Steven Johnson writes about intricate subjects; his previous books have addressed communications technology, medical epidemics, the impact of popular culture—even the life of English theologian, clergyman, philosopher and inventor Joseph Priestly. Now, with Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson examines the critical factors that are almost always present when human innovation occurs.

The investigation begins with Charles Darwin and his observation of coral reefs, which he understood to be living ecosystems. From there, Johnson’s coverage ranges widely, with discussion of corporate, governmental and private innovation, including Gutenberg’s use of a wine press to develop the printing press; the development of the GPS based on early observations of the satellite Sputnik by Johns Hopkins physicists; the sonic explorations of British musician Brian Eno; the brilliantly improvised steps that led to the invention of the incubator; Watson and Crick’s discovery of the DNA double helix; and the latest in video and social networking, such as HDTV, YouTube and Twitter.

Johnson’s historical overviews are arranged within seven essential chapters, whose titles—“The Adjacent Possible,” “Liquid Networks,” “The Slow Hunch,” “Serendipity,” “Error,” “Exaptation,” “Platforms”—signal the key elements whose presence gives rise to new discovery. He believes that “the more we embrace these patterns—in our private work habits and hobbies, in our office environments, in the design of new software tools—the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking.”

Johnson keeps the discussions of hard science to a minimum, though his sidebar about carbon as an essential component of life is certainly intriguing. Otherwise, his chief focus is on the various social and structural working models that create a fertile environment for creative thinking, collaboration and a culture in which information not only flows but is recycled. In his view, those “Eureka” moments are way overrated, and “environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments. . . . Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine.” Johnson proves to be an excellent guide to that process.


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