Where good ideas come from

Where good ideas come from



I recently chanced upon a Ted talk by Steven Johnson, “Where good ideas come from”. Flashing a photo of “The Grand Café”, the oldest existing coffee house in Oxford, Johnson persuasively points out that the architecture of space leads to collaboration and the spread of good ideas. That the participants were awake and stimulated from the coffee obviously helped. “The English coffee house was crucial to the development and spread of … The Englightenment, … in part because of what people were drinking there.”

Good ideas don’t come from a lone genius working in a lab as often as they come from interactions between geniuses.  “People would hang out in this intellectual hub and have these free-floating conversations about all these different interests and passions,” Johnson says.  In the 18thcentury, Benjamin Franklin’s own Club of Honest Whigs would meet at the London Coffeehouse in London to shoot around their ideas. [Read interview of Johnson.]

“There should be a plaque to commemorate [that coffeehouse],” Johnson says. “It was really a tremendously generative space. In the book I describe these as ‘liquid networks,’ where there is … fluidity in the conversation, but it is also a network of different people with different perspectives coming together.”

Paris too had its share of café-philos where artists, writers, philosophers would converge.


Where Good Ideas Come From

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
By Steven Johnson
Hardcover, 336 pages
List price: $26.95


Eureka moments or ‘Slow Hunch’

From the lone genius of Thomas Edison slaving away on his lightbulb to Madam curie with her Bunsen burner,  if you pose me a name of a greater inventor, immediately the image of a lone wolf pops out.  In his TED speech, Johnson showed pictures of Rodin statue “The Thinker” alone and deep in thought.

Johnson addresses this image in my mind, and possibly many others. Case in point is how Darwin developed his theory of evolution. In his own autobiography, Darwin writes about having a great epiphany one night in 1838 while reading Thomas Malthus’ “Essay on the Principle of Population.” He claims he suddenly understood the principles of natural selection, a theory he went on to base much of his work off of.

20 years ago, a scholar named Howard Gruber went back and re-read Darwin’s notebooks, he found that Darwin’s discovery was anything but an epiphany. “Six months before this alleged epiphany that Darwin had, he was writing out the full theory of natural selection in his notes.” Johnson says. “But then it isn’t for another three months that he actually writes out the theory in a complete fashion.”  This is what Johnson calls the “slow hunch” — quiet ideas that linger in the background and take time to, pardon the pun, evolve.  In “The Dark Side of Charles Darwin”, the author cited that Darwin’s ideas on evolution was probably influenced by and borrowed ideas from many people in his time, not least his own grandfather Erasmus Darwin, although he did not willingly acknowledge the works of others.

Other inventors like Thomas Edison

“Midnight lunch: 4 phases of team collaboration success from Edison’s Lab” by Sarah Miller Caldicott, his grand niece reveals his passion for collaboration.  Read about her interview on: Innovation Excellence. I quote the interview below:

What is midnight lunch?

Edison would speak personally with the dozen or so employees who were staying late to work on their experiments, encouraging them to share insights with each other, and learn from the diverse expertise each person brought to their projects. Everyone would roll up their sleeves, working together amidst heady dialogue.

Work-Life Balance?

At about 9 PM, Edison would order in food for everyone from a local tavern. For an hour or so, the assembled crew would relax, tell stories, sing songs, and even play music together, before heading back to work until the wee hours of the morning. They connected socially, and created a deeper understanding of each other as people and not just workers. This process of midnight lunch transformed employees into colleagues. It served as the foundation for collaboration in all of Edison’s labs. Through midnight lunch, we see the importance of activities that encourage employees to come together in ways that link work with their social lives. – See more at: http://www.innovationexcellence.com/blog/2013/02/03/midnight-lunch-how-thomas-edison-collaborated/#sthash.EXkypmv9.dpuf

Even Madam Marie Curie did not work alone but collaborated with her husband who although a French outsider,  Several tons of pitchblende was later put at their disposal through the good offices of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. At this stage they needed more room, and the principal of the school where Pierre worked once again came to their aid.  Brilliant and persistent, she surrounded herself with great minds in the field.  When she presented her doctoral thesis, two persons in the examination committee of three comprised her former teacher, Lippmann who would go on to receive a Nobel Prize for physics and Moissan for chemistry. Coincidence or context?  Would Madam Curie, a Polish by birth discover her calling if she hadn’t moved to Paris, met Pierre Curie and collaborated with him. Pierre was head of a laboratory at the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry where engineers were trained and had later arranged for her to work in the school’s laboratory.


Today, companies institute “Work from home” where employees come back to office for meetings, talks, discussions.  Is this sufficient?  What about lunches with colleagues, having tea, hanging out after work. [Some Japanese companies go the other extreme of having drinks at Izakaya till really late and getting drunk together to establish camaraderie.  So do the Chinese.] Seems that it is prevalent in every culture.

1. Context – be where the action is.

2. Persistence or passion? Chicken or the egg?

3. Specialise.

4. Collaboration – no man is an island.  Build on the ideas of others, and cross fertilise them.

5. Promote – even Madam Curie scrupulously claimed credit for her contributions to radioactivity (Ernest Rutherford)

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