The discussion on creativity, one of my favorite subjects, brings to mind a book review I wrote for the Winter issue of the Iowa Architect. This book is highly recommended!
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.
Steven Johnson. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010. 326 pages. $26.95.
Creativity and innovation, hallmarks of the design professions, are appreciated in all types of businesses and professions. Gaining a Better understanding of the inventive process and appreciation of past achievements are fascinating tasks. combining those with intriguing anecdotes about the heroes of past inventions, as this book does, makes it a highly recommendation read.
Steven Johnson presents a thought-provoking assessment of the process of invention. A particularly important message is that few innovations result from "Aha!", "Eureka! or "light bulb" flashes of inspiration. The perception of historical events tends to collapse months and years of creative work into brief summaries that fail to capture the slow realities of evolution and creeping cross-fertilization of ideas.
Johnson observes seven patterns of innovation that occur in both nature and in culture.
1) The Adjacent Possible: each new innovation opens paths to new possibilities for other ideas - good ideas "are built out of a collection of existing parts" that expand over time. Charles Baggage theorized the computer in 1837, but the world had to wait another 100 years for other inventions to make it possible.
2) Liquid Networks: allowing good ideas to flow freely and encouraging collaboration increase the opportunities for other ideas to develop faster and better.
3) The Slow Hunch: good ideas often begin as incomplete thoughts. Tracking these hunches over time so they can mature is a challenge. John Locke (1632-1704) and his peers kept a commonplace book to record unfinished ideas, something today enabled by the computer.
4) Serendipity: the accidental and surprising connection of Hunches and adjacent "possibles" into new ideas. Says Johnson: "The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. If the commonplace book tradition tells us that the best way to nurture hunches is to write everything down, the serendipity engine of the Web suggests a parallel directive: Look everything up."
5) Error: a surprisingly high number of great inventions were the result of unintended actions - wrong assumptions, contaminated laboratories, paradigm shifts and the like.
6) Exaptation: borrowing a concept from an entirely different field to solve an unrelated problem, such as Gutenberg borrowing the notion of the screw-operated wine press and applying it to printing with movable type.
7) Platforms: building on other advances, a remarkable example is offered: curiosity with tracking the signals of Sputnik I, the first orbiting satellite, led to a military application of missile guidance, which led to the Global Positioning System (GPS) of today.
Within these patterns, Johnson explores anecdotes about past geniuses who have given us the world we live in today. Special emphasis is given to both dense urban cities and the biochemistry of coral reefs as examples that bring multiple forces together to learn, collaborate and benefit from one another.
Johnson concludes with an informative analysis of how patterns have changed with evolving technology, especially the speed of information exchange. An engaging appendix tracks the chronology of key innovations from 1400 to 2000 - many fundamental to today's lifestyle and all too often taken for granted.
This book will reward those who enjoy a delightful read and a much-expanded appreciation for our cultural history and the amazing intelligence of our forebears.
Visit Steven Johnson's blog at stevenberlinjohnson.com
Reviewer Bill Dikis, FAIA, is retired from RDG Bussard Dikis Architects and currently provides expert witness, conceptual design and master planning consultation through Architectural Strategies LLC.
William Dikis FAIA
Architectural Strategies LLC
Show Original Message