Book Club: Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

It’s Thursday! Time for another edition of the Agile Faculty Book Club. In February, we are focusing on my favorite books related to design thinking and innovation because I’m back to teaching in our Design Thinking Studio in Social Innovation immersive semester pilot program and that’s what I’m thinking about.

Today’s post is about Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. If you aren’t familiar with Johnson’s work, drop everything, go to your local bookstore, and buy it all. It’s brilliant, engaging, full of metaphors that illuminate complex concepts, etc. My second favorite of his is How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World – instead of going for the obvious (the printing press or movable type, the steam engine, the computer), he spotlights glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light. Truly, I wish my brain worked like his, but since it doesn’t, I’m grateful to read and reread his books and explore the web of ideas he creates. Or maybe “unveils” is a better term.

ANYWAY. Back to Good Ideas (see, I get really carried away talking about Johnson’s work!). Good Ideas is the first full book we require students in the Studio to read because it breaks down so many of the pervasive cultural myths about innovation, creativity, failure, and heroic genius. Core to Johnson’s argument is the understanding that, contrary to the Great Man myths of history, good ideas do not come from a lone genius toiling in solitude in a lab or garage. The best ideas are syntheses of smaller ideas floating in the atmosphere, shared among people in cities and shared spaces. Good ideas are made of available parts and a spark that combines them at the right time.

Good ideas are born in the the adjacent possible, a concept which students always grab tightly. He explains that ideas often come in an order; one ideas understood opens doors to other ideas not possible before. One idea opens up new thresholds to explore in the adjacent possible. Rarely do great ideas manifest by leaping far ahead of the adjacent possible, and when they do, they are frequently ahead of their time (Babbage’s Analytical Engine being a prime example).

Good ideas are not often flashes of genius but instead “slow hunches” that develop over time through reading, conversations, prototyping, testing, failing, and trying again. We forget that Darwin took decades to actually get to the complete argument made in Origin of the Species. We forget that Edison worked a huge number of projects, failing every day to come up with anything that works, and even when he did not seeing it for the purposes it would ultimately be used for. We also forget that what made Silicon Valley in the 70s and 80s such a hub of innovation was less the upstarts in their mom’s garages and more about the happy hour conversations in the few bars in the valley at the time. Good ideas don’t thrive in isolation.

I love this book, for myself and for students, because it shows us that innovation isn’t an act of genius, but an act of paying attention, of trying new and maybe silly things, of taking time to explore and read and discuss, of failing but seeing that act as a way to generate data. It grants us all permission to be innovative; we don’t need a pedigree or a garage; we just need curiosity, time, and engagement in the world around us. That’s powerful. Students almost always report feeling better about themselves, their creativity, and the way of seeing the world after reading this book. So while Johnson doesn’t necessarily talk about design thinking per se, the book represents the whole ethos of design thinking as a human-centered process based in empathy and curiosity, in problem framing not just problem solving, in divergent thinking not just convergent thinking. Definitely worth your time; I dare you to put it down once you start it.

Completely Unrelated Bonus Review

Continuing with my sci fi theme, I recommend Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse series. It’s only two books right now, Robopocalypse and Robogenesis, but there were three years between the first two books, so hopefully a third one is coming this year. These books aren’t my style, and I’m not sure why I even picked it up honestly. These are really war novels full of battle strategy and the costs of war interwoven with deep thinking about the potential dangers of sentient AI and human dependence on computer technology. But I enjoyed the depth of humanity revealed in so many different ways and characters and the opportunity to think about the social and human consequences of our creations.

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