I remember the very instant that I learned to be creative, to ‘invent’ things, to do things in an interesting and unusual way, and it happened by accident, literally.
I created mess around myself, the kind of chaos that would be very dangerous in an operating theater but which is synonymous with artists’ studios, and in that mess I edited the accidents. By increasing the amount of mess I had freed things up and increased the possibilities, I had maximised the adjacent possible and was able to create the appearance of inventing new things by editing the mistakes which appeared novel and interesting.
The adjacent possible is one of those ideas that, once you hear it, you want to apply to everything around you.
Kelly: The musician Brian Eno invented a wonderful word to describe this phenomenon: scenius. We normally think of innovators as independent geniuses, but Eno’s point is that innovation comes from social scenes,from passionate and connected groups of people.
Johnson: At the end of my book, I try to look at that phenomenon systematically. I took roughly 200 crucial innovations from the post-Gutenberg era and figured out how many of them came from individual entrepreneurs or private companies and how many from collaborative networks working outside the market. It turns out that the lone genius entrepreneur has always been a rarity-there’s far more innovation coming out of open, nonmarket networks than we tend to assume.
Kelly: Really, we should think of ideas as connections,in our brains and among people. Ideas aren’t self-contained things; they’re more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters.
Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, comes out in a couple weeks. As in many of Johnson’s previous books, place plays a starring role — Interface Culture was set in cyberspace, Emergence talked extensively about cities, The Ghost Map’s epicenter was a water pump on Broad St. in London, and Mind Wide Open mapped out our brain space. In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson steps back to ask: what is the relationship between place and ideas? What are the attributes common to places in which innovation happens? The trailer for the book explains further.
I’ve read the book and the last chapter’s discussion of market/non-market environments & individual/network approaches in relation to innovation is alone worth the price of purchase, nevermind that the rest of it is interesting as well. Heck, even the appendix is fascinating; it contains a chronology of the key human inventions and innovations from 1400 to the present that is difficult to put down.
I look at human environments that have been unusually generative: the architecture of successful science labs, the information networks of the Web or the Enlightenment-era postal system, the public spaces of metropolitan cities, even the notebooks of great thinkers. But I also look at natural environments that have been biologically innovative: the coral reef and the rain forest, or the chemical soups that first gave birth to life’s good idea.