Steven Johnson: Where good ideas come from
TEDxCharlotte’s upcoming theme is “Unlimited: Ideas Take Shape,” so it’s only fitting that we explore where good ideas come from. In this TEDGlobal talk from July 2010, Steven Johnson discusses the history of the coffee house, particularly the first one built in Oxford, England. This was the starting point of the enlightenment period. People went from drinking just alcohol (a depressant that was safer to drink than water) to coffee and tea (both stimulants). This change, as no surprise to all, sparked many great new ideas. But the coffee houses did more than just provide a stimulant to the people, it created an “architecture of space” where people from different backgrounds could get together and share ideas.
So what are the environments that lead to unusual levels of innovation and creativity?
Johnson explored coffee houses, media environments (such as the world wide web), histories of cities, and biological environments (such as rainforests), looking for shared patterns that we can learn from. During his quest to find patterns, he realized that we have to get away from thinking that an idea is just one thing or a moment. Ideas are much more complex than that.
An idea is a network, a new configuration of thoughts that have never formed before. So how do you get your brain into that environment where the new networks can begin to form? It turns out that the patterns in networks in the outside world mimic the internal world of the human brain.
Johnson gives an example of incubators sent to third world countries to help lower the infant mortality rate. The machines worked great for a while, but as soon as they broke down, they did not get fixed. Why is that? It was the availability of parts to fix the machines. The people at Design that Matters solved the problem by building an incubator made with car parts, parts that are much more readily available in those parts of the world.
Ideas need time in the incubator. They need to linger in the back of the mind because the person may not have the right tools or combination of ideas to make a solid discovery. Sometimes people need to interact with other people and ideas in order for one to come to fruition. It’s helpful for people from different backgrounds to come together and let ideas flow and bounce off of one another.
Ideas need connection, not protection.
“Chance favors the connected mind.” – Steven Johnson
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