Where Good Ideas Come From

Where Good Ideas Come From
Author: Steven Johnson


Is there a formula for creativity? Do great ideas have a shared recipe? This book’s title suggests that the answer is ‘yes’. The author argues that great ideas emerge from ‘…a series of shared properties and patterns’ and he calls these the seven patterns of innovation. These patterns are ‘… building block ideas, spare parts that can be reassembled into useful new configurations’ (page 42). The author makes the case that these patterns apply to every type of creativity- ‘…artistic, scientific, technological‘ (page 21). The book explores how these patterns enhance our ‘…extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking‘ (page 8).

Internet Splat Map. Steve Jurvetson on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/916142
Internet Splat Map. Steve Jurvetson on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/916142

The central premise propounded in the book is that all good ideas emanate from the combination of different, and often older, ideas. The author argues that ‘…good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts…’ (page 35). The book abounds with examples of innovations that involve ‘… borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field, and putting it to work to solve an unrelated problem’ (page 153). Some innovations, illustrated by technologies such as Twitter and YouTube, provide ‘stacked platforms’ for other innovations to bloom; this typifies many innovations which are often ‘…a new use for a tool designed to do something else’ (pages 192-193).



Great innovations however require ‘fertile environments‘ to flourish (page 17). The author perceives ideas as part of a network, or as a swarm, ‘…requiring to be densely populated and adaptable to be productive…’ (pages 45-46). The author emphasises the importance of this environment of abundance’ to creativity, and he illustrates this with the observation that most ideas materialise in thriving cities rather than in smaller, more restricted, communities (page 33).


Creativity is Just Connecting Things. Sandy brown Jensen on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sandybrownjensen/11129014806
Creativity is Just Connecting Things. Sandy brown Jensen on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sandybrownjensen/11129014806


The book is teeming with illustrative examples of the author’s seven patterns of innovation. He demonstrated serendipity with the example of Stephane Tarnier, the obstetrician who applied his chance observation of chick incubators to developing life-saving incubators for premature babies (page 26-27). He cites the example of Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the Web to illustrate the ‘hunch‘ (page 89), a slow process that generates innovative ideas after a long incubation period (page 127). He referred to scientists such as Otto Loewi and Dmitri Mendeleev who conceived or perfected their ideas during dreams, arguing that ‘… the mental recombinations of sleep…’ help to solve intriguing puzzles (page 102).



Other examples the author mentions include Charles Darwin’s and his theory of evolution, Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press, John Snow and his work on cholera, Lee DeForest and his invention of the vacuum tube, and Alexander Fleming and his discovery of penicillin (pages 131-134). There are several references to influential thinkers and their books such as Arthur Koestler and The Act of Creation (page 58), Thomas Kuhn and The Structure of Scientific Revolution (page 59), and Henri Poincare and The Foundations of Science (page 110). The book also explores several themes related to innovation and creativity. These include the concepts of ‘the adjacent possible‘ (pages 30-31), the ‘edge of chaos‘ (page 52), and ‘superlinear scaling’ (page 10).



Serendipity by ion-bogdan dimutrescu on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bitzi/277225654
Serendipity by ion-bogdan dimutrescu on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bitzi/277225654


The author assures that the talent for creativity is not in-bred and it could be acquired. He said the possibilities for making connections abound, and ‘… we are surrounded by potential new configurations, new ways of breaking out of our standard routines’ (page 40). He asserts that we can all be more creative if ‘… we open our minds to the many connected environments that make creativity possible’ (page 21). He argued for the establishment of innovative hubs (page 228-229), and criticises the negative effect of intellectual property on innovation; he says ‘…openness creates… powerful opportunities for good ideas to flourish’ (page 232).



The book addresses the important issue of creativity and innovation, and attempts to establish a formula that generates good ideas. The author explored several examples to illustrate his argument, reminiscent of ‘Inside the Box’ thinking. The seven patterns of innovation are however subtypes of one pattern, that of making connections. I thought the book made disproportionately too many references to a few key examples, such as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Tim Berners-Lee’s Web. The book is however well-researched, the arguments lucid, and the examples convincing. The author’s writing style is clear, and the story-telling is gripping, the book reading like an exciting thriller.



Innovation and creativity are central to healthcare, and the ideas expounded in this book are relevant for doctors and health institutions. Healthcare innovation may be enhanced by establishing the enabling environment that facilitate creative connections. These connections between specialties and subspecialties, and between medicine and other industries, have the potential to generate excellent ideas. The book offers the tools to make this possible, and I recommend it.


The author discussing his book


  • Publisher, Place, Date: Penguin, London, 2010
  • Number of chapters: 8
  • Number of pages: 326
  • ISBN: 978-0-141-03340-2
  • Price: £9.98
  • Star rating: 4



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