Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design

4/11/2012

Read: Where good ideas come from

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

It is rare to read an informative book and keep your concentration, but author Steven Johnson does a marvelous job keeping readers interested. I picked up his book, "Where Good Ideas Come From" through a friend's recommendation, which turned out to be right on.


We are inundated today with advice on how to be more creative, or inspire creativity, but never have the origins of good ideas been so thoroughly studied. It is a difficult subject matter to be sure, but Johnson does a remarkable job of weaving the interconnected stories of invention across eras and scientific discipline to form a coherent story. Readers are fascinated. I found myself saying, "Huh! That's amazing. I didn't know that little factoid." Who knew that Gutenberg's printing press was really "more bricolage than breakthrough," combining known inventions such as ink, paper, movable type (conceived by a Chinese blacksmith Pi Sheng) and his knowledge of the Rhineland winemaking machinery, the screw press?

Chapter after chapter, Johnson builds a case for ideas, not as flashes of inspiration that come and go, but natural, organic occurrence that can be encouraged through widening our networks, cultivating hobbies and swimming in activity.

He rightly cites psychologist Kevin Dunbar at McGill University who notes that "people tend to condense origin stories of their best ideas into tidy narratives, forgetting the messy, convoluted routes to inspiration that they actually followed." During Dunbar's research, studying scientists in the actual process of discovery, he found physical location counts when making breakthroughs. "If you looked at the map of idea formation that Dunbar created, the ground zero of innovation was not the microscope. It was the conference table."

At the conference table, water cooler, or wherever people of different disciplines can freely mingle and discuss, new information leeks out and contaminates other nascent information percolating in our brains, igniting new ideas. The shape of our physical space then not only serves our individual purpose, but also determines our propensity for creativity.

With this in mind, we see office spaces that metaphorically loosen their ties and open spaces for people to interact fluidly, much like Gensler's "vertical connectivity zone" that allows you see a colleague not necessarily in your department a floor away. It also makes me wonder how effective Shlemmer + Algaze's move is to create office spaces in a lobby area where its employees will constantly be scrutinized by passersby looking through massive 30-feet floor to ceiling windows.

Gensler's planned office space rendering via.
Johnson's book is filled with such surprising connections, all carefully researched and written in an approachable manner, so as not to bore. What's the connection between coral reefs, cities and the web? You'll find out right at the onset.

"Where Good Ideas Come From" is a surprising book, one that leaves readers feeling they can cultivate an environment where good ideas are prone to come up themselves. It is a feeling distinct from reading the latest article on science's latest breakthrough and thinking, "Those people are geniuses!" Instead, the so-called "flash of inspiration" is demystified, deconstructed and becomes ultimately very do-able.

Hear author Steven Johnson speak a little more about it:

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