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Where Do Good Ideas Come From: A Q&A With Steven Johnson


What kinds of environments and societies give rise to good ideas? How can the average person maximize his odds of coming up with a great idea? These are the questions that Steven Johnson sets out to answer in his new book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, out next week.
Johnson is a prolific non-fiction author; his earlier books include The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World; The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America; and Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Johnson is good at a lot of things, but especially good at applying modern thinking to historical situations. He tweets here, and has 1.5 million followers.
A central argument of his new book is that good ideas are not the product of lone geniuses, but of connected networks. “[W]hat I would argue, and what you really need to kind of begin with, is this idea that an idea is a network on the most elemental level,” he said in a recent TED talk. “I mean, this is what is happening inside your brain. An idea, a new idea, is a new network of neurons firing in sync with each other inside your brain. It’s a new configuration that has never formed before. And the question is: how do you get your brain into environments where these new networks are going to be more likely to form?”
In the book, Johnson identifies seven patterns that are common to “fertile” environments: “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.” He takes readers on a journey that covers the great creative cities to the remote islands where Charles Darwin began to organize his thinking about evolution.
Johnson has agreed to answer your questions about his new book, so fire away in the comments section below. As always, we’ll post his answers in due time.