Other Sellers on Amazon
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation Hardcover – October 5, 2010
The Amazon Book Review
Book recommendations, author interviews, editors' picks, and more. Read it now.
Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Frequently bought together
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
- ASIN : 1594487715
- Publisher : Riverhead Books; 1st edition (October 5, 2010)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 336 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9781594487712
- ISBN-13 : 978-1594487712
- Item Weight : 1.19 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.25 x 1.13 x 9.31 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #371,042 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
Decent writing if you can get over the smart tone of the author.
Until the last chapter when it turns into a weird argument against private sector and intellectual property laws - "When you introduce financial rewards into a system, barricades and secrecy emerge, making it harder for the open patterns of innovation to work their magic." Markets, the private sector, and "private corporations" are the villains here with the "public sector modern research university" as the hero. The author is twisting everything into a pretzel to fit into that argument ruining what was a decent book at that point.
For example he's deliberately mixing practical innovations such as pencils, air conditioning or helicopters with theoretical knowledge such as the shape of the DNA, the theory of relativity, or cosmic rays. He then makes a random inventory of these different things based on how "big" they seem to him and then puts them into "market" (profit motivated corporations or individuals) vs "non market" (non profit motivated academics) categories based on what he thinks the motivations of their inventors / discoverers were. He then says "look there's more oranges in the non market bucket than apples in the market bucket therefore the oranges farmer is better than the apples farmer."
He also rants about the intellectual property laws. Patents are the tools private sector firms use to "block the flow of ideas", you see, as opposed to universities that create open networks and share ideas. Never mind that universities file for patents at a higher rate than private firms. Never mind that private firms and universities collaborate closely for they are natural partners. Never mind that publishing a patent is precisely intended to share information that would otherwise be kept secret (the exclusivity is the price society pays the inventor to disclose the invention so that others can see it and build on it - maybe not a perfect system but it has been working).
He even brings up Marx and Engels for the sole reason to praise them for being so smart as to recognize Darwin's ideas as important. Really just to praise them and to show us he knows what Hegelian dialectics means. So smart. If you bring up Marx in a book on innovation you should probably mention that failing to understand technological progress is one of the many failures of Marxism. Marx did not see a beyond steam engines.
There was no need to this straw man argument at the end, other than to probably scratch an ideological itch.
Unfortunately, this book left me less than enthused. I am not exactly sure why. The book just never clicked for me. Part of me feels like the content was too broad. In his other books, Johnson has a very specific subject which ties everything together really well.
After I read it, I saw this book was published a good five years before How We Got to Now and Wonderland. Maybe over those few years, Johnson matured as a writer.
This book was definitely better than most books, but not as good as some.
Overall, the book was written at a very high level when it comes to Where Good Ideas Come From, which was an interesting approach with examples thrown in for good measure. I am very glad I received and read this book, even if it wasn't what I expected.
tl;dr An interesting read on the general nature of ideas, not case studies
Top reviews from other countries
Steven Johnson's technique is the personalisation of his theme, drawing unexpected conclusions from the personal story and then weaving it into the next story. For example he brings to life through stories his assertion that good ideas are built on previous work and depend upon the variety of other stimuli around them. He recounts how in the late 1870's a Parisian obstetrician named Stephane Tarnier took a day off from his work at Maternite de Paris and paid a visit to the nearby Paris Zoo where chicken eggs were being incubated. It gave Tarnier the inspiration to develop incubation for babies leading to a medical advance that rivals any more well known innovations, such as radiation therapy or double heart bypass, in terms of giving humans longer life. Then follows the sequel about Timothy Prestero, an MIT professor who visited the Indonesian city of Meulaboh after the 2004 Indian Tsunami. He discovered that eight baby incubators, donated by a range of international organisations, were broken down through lack of spare parts. Prestoro and his team decided to build an incubator out of car parts that were abundant in the developing world - an idea that had originated with a Boston doctor named Jonathon Rosen. From this Johnson asserts that good ideas develop like this NeoNurture incubator. "The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table."
The astounding detail in this short paragraph brings a richness to his arguments about the generation of ideas.
Johnson counters the colloquial description of good ideas as sparks, flashes or eureka moments and likens them to networks. For new ideas the sheer size of network is needed and it needs to be plastic - capable of reconfiguration. Innovation thrives on a wide pool of minds. The eureka moment is usually preceded by the slow hunch like Darwin's theory of evolution that developed over many years.
Johnson extols the power of accidental connections or serendipity in the recognition of the significance of the new ideas. Innovation prospers when ideas can be serendiptiously connected and recombined with other ideas, when hunches can stumble across other hunches. Walls dividing ideas such as patents, trade secrets and proprietary technology inhibit serendipidy. Open environments are more conducive to innovation than closed.
Error which creates a path that leads you out of your comfort zone and exaptation , which are traits optimised for a specific use getting hijacked for a completely different use (birds feathers evolved for warmth proving useful for flying) are key paths to innovation. The history of the world wide web designed for the academic environment now used for shopping, sharing photos and Google.
Johnson classifies sources of key innovations from 1400 to the present day according to whether they were driven by the individual or a network and whether they were market driven or non market. He concludes that non market, open platform networked approach is now far more prolific. Witness Google, Twitter, Amazon.
Powerful , often controversial but immensely readable. The appendix alone describing the key innovations from 1400 to now is a fascinating read.
The truth is, good ideas come from the clash of knowledge and speculation that occurs when people from different backgrounds get together and talk. The coffee shops of the Enlightenment provide a good example of this, but more recent instances of serendipitous conversations between people from medicine and electronics, to take just one example, lead to the innovations we take for granted today.
This is a salutory lesson for governments (or the present British govt in particular) which is seeking to force universities to specialise in "economically beneficial" subjects such as science, maths and engineering, without understanding that economic benefit stems both from the mixture of all those disciplines and the arts and humanities and, more importantly, usually from ideas and discoveries made just for the sheer hell of it. People who begin researching a specific question with a clear economic advantage don't seem half as productive as those who pursue one simply because it is interesting. The latter group of people often find things out that are combined with other ideas to produce something advantageous.
The lesson of this book is that good ideas come from accidental collisions of thinking that derives from the sheer joy of thinking. The idea that universities should abandon thinking for the hell of it in favour of serving the economy is a short road to nowhere.
My only real complaint with the book is that half of it is taken up with short descriptions of famous discoveries. These are interesting, but I couldn't help but feel cheated. The book really should have gone in to education and government policy, and suggested ways in which the two could permit great ideas to foster. Without these it is merely a collection of interesting stories and half-developed ideas. But that notwithstanding, it provides a lot of food for thought and is well worth purchasing and reading. It is easy to follow, and thought-provoking. If you thought good ideas came in flashes of lightning, you'll soon change your mind. Start hanging out with people from different areas, not with people you share common interests. Who knows, you might end up coming up with a few good ideas yourself.
Steven Johnson comes at the subject with his usual clarity, penchant for clear structure in his thinking, and almost total avoidance of jargon. This is a great advantage when comparing this book to any of the hundreds of titles on the subject written by business gurus, business school professors, etc. What results is a lucid, very readable, in depth analysis of the process of innovation.
I also found this book particularly valuable because the framework Mr. Johnson lays out lends itself beautifully to practical application.
Finally, the stories and illustrations the author uses to support his thesis are not the usual stories that one reads in books of this kind--in other words not the well trodden cases. When he does refer to histories that we all know, his emphasis and focus is fresh and aspects of the story that we might not have known, so the effect is convincing, and also entertaining.
This book goes down easy, which is an absolute rarity for one dealing with such a complex subject. I can't think of a more stimulating book I have ever read on the subject of strategy, innovation, business, etc. A must read.