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228 of 235 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 5, 2010
Working as a patent attorney, sometimes a new idea that stuns me will jump out from a patent. An elegant, innovative idea that makes me wonder how anyone thought of it. Often, my next thought, though, as I understand the idea better, is how simple the idea is. So I think, why didn't I think of that?

Steven Johnson's "Natural History of Innovation" shines some light on the first question as he tells us "Where Good Ideas Come From." Johnson looks back through science history as he teases out from science history, and from natural history, seven "patterns" in which new ideas are formed. Johnson backs up with examples each of the seven groups in his taxonomy of the origins of ideas. Good examples, well told, are what make the book.

Johnson writes science history well. Like in Johnson's earlier book, The Invention of Air, the science history he writes here reads like a fascinating tale of adventure. Although a bit breathless at times, and sometimes drawing too much from too little, Johnson caught my attention early and held it all the way through this fairly long new book.

And it's not just a history of scientists and discoveries. Johnson looks too at nature - like how reefs pack together life and promote evolution - and society - like how larger cities generate exponentially more innovation than smaller towns.

On occasion, Johnson's taxonomy is a tad bit tortured. The seven patterns each get a chapter in the book. But for me, the names of the patterns and the particular examples grouped in them do not give much insight. The patterns - while interesting - seem more organizational groupings than anything else. The patterns are the skeleton. Not much flesh there. The meat in the book is in the examples.

In fact, the insight for me came from the light Johnson shines on my second question - why didn't I think of that? To broaden that question into its most compelling form, how can we, both personally and as a society, increase the number of good ideas we have in the arts, in science, in sociology and government, and in technology?

That $64,000 question Johnson does not really try to answer. He does give some clues. (One thing he says caught my interest as a patent attorney. That is, we get more good ideas by connecting them than by protecting them. In other words, the patent system may be hurting, instead of meeting, its goal of promoting innovation.)

Johnson's book is ambitious. He covers a lot of ground, from scientists to nature to arts to government to society. His idea that good ideas in all of these fields develop in the same recognizable patterns is a bold one. In a sense, he is looking for a unified theory of innovation.

Did Johnson find that unified theory? If he did, you won't find it on a particular page in this book. But by joining Johnson in exploring this question, I learned a lot and thought a lot. That made the book worthwhile for me.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on November 27, 2012
The book is about the history of innovation. Over 200 innovations from the last 600 hundred years are referenced in making the case that over time there are emerging patterns that describe how innovative ideas are created, transmitted, and reinvented in the future.

The lessons drawn from the past can be applied today and tomorrow. They include: 1) the notion that ideas are not a single thing, but more like a swarm, 2) good ideas are not conjured up out of thin air, but are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands over time, 3) the way we collect, store, and use information can make us more creative and innovative, 4) pay attention to our hunches and cultivate them 5) pay attention to memories and dreams, they represent the creative chaos of our minds, 6) making mistakes forces us to explore, and 7) borrow, recycle, reinvent, and build upon the ideas of others.

The book reads more like a mystery as the author leads the reader through his analysis of events from the past. I particularly like the balanced view he provides. About the time you are ready to accept his premise, he challenges the very view that he has espoused. In that way, it is an energizing experience to follow his flow of thought. By the end of the book, it is ironic (or is it?) that he has immersed you into the very patterns that he described.

With the topic of innovation being so heavily in vogue today, I recommend this book to gain a fresh perspective from the annals of its history.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on November 14, 2010
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation lays out a convincing argument that the often recounted `Eureka!' moments of discovery are more likely the result of environment and collaboration than singular innovation. By combining history, science, and culture Johnson provides plenty of evidence and covers a wide range of disciplines in developing his thesis on the patterns of ideas and creativity. I found it an enjoyable and inspiring read and recommend it to anyone interested in cultivating innovative thought.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2014
This book was not what I thought it would be and was more scientific than I expected. I enjoyed the approach of this book and what it explains about the brain and the forming of ideas certainly makes sense to me.
It was very well written and easy to read even though it was touching on science.
Well worth the read, and proves that just generally conversing with people plays an important role in evolvement of ideas.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 2011
The reviewers are ALL right! Read them. This is a very good book - the concepts of the adjacent possible and exaptation alone are worth the price, if you have not previously encountered them. The references and bibliography are textbook quality. Yes, the book may be too long - most books are. But who would buy a 20-page summary? And the development of ideas with many examples is a time-honored technique for getting an idea to stick. Yes, the book starts strong and ends weak; I have considerable disagreement with the quadrants of individual vs network and market vs non-market classification. We love the "lone inventor" story.
This is a fine book for the Kindle/iPad; there are few illustrations and they are not important to the book, nor are they very convincing. What is maddening is the 29-page Index, which has neither page numbers nor "locations" nor hyperlinks and is thus completely useless. I blame the publishers. Just a note for you Kindle/iPad folk.
All in all, if you liked the other books by this author, or those by Malcomb Gladwell, you will like this book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2011
Johnson sets out to discover what creative people have in common: how did they generate their groundbreaking ideas, what circumstances fostered them, is there such a thing as solitary genius? He analyzes these questions by examining seven distinct elements that creative processes tap into, devoting a chapter to each: the adjacent possible (how new possibilities are opened by new discoveries), liquid networks (associations between disparate disciplines), slow hunches (ideas that languish for years before jumping to the fore), serendipity (random chance), error (finding the right path through process of elimination), exaptation (adapting technologies for solutions they were never deliberately intended for) and platforms (taking strategic advantage of all of the systems that were invented before you came along). Johnson uses examples of famously creative people to illustrate his points: Darwin, Lee DeForest, Watson and Crick, Johannes Gutenburg, to name a few.

This is a brief and highly entertaining journey through the history of scientific discovery and an exploration of the ephemeral nature of inspiration. On the whole, his theses are well backed-up by historical data and he draws conclusions in the final chapter which seem hard to refute. Those conclusions would be of interest to anyone in charge of a major corporation looking to make a killing with the next gotta-have-it electronic doo-dad. It's not just dumb luck (well, not usually) -- there are proven methods to fostering the type of creativity that leads to dramatic breakthroughs.

I'm running out to see what other books I've missed from Steven Johnson.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon November 12, 2010
We are often better served by connecting ideas than by protecting them, according to Steve Johnson in this book. Good ideas are ones that connect, fuse and recombine, crossing conceptual borders. Innovation happens best in small increments on what has gone before, in places where many different minds meet, and through errors as much as through deliberate intent. The author illustrates all of these subjects with fascinating anecdotes.

Unfortunately the last chapter provides a less-than-satisfying attempt to show that innovation is driven more by non-market forces than by market forces. The author provides a chart categorising a large number of well-known innovations into four quadrants, depending on whether they were created by individuals or networks and whether or not their creation was motivated by market forces. The book shows the fourth quadrant (non-market/networked) as the largest one for inventions between 1800 and 2000, and I found this persuasive evidence to support the author's contention that inventions flourish in the fourth quadrant despite the lack of economic incentives... until I did some fact checking.

The invention of GPS is categorised by the author as non-market/networked, and the story of how William Guier and George Weiffenbach invented it in 1958 purely out of intellectual curiosity on the prompting of their boss Frank T McClure is eloquently described. However, a quick check of Google Patents reveals that Frank T McClure applied for US Patent 3,172,108 "Method of Navigation" on May 12, 1958, suggesting that commercial considerations were very much in his mind at the time of invention.

A complete analysis of the 54 items the author has included in the fourth quadrant of his table reveals that 16 were in fact the subject of patent applications by their inventors and so should belong in the second quadrant (market/networked), while 30 others are unpatentable pure-science discoveries such as cosmic rays and global warming. Pure-science discoveries make an important contribution to our knowledge base, but they do not offer any promise of financial reward until a way of harnessing their properties is invented. I could only find three clear cases in the author's fourth quadrant of inventions for which the inventors were not motivated by the possibility of commercial reward: Babbage's analytical engine, radiography and the Internet.

The author refers to a Nairobi cobbler who freely copies the ideas of other cobblers by simple observation, with no licensing agreements to restrict the flow. It just so happens that I have a friend who is a cobbler in Nairobi. He makes about $4 per day from his work, and cannot see any scope for improving his lot because he has no way of protecting any innovations that he might come up with against the incessant cut-throat competition. From his point of view, an absence of intellectual property rights is keeping him poor.

Notwithstanding my problems with the last chapter, I found the book enjoyable to read and, for the most part, highly enlightening with regard to the process of innovation.
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on February 19, 2011
All too often, the conventional thinking behind how great ideas emerge is shrouded in a "turning point," rather than evolution. Malcolm Gladwell's "Tipping Point..." sheds light on the incremental process of how trends start from ground zero and gain momentum organically. Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From..." takes the science of innovation, fundamentally drawn from Darwin's "The Origin of Species", a step further by turning the idea of "genius" on its ear.

Johnson reveals that the creativity of phenomenal innovation is largely steeped in a preternatural curiosity coupled with converging ideas with like-minded individuals. Johnson outlines a paradigmatic system based on scientific reasoning that becoming a world class performer hinges on one's life style, thinking process and malleability to change and opportunity. Although he does not specifically use these words, the synthesis of Johnson's philosophical constructs builds on the notion that great writers, thinkers, scientists, etc... astound the world with their brilliance by being receptacles for insights as well as conduits.

This is an excellent book for individuals who are interested in the practical aspect of acquired and sustained success. The end result is the difference between Apple's Steve Jobs and the next "Overnight Sensation."

I highly recommend this book to goal oriented readers filled with compelling ambition.

Edward Brown
Core Edge Image & Charisma Institute
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on July 11, 2011
All of Steve Johnson's books take seemingly mundane topics and turn them into fascinating stories, intertwined with science, history and human behavior. His latest effort, Where Good Ideas Come From is no exception. With such concepts as the adjacent possible, exaptation, liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity ,and platforms, he reveals a discovery process that is much more probable, and probably more accurate, than the eureka experience documented by so many idea generators from history. Much credit goes to the tinkerers and those willing to commit errors. One may wonder how Johnson pulls a book of ideas together like this. He shares one of the tools that he uses, DEVONthink, a personal digital journal, database and semantics analyzer. You'll express dismay as Johnson shares how disconnected our various government entities are that pursue terrorists and marvel at the efficiency of open systems (e.g. universities). It would seem, based on his analysis, that most of the innovation from history comes from a methodical approach, building on the work of others, and an occasional bit of luck. It's an inspiring book for those of us that hold out hope that we might innovate something in the future. Read it and then head back to your lab, or garage, for the next great innovation in...
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on April 30, 2011
Johnson has a highly active, creative mind and a love of ideas. He is also a store of interesting "stories" by which he gets his points across. Most of the ideas in this book are a repackaging of existing concepts; even while I was familiar with them to varying degrees I appreciated the reinforcement of Johnson's terminology, and especially the many stories.

Johnson makes a good case for why Internet search can actually enhance serendipity as well as be efficient. A wonderful illustration is Johnson's use of a DEVONthink database (p.115) for storing his many ideas and facts, which aids in his own creativity; he traces his practice back to the "commonplace" books that intellectuals used to maintain. The April 30th issue of the Economist, in its science section, explains the work of David Blei in which he uses the internet to identify concepts and trace their evolution, rather than start with pre-existing concepts.
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