Where Good Ideas Come From

date Feb 25, 2012
authors Steven Johnson
reading time 10 mins

City effect == more creative

despite all the noise and crowding and distraction, the average resident of a metropolis with a population of five million people was almost three times more creative than the average resident of a town of a hundred thousand.


It is one of the great truisms of our time that we live in an age of technological acceleration; the new paradigms keep rolling in, and the intervals between them keep shortening. This acceleration reflects not only the flood of new products, but also our growing willingness to embrace these strange new devices,


Call it the 10/10 rule: a decade to build the new platform, and a decade for it to find a mass audience.

Openness and connectivity

long-zoom approach lets us see that openness and connectivity may, in the end, be more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms.

Connecting > protecting

we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.

Good ideas

Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.

Evolution as tinkerer

Evolution advances by taking available resources and cobbling them together to create new uses. The evolutionary theorist François Jacob captured this in his concept of evolution as a “tinkerer,” not an engineer;

Adjacent possible

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible.

Collection + composition

Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and, occasionally, contracts) over time.


The trick is to figure out ways to explore the edges of possibility that surround you. This can be as simple as changing the physical environment you work in, or cultivating a specific kind of social network, or maintaining certain habits in the way you seek out and store information.

Isolation « More parts

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.

Network == Popping idea

A good idea is a network. A specific constellation of neurons—thousands of them—fire in sync with each other for the first time in your brain, and an idea pops into your consciousness. A new idea is a network of cells exploring the adjacent possible of connections that they can make in your mind.

Creating vs Repetitive brain

The creating brain behaves differently from the brain that is performing a repetitive task. The neurons communicate in different ways. The networks take on distinct shapes.


to make your mind more innovative, you have to place it inside environments that share that same network signature: networks of ideas or people that mimic the neural networks of a mind exploring the boundaries of the adjacent possible.

New connections + collisions

the original innovation engine on earth, we find two essential properties. First, a capacity to make new connections with as many other elements as possible. And, second, a “randomizing” environment that encourages collisions between all the elements in the system.


When you share a common civic culture with thousands of other people, good ideas have a tendency to flow from mind to mind, even when their creators try to keep them secret. “Spillover” is the right word; it captures the essential liquidity of information in dense settlements.


A strong correlation exists between those dense settlements and the dramatic surge in the societal innovation rate.

High density

In a low-density, chaotic network, ideas come and go. In the dense networks of the first cities, good ideas have a natural propensity to get into circulation. They spill over, and through that spilling they are preserved for future generations.

Network connection

This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.

Collapsed ideas

This is why it is just as useful to look at the sparks that failed, the ideas that found their way to a promising region of the adjacent possible but somehow collapsed there.


But the snap judgments of intuition as powerful as they can be are rarities in the history of world-changing ideas. Most hunches that turn into important innovations unfold over much longer time frames. They start with a vague, hard-to-describe sense that there’s an interesting solution to a problem that hasn’t yet been proposed, and they linger in the shadows of the mind, sometimes for decades, assembling new connections and gaining strength.

Taking time

A new idea is something larger than that: it’s a new perspective on a problem, or a recognition of a new opportunity that has gone unexplored to date. Those kinds of breakthroughs usually take time to develop.


Sustaining the slow hunch is less a matter of perspiration than of cultivation. You give the hunch enough nourishment to keep it growing, and plant it in fertile soil, where its roots can make new connections. And then you give it time to bloom.

Notes and re-reading them

it is not that the notebook is a mere transcription of the ideas, which are happening offstage somewhere in Darwin’s mind. Darwin was constantly rereading his notes, discovering new implications. His ideas emerge as a kind of duet between the present-tense thinking brain and all those past observations recorded on paper.

Slow hunch

In his own account of the Web’s origins, Tim Berners-Lee makes no attempt to collapse the evolution of his marvelous idea into a single epiphany. The Web came into being as an archetypal slow hunch: from a child’s exploration of a hundred-year-old encyclopedia, to a freelancer’s idle side project designed to help him keep track of his colleagues, to a deliberate attempt to build a new information platform that could connect computers across the planet.


But serendipity is not just about embracing random encounters for the sheer exhilaration of it. Serendipity is built out of happy accidents, to be sure, but what makes them happy is the fact that the discovery you’ve made is meaningful to you. It completes a hunch, or opens up a door in the adjacent possible that you had overlooked.

How to have serendipity

Serendipitous discoveries often involve exchanges across traditional disciplines.

Walking or showering

But how do you get those particular clusters of neurons to fire at the right time? One way is to go for a walk. The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. (A similar phenomenon occurs with long showers or soaks in a tub; in fact, the original “eureka” moment—Archimedes hitting upon a way of measuring the volume of irregular shapes—occurred in a bathtub.)

How ideas come by Poincaré. Heard this so many times form Tesla, Archimedes or Newton

Then one evening he breaks from his ordinary routine and drinks black coffee. Unable to sleep, his mind seethes with promising hunches. “Ideas rose in crowds,” Poincaré writes. “I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions, those which come from the hypergeometric series.”


I happen to believe that the Web, as a medium, has pushed the culture toward more serendipitious encounters. The simple fact that information “browsing” and “surfing” are now mainstream pursuits makes a strong case for a rise in serendipity, compared to cultures dominated by books or mass media.

Wrong and messy

The history of being spectacularly right has a shadow history lurking behind it: a much longer history of being spectacularly wrong, again and again. And not just wrong, but messy. A shockingly large number of transformative ideas in the annals of science can be attributed to contaminated laboratory environments.

Many many

Fertility of imagination and abundance of guesses at truth are among the first requisites of discovery; but the erroneous guesses must be many times as numerous as those that prove well founded.

Errors by an expert are much more

“The errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one.”


Benjamin Franklin, who knew a few things about innovation himself, said it best: “Perhaps the history of the errors of mankind, all things considered, is more valuable and interesting than that of their discoveries. Truth is uniform and narrow; it constantly exists, and does not seem to require so much an active energy, as a passive aptitude of soul in order to encounter it. But error is endlessly diversified.”


As Fischer noted, that clustering creates a positive feedback loop, as the more unconventional residents of the suburbs or rural areas migrate to the city in search of fellow travelers.

Encouragement !== Creativity

But encouragement does not necessarily lead to creativity. Collisions do—the collisions that happen when different fields of expertise converge in some shared physical or intellectual space. That’s where the true sparks fly.

Conformity and convention

In groups united by shared values and long-term familiarity, conformity and convention tended to dampen any potential creative sparks.

Curiosity and hobbies

Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities—a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity—but they also share one other defining attribute. They have a lot of hobbies.


Chance favors the connected mind.

Financial rewards are not good for innovation

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.

Some steps to take!

Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.

Some useful links:

  1. twentieth-century technology adoption rates in the United States