Wednesday, December 7, 2011

“Where good ideas come from” by Steven Johnson

“Where do good ideas come from?” This question is typically approached from two directions. One: What kinds of people create good ideas? Two: What kinds of environments create good ideas? Steven Johnson’s book “Where good ideas come from” approaches the question from the second direction and identifies seven patterns that recur in fertile environments. His TED talk gives a great overview. Let me articulate three of the seven patterns below:

1. Adjacent possible: In the year following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Indonesian city of Meulaboh received eight incubators from a range of international relief organizations. By late 2008, when an MIT professor name Timothy Prestero visited the hospital, all eight were out of order – due to power surges, tropical humidity and lack of expertise to repair them. Prestero is an expert on robust designs and the founder of Design that Matters organization. He realized that designing an incubator in developing country wasn’t just about creating something that worked. It was also a matter of something that could be maintained by local people. Rosen, a Boston doctor, observed that small towns in Indonesia were able to repair the Toyota 4Runners. So Rosen approached Prestero with the idea: What if you made an incubator out of automobile parts? That is how NeoNurture incubator was born. It was doubly efficient because it tapped both the local supply of parts and the local knowledge of automobile repair.

Johnson observes that good ideas are like the NeoNurture device – they are inevitably constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. That is why encouraging prototyping is so important because it validates if we know what kind of spare parts to look for and whether we have the skills to put them together. Charles Babbage designed a programmable computer in 1837 but couldn't build a prototype in his lifetime (died: 1871) because the spare parts were simply not available. It wasn’t an “adjacent possible” idea for the time. Do you encourage prototyping? Do you make spare parts easily accessible?

2. Slow hunch: Charles Darwin wrote about his moment of epiphany on September 28, 1838 when he conceptualized the famous theory of natural selection. However, more than a century later, when a psychologist Howard Gruber went through the copious notes that Darwin had kept he realized that Darwin had been working on the key concepts from 1837 onwards. Sir Tim Berners-Lee designed the first prototype for sharing information with hypertext in 1980 at CERN. However, it is only in 1989 that he submitted the proposal for building world-wide web. The first web-site was build at CERN and put online on August 6, 1991.

Good ideas are more like slow hunches. They often mature by stealth, in small steps and fade into view. Does your organization encourage working on hunches?

3. Exaptation: What is common between the two innovations: Printing press and Jaipur foot? Both took a set of mature technologies in one domain, combined them to solve an unrelated problem. Exaptation is a trait developed in an organism optimized for a specific use but then it gets hijacked for completely different function. Johannes Gutenberg used the screw press technology used for making wines and made modifications to the metallurgy behind the movable type system to create a printing press. In case of Jaipur Foot, Dr. Promod Sethi and Ram Chandra a doctor-sculptor team looked at the retreading of a truck tire with vulcanized rubber in a roadside shop and applied it to create prosthetic legs – what is popularly known today as Jaipur foot.

Does your organization create a space for the "doctors" & "sculptors" to come together? Or does your organization encourage Chandras to visit new places like “cycle shops”?

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in finding out “Where good ideas come from?” I am sure you will get a fresh perspective.

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