Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation By Steven Johnson Allen Lane, 336pp, £20
In May this year, the space shuttle STS-132 blasted off en route for the international space station. On board, alongside arrays of carefully calibrated scientific equipment, was a sliver of wood from the trunk of an English apple tree. It had earned its place on a mission in which every ounce had to be accounted for because the tree in question had played a formative role in the conceptualisation of the laws of gravity.
For more than a week, the sliver from Newton's apple tree orbited the earth and, unlike the apple, did not fall. Newton's Tree, along with Archimedes' overflowing bath, is one of the great locations in which human minds have been struck by major insights. For lesser thinkers, the garden shed, or under the duvet can play the same role, as the place where great ideas appear.
But whereas most of us think of location as the least important part of a good idea, the mere stage-set for a blinding insight generated by the processes of cogitation, Steven Johnson's new book Where Good Ideas Come From sets out to examine the contribution which environment makes to the creation of good ideas, and asks what kind of physical, social and intellectual spaces give rise to the greatest number of insights.
Johnson argues that eureka moments, the creative epiphanies most people identify with having a good idea, are over-rated. The sudden realisation which comes in the bath or below the apple tree may conceptualise an idea, but that concept is likely to have built up over months or years of rumination. Far more typical of creative breakthroughs, Johnson argues, are slow hunches which grow to fruition over time, ideas which occur because of unexpected collisions with new information, draw on a combination of insights from different disciplines and result from encounters with someone else's good ideas.
Despite its generic title, this book is less a how-to-guide or business tome than a metanarrative on creatively which ranges widely across disciplines, continents and time periods in an attempt to formulate a theory of which environments support the production of the best ideas. In its most compelling chapters, Johnson attempts something like a natural history of ideas generation which draws on insights from physics, biology and chemistry to create a model for successful innovation.
Sadly for those who associate thinking with holing up in a library for hours of deep reading, serendipity, happy accidents and chance collisions fit the Johnson model of creativity better than isolated intellectual immersion. Johnson is particularly keen on the creative potential of sharing. For Johnson, physical spaces which encourage mingling, meeting with peers and talking about ideas are the places where new ideas are made. This book hums with praise for innovation hubs, coffee houses, structureless buildings and just creatively hanging out. From this follows the valorisation of large urban centres with the opportunities they present for serendipitous meetings, small groups which have quirky fascinations in common and get together to meet, discuss and enlarge on them.
The opposite will kill new ideas; we have all worked in environments which were intended to be creative, but in which creativity was stymied by a culture which punished innovation, or in which egos conspired to stifle good new ideas.
But there must be more to good ideas generation than simply the removal of artificial barriers to sharing. To take the topic right back home, for much of the last 20 years, generalism has been held up as one of the great virtues of the Scottish education system. The country also conducts some of the most innovative research in IT and biotech. But despite this intellectual heritage of interdisciplinary thinking, Scotland is also near the bottom of the world league for start-ups.
Ideas are clearly not enough on their own. To make the difference between success or failure they need institutional and financial support as well as cultural encouragement.
At its best, this book is a skilful work of intellectual synthesis, but though Johnson's examples are imaginatively chosen and the lessons drawn from them are never dull, Where Good Ideas Come From is essentially an argument by anecdote, sometimes supported by incomplete prcis. Despite the delight it takes in weaving skeins of connective tissue between disparate ideas, it reads like an overextended New Yorker article with none of the gritty detail that would ultimately convince.