Keynote Day 1


Steven Johnson – Where Good Ideas Come From (Natural History of Innovation)


Johnson first described  the cholera epidemic in Soho, investigated by a Dr. Snow, who had studied cholera as a “hobby” – OK. . .Snow believed that cholera was passed along through water, not air, as he  determined by locating many deaths surrounding pump on Broad Street. He was assisted by collaborator and promoter Mr. Whitehead (vicar), who was a connector (see Gladwell’s Tipping Point). So – no eureka moment – and innovation seldom happens in isolation.


Patterns for innovation, per Johnson:

  • Slow hunch vs. light bulb moment  – see example of CERN invention of WWW (earlier names Inquire, Tangle). WWW resulted from borrowing and mixing from other ideas, plus correct timing, resources –
  • Ideas not “born out of the ether” – need to get more parts on the table
  • In any situation, there are a finite set of possible moves;  need parts and steps. Consider: what is the adjacent possible for you in this place and time?
  • How to solve problem of high tech failures in 3rd world – e.g.  neonatal  unit made of Toyota parts (the adjacent possible)!
  • 18th century coffeehouse as “ liquid network, engine of innovation” – better caffeine than EtOH to fuel critical thinking…
  • Non-political argument for diversity = better ideas! In a study of innovators and their personal relationships, the most innovative had many loose weak ties with people in different professions and lots of hobbies.  A good use of social media = source of new ideas, reading material form other disciplines and points of view.
  • Video games  encourage critical thinking and openness to new ideas – e.g. building a cathedral for fun
  • “When we build walls around our ideas, we pay a cost.” It’s essential that we share ideas.
  • Final example: Sputnik launch in 1957 sent clear readable signal. U.S. physicists heard and recorded and were able to calculate orbit. With this practice, they were able figure out unknown location on ground from known place in space, eventually leading to the GPS – so 2011 innovators may use this device to locate coffeehouse for more networking.


Follow-up ideas:

  • Read Johnson book and study re: innovation. Lots of his ideas sound like Gladwell from Tipping Point and Outliers – similar sources?  Discuss with Liz McCormick and Moss Ingram.
  • Best arguments I’ve heard re: importance of interdisciplinary work! Maybe there’s a good reason I have all those friends in liberal arts and sing and read novels in my spare time…
  • We cannot hoard information! Good advice for transparency with students, as well as free flow of information with colleagues within department, and collaborative decision-making within our ISIS projects and roles.

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