REVIEW - Where Good Ideas Come from - The Seven Patterns of Innovation


Where Good Ideas Come from

The Seven Patterns of Innovation


Steven Johnson


Penguin (2011)




Ian Bruntlett


May 2012



I am not a creativity expert. But I do like to dabble :) For me this book has proved to be just as important as Edward de Bono's “Lateral Thinking” book. The core of this book is dedicated to 7 chapters discussing 7 patterns of innovation. Personally I have spent some time in a small R&D department and from what I have seen there, the 7 patterns of innovation are spot on. I'll review this book, part by part.

Introduction: Reef, City, Web. Examines extreme levels of creativity in these environments.

1 – The Adjacent Possible discusses how innovation more often than not comes in small steps & rarely in great leaps.

2 - Liquid Networks. How environment needa to be stable to support creativity – it must not be too volatile or too rigid.

3 – The Slow Hunch again talks about the reality that leaps of imagination take place over a lengthy period of time.

4 – Serendipity. This chapter suggests knowledge in one field of endeavour can lead to innovation in an unrelated field.

5 – Error discusses how the role of heredity and changing environment shape a creature's evolution. For instance cloning requires less effort and resources than sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction includes errors etc which allows a creature's offspring to vary and some of the variants will be rewarded by evolution.

6. Exaptation (the process by which features acquire functions for which they were not originally adapted or selected). Borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field and putting it into use solving a problem in another field.

7. Platforms. A Platform is a space that encourages innovation (e.g. 18th Century Coffee Houses, Home Brew Computing Club). This leads to acts of creation that instead of opening a door to the "adjacent possible" but results in the building of a new floor (GPS, Internet).

Conclusion - "The Fourth Quadrant", studies innovations from 1400-2000 using a 4 quadrant classification system for innovations. These innovations are described in detail in the Appendix . The categories are:- "Market" or "Non-Market", "Individual" or "Networked". The numbered quadrants are:
1.Market/Individual – an innovator either alone or part of a small group that wants to profit directly from their innovations – e.g. Nylon, Revolver, Programmable Computer
2.Market/Networked – an unrelated collection of groups that wish to profit from a combined innovation – e.g. Aircraft, Personal Computer 3.Non-market/Individual – an innovator either alone or part of a small group that shares the innovation without intending to profit from the innovation – e.g. Atomic Theory, World Wide Web
4.Non-market/Networked. An unrelated collection of groups that collaborate on an innovation for a common cause – Modern Computer, Quantum Mechanics
The chapter is called "The Fourth Quadrant" because in our time – with the free transmission of ideas over the internet – the fourth quadrant work flourishes – and we all benefit.

Finally, in an attempt to encourage you to read this book, I must quote the final paragraph:- "The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffee-houses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent."

Book cover image courtesy of Open Library.

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