Working as a patent attorney, sometimes a new idea that stuns me will jump out from a patent. An elegant, innovative idea that makes me wonder how anyone thought of it. Often, my next thought, though, as I understand the idea better, is how simple the idea is. So I think, why didn't I think of that?
Steven Johnson's "Natural History of Innovation" shines some light on the first question as he tells us "Where Good Ideas Come From." Johnson looks back through science history as he teases out from science history, and from natural history, seven "patterns" in which new ideas are formed. Johnson backs up with examples each of the seven groups in his taxonomy of the origins of ideas. Good examples, well told, are what make the book.
Johnson writes science history well. Like in Johnson's earlier book, The Invention of Air, the science history he writes here reads like a fascinating tale of adventure. Although a bit breathless at times, and sometimes drawing too much from too little, Johnson caught my attention early and held it all the way through this fairly long new book.
And it's not just a history of scientists and discoveries. Johnson looks too at nature - like how reefs pack together life and promote evolution - and society - like how larger cities generate exponentially more innovation than smaller towns.
On occasion, Johnson's taxonomy is a tad bit tortured. The seven patterns each get a chapter in the book. But for me, the names of the patterns and the particular examples grouped in them do not give much insight. The patterns - while interesting - seem more organizational groupings than anything else. The patterns are the skeleton. Not much flesh there. The meat in the book is in the examples.
In fact, the insight for me came from the light Johnson shines on my second question - why didn't I think of that? To broaden that question into its most compelling form, how can we, both personally and as a society, increase the number of good ideas we have in the arts, in science, in sociology and government, and in technology?
That $64,000 question Johnson does not really try to answer. He does give some clues. (One thing he says caught my interest as a patent attorney. That is, we get more good ideas by connecting them than by protecting them. In other words, the patent system may be hurting, instead of meeting, its goal of promoting innovation.)
Johnson's book is ambitious. He covers a lot of ground, from scientists to nature to arts to government to society. His idea that good ideas in all of these fields develop in the same recognizable patterns is a bold one. In a sense, he is looking for a unified theory of innovation.
Did Johnson find that unified theory? If he did, you won't find it on a particular page in this book. But by joining Johnson in exploring this question, I learned a lot and thought a lot. That made the book worthwhile for me.