Skip to content

Steven Johnson and great ideas

I’m spending the week in Las Vegas at the Blackboard World conference.

Yes. Las Vegas.

(Already up $11.70 on the penny slots. But paid my penance by spending seven hours in the Denver airport as my flight into Vegas was postponed five times.)

Trust me. There is learning going on. Lots of tech language and higher ed stuff but still some pretty useful things I can take back. The highlight of the week so far was yesterday’s upcoming keynote by author Steven Johnson.

I love Steven Johnson. Everything Bad is Good for You, The Invention of Air, Mind Wide Open, Emergence, The Ghost Map and his latest, Where Good Ideas Come From.

Awesome stuff. So pretty pumped about what he’s going to say. Will try to type as he speaks and go back later to edit. But am not promising  a lot on the editing side cause I can already hear the penny slots a-calling.


He started with a story that described how he got interested in the idea of good ideas. He began with a historical story about a cholera epidemic in London during the 1800s.

London, August 1854. People were convinced that cholera is caused by “bad air.” Obviously wrong. It’s the water, not the air that was carrying the cholera germs.

Johnson outlined the process a local doctor took to gather data and create a map of all of the deaths. The doctor had for years thought that water might be the actual cause of cholera. So there was no real “eureka” moment. It was an idea that slowly took shape over time. The doctor also had a collaborator, a 25 year old priest, who knew the community where the 1854 epidemic happened.

What Johnson started to realize is that there really is no lone genius, eureka moment kind of idea generation of great ideas. Good ideas happened because of what he calls the “slow hunch.” The slow hunch is the maturing of a good idea over time. As he thought about this, Johnson realized that he had the makings of another book.

The perfect example of the slow hunch? Tim Berners-Lee – the guy who invented the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee actually came up the idea in 1982 but for a lot of reasons, it really didn’t come together until much later.

Most good ideas, like the World Wide Web, develop over time because:

1. Good ideas are dependent on the environment around them. The audience needs to be receptive and their needs to be the appropriate tools available. Berners-lee could not have invented the Web in 1982 when he first started thinking about it because there literally were not enough personal computers around, not to mention no real network of connected computers.

Ideas are not born out of the ether, they are almost always based on someone else’s idea.

2. Johnson talked about what others have called the “adjacent possible.” In any system – people, biology, tech – there is a finite sets of moves that are possible. Like chess. There are only so many possible moves you can make any any one time based on what is around your pieces.

So part of a good idea is understanding what is actually possible, not what you want to be possible. Johnson talked about the idea of sending modern baby incubators to developing countries. Short-term? Great idea – they save a lot of babies.

Long-term. Not so much. They break down and because of lack of parts and trained technicians, the machine will just sit there. But a group of visiting engineers noticed that there are always a ton of old cars moving around that people can maintain.  So . . . they designed baby incubators using Toyota car parts. Lots of extra spare parts and lots of people to fix them when they break.

This is the adjacent possible – not what we want but we can actually use.

3. Liquid Networks

Johnson also suggests that good ideas develop in a certain kind of intellectual atmosphere that he calls Liquid Networks. In 18th century England, a coffeehouse environment developed. People hung out and discussed ideas. His suggestions? Surround yourself with different ideas, perspectives, suggestions, not just people who think like you do and you will develop better ideas.

(An interesting sidebar – this was the same period of time when the English began drinking more coffee and tea rather than beer and liquor all day. Duh. Go from depressant to stimulant. No surprise that people got “smarter.”)

He suggests that social media is perfect for this but also acknowledges that there can be the “echo chamber” effect where we all connect with just who we agree with. If so, we’re using the tool incorrectly. We need to use social media to look over the shoulders of others and listen into conversations that are different than what we would have gotten otherwise.

His final thoughts?

We spend too much time building too many walls around our ideas. When we do, we pay “an innovative tax” because we limit our ability to grow our ideas. He suggests that we need to spend as much time sharing our ideas as we do protecting them

Johnson finsihed with a story about how GPS started in 1957 with a couple of guys playing around with the beeping signal from the Sputnik satellite. And today, we all have GPS – a perfect example of the adjacent possible, liquid networks and slow hunches.


I earlier wrote a bit about Johnson’s “good idea” thinking and how our physical spaces can impact the development of creative ideas. Thought it kinda fit here. So . . .

Have we altered our physical classroom environments enough so that kids are encouraged to create new ideas? I don’t think so.

So . . . what does it look like? Some suggestions from Johnson and others:

  • Get people with hunches to talk to other people with hunches, i.e. have kids work in groups, both formal and informal, as much as possible
  • Encourage mistakes
  • Arrange the physical environment differently – use tables not desks, arrange your room so that kids can quickly get together for brainstorming sessions, have other forms of comfortable seating available
  • Spaces and tools for brainstorming, collecting and storing data – this could be whiteboards, blank bulletin boards, iPods or computers with Google Docs loaded
  • Put your desk in a corner out of the way – you won’t be there much during the day anyway
  • And in a perfect world (with perfect kids!), the K-12 equivalent of Johnson’s coffeehouse – snacks & drinks to encourage conversation

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: