Steven Johnson Answers Your Innovation Questions


Last week, we solicited your questions for Steven Johnson, the author of Where Do Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Your questions were very good, as are his answers, which you’ll find below. (My favorite excerpt: “Governments are teeming with information that’s useful to our lives:?information about services they offer, and information that they collect about society at large. But these public institutions are generally terrible at coming up with innovative ways of sharing that information and making it more relevant to people.”) Many thanks to all.


Thank you for posting on this valuable topic. I once heard that people who live in a place with a change of seasons are more productive, and I’ve wondered if there is any truth to that.

Darwin produced great ideas, but if you believe David Quammen‘s account of his life in Song of the Dodo, then Alfred Wallace really should get at least half, if not all, the credit for the theory of evolution. And he worked much faster than Darwin. – Emmi


I think it is probably pushing it to say that Wallace deserves all the credit for natural selection, but the fact that he was able to hit upon the theory independently speaks to one of the key themes of the book: the adjacent possible. At any given moment in cultural history, certain ideas become much easier to think than they would have been a century before: because of technological changes, new paradigms in the arts or sciences, and so on. Natural selection as a theory of life had entered the adjacent possible of science sometime in the middle of the 19th century, and so it’s no surprise that at least two minds stumbled across it. In fact, given how long Darwin held on to the idea, and given its relative simplicity, it’s amazing that more people didn’t think of it. (One of my favorite quotes from intellectual history is T. H. Huxley‘s on hearing the theory for the first time: “How incredibly stupid not to have thought of that!”)


What prescriptions would your thesis offer for reform of the patent system? – Michael F. Martin


In the book, I talk about a collaboration between Nike and Creative Commons that created a new class of patent to support something called GreenXchange, where Nike and some its partners have publicly released ideas from their R&D labs that were in some capacity environmentally friendly. The license associated with the patent allows for other organizations or individuals to use the idea in non-competitive fields, and it includes a standardized, pre-negotiated contract so there’s not a major cost in haggling over the terms of the license. The idea is that a company like Nike is probably sitting on hundreds, if not thousands, of ideas that will have value to other organizations when used in a different context – a new way of manufacturing rubber for footwear might turn out to be useful in making tires in a more sustainable fashion. But because Nike’s not in the business of making tires, that idea would go unused in a traditional closed R&D lab. GreenXchange is designed to let those ideas find new homes and be put to new uses. All of which means, in my mind, that the answer is not doing away with patents altogether, but rather in being more flexible and connective with them, so that good ideas can migrate from one domain to another much more easily.


Do you think innovation?needs certain kinds of “shelter from competition” to assure an optimal environment for new ideas? Or do these environments tend to emerge from sharp competitive?environments? – Jesus


In the final chapter of the book, I try to take a long view of the past 600 years of innovation, in both science and technology, to see where the 250 or so most important ideas originated. Is the competitive marketplace the primary driver of innovation, as we so often hear? Or does innovation come from somewhere else? What I found was that non-market networks of collaboration – the open source model, though it is more commonly found in the university environment – actually outperformed the marketplace in generating world-changing ideas. Yes, the market often takes those ideas and turns them into commercial products, but the original ideas themselves more often than not come from intellectual commons.


Doesn’t innovation involve another aspect, namely execution?

I often grow frustrated that our current system protects the idea with the government-backed monopoly of a patent, while anyone who actually executes on an idea is exposed to lawsuits by many who often do not produce.

Does this mean that a healthy and growing public domain is important for fueling innovation? – Bob


Yes, the public domain is crucial. And I think that we have an opportunity to make some of the institutions in the public sector – particularly government institutions – more innovative using some of the techniques I talk about in the book. I’m very taken by this slogan coined by Tim O’Reilly – the idea of a government as a platform.

Governments are teeming with information that’s useful to our lives:?information about services they offer, and information that they collect about society at large. But these public institutions are generally terrible at coming up with innovative ways of sharing that information and making it more relevant to people. But if we think of all that data as something like a software API, something like the way Google or Twitter allows outside developers to build on its data platforms, then suddenly interesting new uses of government can come from outside the bureaucracy.


If you accept that there is a limit to what the human brain can understand, do you think it possible to run out of new ideas in a field of enquiry? That is, as we push the epistemic boundaries in an intellectual endeavor, wouldn’t we get to a point where the only “new”?ideas would be recycled old ones that were forgotten, but then remembered anew? – frankenduf


I think the human brain is more flexible than you are perhaps giving it credit for, in part because the history of culture, and particularly science and technology, is in many ways driven by building new ideas on top of older platforms that other minds figured out. So one of the key things that enabled Tim Berners-Lee to invent the World Wide Web was precisely the fact that he didn’t have to invent the Internet first, or the programmable computer. Today, you can quite easily build an interesting new web service without having any idea how the Internet actually works. The same, of course, is true of science. It took massive intellectual resources to figure out the periodic table of elements 200 years ago, but now we don’t need to waste any cycles figuring it out – we can move on to more challenging problems.


I wonder if, in addition to the environment, the amount of “inspirations” that flow in to an individual is also an important aspect. I always think an idea doesn’t just “pop,” it’s always based on collective inspirations over time. Wanted to hear your insight on this. – @eYulia


Yes, that’s a major theme of the book. It’s not just the amount of inspirations that flow into an individual’s mind – it’s also the diversity of sources in that person’s network. A number of studies have shown that unusually innovative people – not just in the arts, but also in traditional organizations and businesses – tend to have much more diverse social networks. This is the non-political argument for diversity; being around people with different backgrounds actually makes you a more original thinker! It’s also an explanation of why innovative thinkers often have a rich collection of hobbies. (Darwin was a great example of this, with his barnacles and gardens and earthworms, etc.) The diversity of the different interests creates a richer network of ideas in the individual’s mind, even when he or she is dining alone.


Does your book speak about the subconscious mind and its role, if any, in the area of good ideas? – jww


I do spend a number of pages talking about the surprising number of important scientific breakthroughs that first occurred to people in dreams. There’s nothing mystical about this: in the dream state, the brain is somewhat chaotically re-organizing and re-triggering memories and other fragments of thought, and through that connective chaos, it’s no wonder that useful new idea networks form. In a sense, it’s not that the dreaming brain is trying to suggest a repressed thought, but rather that it is exploring the space of possibility, triggering new combinations. Most of that ends up being noise, but every now and then something brilliant happens, something that wouldn’t have happened with the noise of the exploration.


I would agree good ideas and innovation grow faster in collaborative, networked environments. But we have a society and organizations that don’t always welcome the necessary openness. How do we demonstrate to government, corporations, NGOs (often very closed) and others that sharing information, ideas, brainstorms, even failures can lead to greater progress (and profit) for all? What specific examples can you share of orgs that did this, that networked richly and benefited? – Paul Swider


One of the things that makes this argument a great deal easier today than it would have been thirty years ago is the fact of the Internet and the Web. No one doubts that the Net and the Web are open platforms, owned by no individual organization, and yet there’s nothing speculative or pipe-dream-like about them anymore. And yet they have at the same time enabled the accumulation of vast fortunes, and an incredible explosion of commercial activity. So the question is what can we learn from that experience? That’s in part the power of the government-as-platform idea. You look at something like the Apps For Democracy competition that the DC government did a few years ago; by opening up their data in an API-like fashion, they inspired almost fifty genuinely useful applications for exploring or navigating civic data, and they did it all in a matter of months, for less than $50,000. That’s a far more efficient and innovative way for a public sector organization to work, and we’re just starting to think about how these kinds of platforms could evolve.


Congratulations on your new book. I really liked reading Ghost Map and look forward to getting the “ideas” book next. I just came from a highly collaborative meeting where the three of us seemed to be experiencing peak mental performance simultaneously….quite a miracle. We may not have solved all the problems of the world, but we made large headway into solving a persistent one we’ve faced at work. The 1930’s book Think and Grow Rich noted almost an alignment of minds allowing a boost of effective thinking/mental openness for an idea to be better recognized. I’m wondering if your book tackles this feeling that collaborative discussion gives exponential boosts to successful ideation similar to what I felt today. – Laura Creighton


In the book, I talk about a brilliant study by a scholar named Kevin Dunbar, who went around videotaping cutting-edge biology labs around the country to try to figure out where the breakthrough ideas actually came from. He basically recorded everything, Big Brother-style, and what he found was that the image of the scientist having the epiphany at the microscope was actually a myth; the breakthroughs were much more likely to happen at the weekly lab meeting, where everyone gets together and shares the latest updates about their research. There’s something about the informal, bouncing-off-each-other space that is ripe for connection and new discovery, or that helps you see your own problems in a new light. I think that’s part of the reason the coffeehouse of the Enlightenment was such a powerful driver of creative thought as well: put a mix of interesting people together with different passions and fields of expertise, and get them to riff on their work or research or hobbies, and new ideas will almost invariably emerge.

Peter Corbett


Thank you for writing about the Apps for Democracy project. When we created it, we weren't sure of what the outcome might be - but Vivek Kundra (then DC's CTO and now the Federal CIO) had enough courage and vision to green light the experiment.

Today "Apps for ___" has spread world wide to 30+ countries and cities. We don't run those projects, but believe deeply in Open Innovation, so we put out a guide for anyone to read and perhaps follow. You can find that here:

Please look me up if you're in DC any time soon.

Peter Corbett, CEO, iStrategyLabs


Thanks very much for posting my question! And thanks to Steve Johnson for the response. His book sounds quite interesting.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

I would like to propose a novel source of ideas. A subset of humanity has Hypermanic or Bipolar Disorder.(approximately 2%). This is an unusually mental illness that can generate extraordinary creativity in short bursts. These can be striking indivduals: high energy, fast taking, connecting the dots that we all miss, synthesizing and possibly innovating and changing the world. They can be breathtaking to be around.

Van Gogh died in a mental instituition in his thirties. He painted 2500 paintings in three years prior to his death. All of these are masterpieces worth millions.

Think of Howard Hughes, who died in a mental instuition, but when younger won an Oscar for Best Director, set several flying speed records including NY to Paris, was romancing Hollywood starlets, running a billion dollar aircraft and engineering firm, inventing different types of petroleum engineering drill bits and trying to finangle Congress to redirect its WWII efforts.

Also Ted Turner, CEO of CNN. Dreaming of Cable TV while sailing a yacht in the America's Cup. And Stephen Jobs of Apple. And Thomas Edison. And Mozart. Leonardo DeVinci. George Steinbrenner. Thomas Jefferson. And in Fiction, Iron Man: Tony Stark. Superheroe CEO inventor.

They have an oversized personality and live twice the life in half the time. But they can leave an imprint and legacy of ideas and creativity. --They can also be a pain in the neck.



Hmm, bipolar people being great innovators .... interesting proposition. I'm currently raising a 12 y.o. who we think is bipolar, but it's difficult to put that type of label on someone so young. Our society's response now is to medicate them in order to smooth out the peaks/valleys. How much do we miss when they don't reach the peak because the valley is so "dangerous"?

He's smart and energetic, but also so hard-headed that it's difficult to control him sometimes. He's homeschooled for now, and this year has been a literal challenge so far, as we're challenging him with a classical curriculum. My biggest challenge is teaching him how to love, approaching/dealing with others in a loving manner and accepting love.

Loving what you do (your occupation) is a strong undecurrent of innovation. Folks today struggle to find any job, and end up working on something they may not love but puts food on the table. Being able to work on something you love and adequately compensated for that work can be a blessing not many of us realize.


Abdi Ali

He's coming to St. Paul, MN on Oct 15th. My question is whether listening to music has had influence in creativity/innovation.


Thanks! for the answers!



How about a show on Presidential/Governor Pardons are they undermining the legal system?

I have an idea for a program. Very timely since we may be
electing a new president.

Presidential/State Governor Pardons

Some possible questions to answer......

What is the history of Pardons?
Why were Pardons created in the first place?
Was it controversial when first created?
Are we undermining the Legal process by giving one individual this much power?
What would it take to get rid of this, if possible?
Why would the senate and house not vote to remove the ability to issue pardons?
Who are the most notable people to be pardoned?
Would it matter if there was no Pardon capability?
How many individuals can the Pardoned? Is there a limit?
Can these pardons be rescended?

It would be nice to have an expert on each side of this issue.

I think there would be a lot of interest in this topic.

Please let me know what you think of this