Open City

Where Good Ideas Come From

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 22, 2010

Steven Johnson's TED talk on the origins of innovation is now available for viewing.

After an intro linking the Enlightenment to the rise of British coffee houses, Johnson argues that an idea is not an isolated thing that takes place in a "Eureaka moment", but a network of connections shaped in a context.

He illustrates this with a story from Design that Matters in which they noticed that neonatal incubators sent to communities in developing countries would eventually break down and no one would fix them because there was no surrounding network of trained technicians and available spare parts.

The researchers noticed that these communities were able to keep cars running, so they redesigned the incubator using entirely car parts. That way, the local networks of skill and parts woulld support their continued functioning.

Johnson argues that this model - of inventions cobbled together using existing parts - is a much better model to follow for creating and fostering innovation than the abstract model of Rodin's Penseur reflecting in solitude.

He also suggests that innovative ideas "fade into view over long periods of time"; and that half-formed hunches connect with other half-formed hunches through free discussion and sharing to develop into fully-formed innovations.

The lecture is definitely worth watching to the end, and not only for his awe-inspiring capsule history of the invention of GPS.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By HamTed (anonymous) | Posted September 22, 2010 at 12:53:38

What a great conclusion - "Chance favours the connected mind."

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 22, 2010 at 15:01:55

This kind of look at innovation is really important. Too often, like all histories, the tales of famous inventions are often told with protagonists predictable story arts to make them easy to relate to. Unfortunately this also gives people the sense that history revolves around a few "key players" and tends to downplay the role of everybody else.

Look around the internet, where people post methods, and you'll see how they grow and develop in the comments and replies. This talk (I'm only halfway through) is hitting it right on the nose. We don't promote innovation by restricting flows of information (censorship, patents etc), we do it by letting information flow free.

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted September 24, 2010 at 00:34:03

Interesting article!
Where do good ideas go to die?

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By misterque (registered) - website | Posted May 26, 2011 at 14:48:12

Yah! Very interesting. I have been a long term disliker of drive throughs of any sort. I feel that they stifle connectivity, interaction and chance connection. A city full of drive throughs is a city intentionally killing its creative connectivity. It is amazing how many contacts you make passing through Locke Street Bagels or Starbucks instead of driving through the Tim Ho.

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