments).  A market/non-market dichotomy obscures the more fundamental issue of the motivation of individual innovators.  Taking an historical view, the political economy of science and technology has shifted dramatically from the Renaissance (where Johnson begins his catalog of innovations) through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Era into the century of Big Science.  Simply plotting the major innovations coming from each quadrant doesn’t account for the changing number of people trying to innovate in different types of environments.  And even within a given environment (say, the patronage scene in 17th century Italy, an Eastman Kodak R&D lab in the mid-twentieth century, or an academic molecular biology lab in the 1990s), the mix of market and non-market motivations for a given researcher doesn’t sort out neatly according to private sector vs. public sector.

Conspicuously absent from the bibliography is Steven Shapin’s brilliant The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation, which has shaped a lot of my thinking about environments for innovation and the relationship between markets and professional research.  I’d love to see a discussion between Shapin and Johnson; their ideas, in Johnson’s words, “want to connect, fuse, recombine.”

Published by

sage

Sage Ross goes by ragesoss on Wikipedia and elsewhere

3 thoughts on “Where Good Ideas Come From”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *