Searching For The Origins of Creativity From Darwin's theory of evolution to the invention of YouTube, what factors play a role in innovation? Is there such a thing as an idea whose time has come? Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, talks about great conceptual advances and how to foster creativity.

Searching For The Origins of Creativity

Searching For The Origins of Creativity

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From Darwin's theory of evolution to the invention of YouTube, what factors play a role in innovation? Is there such a thing as an idea whose time has come? Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, talks about great conceptual advances and how to foster creativity.


Next up, great advances draw on the work of others. Or as Isaac Newton put it: If I have seen a little further, it is because he's standing -I'm standing on the shoulders of giants. But there's an essential bit of creativity involved too. I think the Supreme Court once described it as a flash of genius. How did Darwin piece together different bits of data to develop his theory of evolution? Why did YouTube come along when it did and not before? How come the iPod was so successful? We'll be talking about innovation this hour with my guest Steven Johnson. His most recent book, "Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation." He joins us here in our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. STEVEN JOHNSON (Author): Thank you, Ira. It's great to be back. Wouldn't feel like Christmas Eve without a visit to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I mean, because it's a big book, you can't - you just can't summarize in one phrase where do good ideas come from, can you?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah.

FLATOW: No one answer for that.

Mr. JOHNSON: No. That's right. But I was trying with this book, and it is a big book and it goes off on all these - and tells a lot of different stories, but I was trying to kind of distill a series of patterns that you see again and again in the stories of innovation, and particularly in the environments that lead to breakthrough ideas. What is it when you see, you know, an organization or a city or a particular culture that is, you know, consistently making these kind of great breakthroughs? What are the ingredients?

FLATOW: Uh-hmm.

Mr. JOHNSON: And that's really what the book is focused on.

FLATOW: Is there a right time and a wrong time for an innovation?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yes. There are. I mean, you know, in the book I talk about this phrase the adjacent possible, which is a wonderful phrase from Stuart Kauffman, the kind of chaos theory scientist.

FLATOW: Uh-hmm.

Mr. JOHNSON: And the idea is that innovation at any given point in history - and actually this is true of evolution as well - there are a certain set of kind of possible moves that you can make, given the kind of landscape around you, given the technologies around you, given the scientific understanding of the day, and innovation comes from kind of exploring the edges of that possibility. But you can't jump too far ahead, right? It's impossible to invent a microwave oven in 1650, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: You just can't do it, right? It's not within the adjacent possible of that period.

FLATOW: But on the other hand, the fuel cell was invented in 1839, right? Something like that.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, there are this weird - the example I talked about in the book is Charles Babbage basically...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...invents a programmable computer in 1837, roughly, called the analytical engine. And Babbage's idea was really legitimately so far ahead of its time that it was a failure. He was trying to basically build a programmable computer with, you know, industrial-era steam-powered...

FLATOW: Right.


FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: And so the idea so exceeded the boundaries of the adjacent possible that in fact his concepts, which really anticipated almost all the major concepts of the modern computer, died out, and they had to be independently rediscovered, you know, a hundred years later when people actually had - they had access to vacuum tubes and...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...integrated circuits...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...things like that.

FLATOW: Talking with Steven Johnson, author of "Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

How much has to do with, you know, you being the first person? You know, because Edison wasn't the first to try to make a light bulb. I mean, but why did he succeed when other people didn't?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. Oftentimes being the first can be a problem because, you know, you end up making all these mistakes that, you know, later generations won't have to make because you made them first.

FLATOW: Uh-hmm.

Mr. JOHNSON: The thing that's really interesting in the history of science and in technology is this idea of simultaneous discovery or invention, where you have these people who are working independently but within just a couple of years of each other they manage to kind of stumble across the same idea, even though they aren't in direct conversation. In fact, in my last book, "The Invention of Air," I talk about Joseph Priestley and the discovery of oxygen.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: Turns out there are kind of three people who basically isolated oxygen at the same time. And this happens again and again in the history of science and in technology, and it's related to what we were just talking about in the sense that certain thoughts become thinkable at moments in time because of new technologies, because of new ways of approaching problems, new metaphors that people are using. And it's not surprising then that you would see at these moments, you know, kind of independent discoveries that - that, you know, people not working together stumble across the same idea.

FLATOW: Uh-hmm. You mentioned openness and communication as being drivers of innovation.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. I think one of the problems we have - and I think maybe this is true in the U.S. more than other places - that we have this assumption that the primary driver of innovation is the kind of competitive forces of the market.

FLATOW: Uh-hmm.

Mr. JOHNSON: So we look at a company like Apple and we say, wow, they're so innovative, and these Web startups are so innovative because they all are dreaming of being the next Mark Zuckerberg and having $5 billion and so on. And (unintelligible) that's part of the story, right? Competition does concentrate the mind wonderfully, as does financial reward.

But in this book I was trying to point out that there are other forces that also encourage innovation. And collaboration and the kind of open flow of ideas has been a huge part of that story, and in fact that's one of the reasons why so many world-changing ideas came out of the university system, because the university system, well, people for the most part don't have direct financial ownership over their ideas; the fact that you have a kind of commons where ideas can be shared more freely means that people can, as in the Newton quote, build on the ideas of other people, and that collaboration really makes all the difference.

FLATOW: And then we have instant collaboration with the Internet and all kinds of stuff.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. That's one of the reasons why, I think, the Web has been so extraordinarily innovative in such a small amount of time. It's because it's so easy to build on top of other people's inventions. So in the intro, you talked about YouTube. I mean, YouTube was effectively built in about a year and became a dominant force on the Web, transformed kind of the nature of the Web, introducing video to kind of a mass audience online in a year or a year and a half. That's extraordinary speed.

FLATOW: Twitter about the same time, right?

Mr. JOHNSON: Twitter and Facebook, basically all about the same time. And the reason is because the folks who are inventing Twitter or the folks who are inventing Facebook, the folks who are inventing YouTube, didn't have to build everything from scratch, right? They had these underlying platforms that they could build on. The YouTube guys really didn't have to do video technology. They used the Flash platform that was already out there. Obviously they were building on top of the Web. And so when you have systems where it's easier to kind piece new technologies and new ideas together...

FLATOW: Uh-hmm.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...and not do everything from scratch, you'll see that pace of innovation increase.

FLATOW: Uh-hmm. Talking with Steven Johnson, author of "Where Good Ideas Come From," and our number, 1-800-989-8255, if you'd like to participate in our discussion. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and as you say, just a year or so ago we couldn't talk about tweeting at all.

If you have a question for Steven about an idea - you have an idea of your own you want to share with us, give us a call, 1-800-989-8255, or give us a tweet @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and maybe we'll get to talk about one of my favorite pieces of invention, which is Bell and his telephone. He certainly wasn't the only one with a telephone. Why did he succeed? There was a great race on that. We'll talk about that and other topics when we get back. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about where good ideas come from, from a book of the same name. Steven Johnson is here to talk about it. I mentioned before the break - let me just throw our phone number in, 1-800-989-8255 - that one of my favorite stories about invention is about the invention of the telephone because there was a race to the patent office, and it was not an idea that was unique, but Bell actually knew that because he worked -came from a family that believed in speech and understood the power of speech, he went ahead and developed it where everybody thought it was a toy. So you have to have some sort of vision...

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...and believe in that vision of yours.

Mr. JOHNSON: That's right. Although, you know, the other thing that happens is that people, you know, they develop these technologies but then they fail to anticipate all the eventual uses to which they will be put, right? You know, so Edison inventing the phonograph, apparently, you know, he was trying to figure out what it would be good for and he wrote up a list of all these things that will be good for, and you know, recorded music was not on the list.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: He thought people would use it to take dictation. He thought it would be kind of a legal document...


Mr. JOHNSON: ...kind of transcription.

FLATOW: Interesting. What's interesting about that comment is that we played a show a couple weeks ago, a very popular rebroadcast of our 1993 show about the Internet...


FLATOW: ...when it was in its infancy.

Mr. JOHNSON: Man, how cool.

FLATOW: And one of the first things that one of our listeners said: Wouldn't it be great if you could download music on the Internet?

Mr. JOHNSON: Right, right.

FLATOW: Not having any idea that it might be possible someday.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, it's like the - I remember the early days of the personal computer, and people would say, well, why would you get a computer for your home? And there was this constant refrain that people would say, it will be like, well, it will be good for filing cooking recipes, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: You know, which turned out to be like maybe the least interesting thing about having a personal computer, but...

FLATOW: And yet now we're going full circle, what I consider back to the mainframe idea, because we're doing everything in the cloud, right?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

FLATOW: Everything is going to be up there in the cloud and not on your personal computer.

Mr. JOHNSON: And there's an argument there from - from the developer's point of view, from the people creating companies, that the cloud makes it a lot easier to get things - to get a new Web startup up and running...

FLATOW: Uh-hmm.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...because there's a lot of infrastructure you don't have to worry about. and so that actually is also an accelerant in terms of innovation in the Web space.

FLATOW: Uh-hmm. And one of the great innovations of recent years has been GPS. It's on everything.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: How did that happen?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, it's one of my favorite stories in the book, and it shows you the kind of unplanned kind of power of some of these innovations. So it dates back to 1957, when Sputnik launches, right? And which is a big controversy, of course. Everybody in the United States is, you know, kind of traumatized by this satellite that the Russians have sent up to space. And these guys - 25-year-old guys working at the applied physics lab in Laurel, Maryland, in Johns Hopkins, are hanging out with their colleagues and they're talking about Sputnik, and one of them says, hey, you know, has anybody tried to listen to this thing, right? It's got to be sending a signal.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: This is history. We should try and pick it up. And so they decide to kind of try and track down the signal from Sputnik which the Soviets had made very easy to detect.

FLATOW: Beep-beep. Beeping all the time.

Mr. JOHNSON: Beeping all the time. So that nobody would think it was a hoax, basically, right?

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: And so they pick it up and they're, you know, listening to it on their headphones and then they think, hey, you know, this is kind of history, we should record it, and so they bring out a little reel-to-reel deck and they start recording it. And they put little time stamps for each little bleep. And then they notice that there's a slight variation in the frequency between each of these bleeps. And so they start thinking, gosh, you know, we could use the Doppler effect to figure out how fast this thing is moving. and then they - a couple days later they figure out, you know, we could probably look at the slope of the Doppler effect to figure out the points at which it's closest to us and the points at which it's furthest away. And after a couple of weeks, just for the love of it, just following this little hunch...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...they've figured out the exact trajectory of the satellite around the planet. And a few weeks later, their boss pulls them into his office and says, listen, you guys have figured out an unknown location in space from a known location on the ground. Could you do it the other way? Could you figure out an unknown location on the ground from a known location in space? And they come back and they say, yes, we could do that. And he says, well, that's great because, you see, I have these nuclear submarines that I'm working with and it's very hard to get your missile to land right on Moscow the way you want it to if you don't know where your submarine is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.


Mr. JOHNSON: And so we're going to use your technology and your kind of approach here, we're going to throw some satellites up in there and help - and so that's the birth of, birth of GPS. Now, you know, 50 years later we're all carrying around these little devices in our pockets that are talking to the descendants of those satellites and we're using it to, you know, find a local cup of coffee, instead of, you know, fight the Cold War.

FLATOW: It also shows you how long that was kept secret.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah.

FLATOW: Right?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah.

FLATOW: It must have been decades.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, it was a very closed technology, right? While it was developed, in a sense, as a public sector, not private sector thing, it, you know, civilians couldn't use it...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...for three decades. But...


Mr. JOHNSON: ...but now we're becoming dependent on it.

FLATOW: Yeah. And this goes to a tweet that Don Brown(ph) writes. He says: Aren't successful innovations primarily found by accident?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. There's a whole amazing history of not only accidental discoveries but discoveries where people made actual mistakes. I have a whole chapter in the book...


Mr. JOHNSON: ...on the importance of error. And also, there's an amazing number breakthroughs that come from people just having a very messy work environment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: Sort like the Daguerre kind of invents photography because he stored some chemicals together, and they kind of spill on top of each other. And he's like, oh, wait. Hey, I've made a photograph.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: And so, there - because - and it's precisely because - I mean, there's a reason for this.


Mr. JOHNSON: Because when you know exactly what you're doing, you get into grooves, right? You get kind of stuck on your assumptions about the world. And while nobody wants to make mistakes all the time, the liberating effect that a mistake has is that it takes you out...

FLATOW: Right, right.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...of your expectations and your predictable routines.

FLATOW: We had an example of this. We had a guest on a few weeks ago on SCIENCE FRIDAY. I think he was talking about quantum mechanics.

Mr. JOHNSON: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: And they were doing an experiment. And I said, well, I'm going to ask you the same question everybody asks a scientist: What practical value does this have? And without flinching, he said: nothing I can think of.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: That's right. Right.

FLATOW: None, I think is the word he used, exactly. And that's how science works, sometimes, right?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: You come up with ideas, and you have no idea where they're going to be - where they're going lead to, and suddenly wham. You've got a GPS system.

Mr. JOHNSON: Exactly. Exactly.

FLATOW: Is invention - you know, we're talking about people who are small-time inventors and these guys and their labs. Is that still possible? Is it possible to be your own inventor and come up with an idea and...

Mr. JOHNSON: Well...

FLATOW: Well, if you think of a Twitter people and all that kind of stuff. Those were small-time folks.

Mr. JOHNSON: All those people are Peabody's, by the way. I just like to say...

FLATOW: Thank you. Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: That's great. I'm doing my part here...

FLATOW: Thanks.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...on the show. Yeah, I think it is. I mean, certainly, it's true on the - you know, in the digital space.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JOHNSON: It's never been easier to, you know, work in a very small group of people and change the world. And, you know, Facebook and Twitter are two examples of very small organizations in their infancy that are now going to become very large organizations, if they aren't already.

You know, it's harder on the science side to make, you know, breakthrough discoveries kind of on your own. I mean, Joseph Priestley, who we talked about before, was a kind of classic case of an Enlightenment Era science - scientist who was just discovering new elements in his kitchen, literally.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: I mean, you know - but it's a lot harder to be that kind of maverick outsider now, because there's just so much more knowledge that you have to kind of work through. And you really do need to go through grad school and be in an institution to make these breakthroughs.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JOHNSON: So, in terms of the tinkerer, in terms of the Web start-up, it's better than ever. In terms of science, I think it's a little bit harder.

FLATOW: Let's go to Sean in Stow, Mass.

Hi, Sean.

SEAN (Caller): Good afternoon. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

SEAN: Well, I'm an inventor of, you know, sort of garage-type. My first one was the golf cleat guard, which was a rubber thing that went over your golf cleats so you didn't have - so you could drive to the golf course with your cleats on. And then they came out with the cleat-less golf shoe, and that killed that one. And then I came up with a mailbox light that you put inside a mailbox, and it turned the light off and on when you closed and opened the door. And that was right after about 9/11.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEAN: And that went pretty well. But that, then, morphed into a cell phone light that we would - and this was when LEDs were coming out, and this is early 2000s. And, you know, LEDs - and you were talking about how ideas all happened, the same idea. It is amazing how that happens as an inventor. Incredible.

FLATOW: Have you got a question you like to put to us?

SEAN: Well, currently, I'm the inventor of a website called, if I could say it, it's And it's a website where we install cameras in sports venues, that live streams and records everything going on using robotic motion tracking to follow an ice hockey game or a basketball game.

FLATOW: So Sean, I'm going to give you one more second. I can't do this if this is a commercial for your website. Have you got a question?

SEAN: The question is: I'm trying to get people to adopt the technology. This has been the hurdle, that we're trying to get people to, you know, take it on, and like a Facebook or a Twitter, where it sort of takes off. Because it is very useful. A lot of people - everyone agrees.


SEAN: They love it.

FLATOW: Okay. Let me get an answer.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, yeah. It's a big...

FLATOW: It's tough to get even - and even the typewriter. It was - Mark Twain had one. No one else bought a typewriter, and that sort of thing.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean, that's one of the things that's also made it easier to do kind of new ideas online, because you can give them away, in some cases, particularly - I mean, that's one of the things that the Twitter folks decided very early on that they were going to do, is they were going to let anybody use the service for free.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: And they were going to let outside people develop on top of the Twitter platform, right? So a lot of people use Twitter without ever going to a site or using an app that was actually made by the Twitter people, right?

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: And it's that openness - normally, you would say, no, no, no. I want to own all of the people coming to my site. I want to be able to control them. I want to control the whole experience. And Twitter took the opposite approach and said, listen. Let's let other people innovate on top of our platform. And in doing that, then we won't actually be paying for all of these innovations, right? Someone can come up with a great new feature for Twitter, and we're not - that guy isn't even on our payroll, but he's helping expand what we're doing.

And so, if you can bring more people into the, kind of, field of innovation around your product or your service, that's one great way to kind of get to a bigger audience faster.

FLATOW: Do you ever get asked about what invention you would like to see that no one has ever invented yet? And, gee, wouldn't it be great if we had X, Y, Z? Can you give an answer for that?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I - you know, it really used to be - it used to be all the location services. I mean, I remember why I live here in New York City. And a big city is kind of an information problem, right? You're walking around, and you know there's all these interesting things happening within 10 blocks of you.


Mr. JOHNSON: But it's really hard to get to. And I used to think: It would be really great if I had some little device in my hand that I could just say, I'm looking for a bowl of vichyssoise.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: I know there's one within 10 blocks of me. And I used to think that would be really cool, but they'll never build it, because the whole infrastructure for that would be too...

FLATOW: No, never going to happen. Not anywhere...

Mr. JOHNSON: And now, the world is filled with vichyssoise-locating devices.

FLATOW: Forty apps to (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: But one that gets asked of me all the time that, you know, is the opposite of the microwave oven: the instant freeze.

Mr. JOHNSON: Oh, nice. All right.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah. I don't know. What do you think...

Mr. JOHNSON: I'm sure there are listeners who are going to work on that right now.

FLATOW: Is it possible for companies to create atmospheres to foster innovation in their employees?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, that's a big theme of the book. You know, one of the environments that I talk about is this legendary building at MIT called Building 20, which I wouldn't be surprised if you've talked about it on the show in the past. And Building 20 was a building designed as a temporary structure in World War II at MIT to house all the work that was going to happen around the war effort. And they built it - it's, you know, the ugliest building you've ever seen, had no architectural value, whatsoever. And it was designed to be torn down after five years, or whatever. And it ended up lasting about 50 years. And the reason was that it basically out-innovated all the other buildings on the MIT campus.


Mr. JOHNSON: It just had this long track record of interesting ideas.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: And the argument - and Stewart Brand talks about this in his wonderful book, "How Buildings Learn." The argument is that because the building was temporary, it - the people who are in it were free to kind of adapt it to whatever, kind of, the shape that their ideas required. So they'd - you know, their group would expand. And so they'd tear down a wall or they'd punch a hole in the ceiling or they'd drill something into the side of the wall, because nobody cared about the space.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: And so it's: How do you build, you know, a work environment that's comparably adaptable?

FLATOW: Okay. And we've got to say goodbye to you. I want to thank you very much for taking time to be with us. It goes by quickly. And once again, the book is "Where Good Ideas Come From." Really good read. It might make a good last-minute present...

Mr. JOHNSON: Exactly.

FLATOW: ...from Steven Johnson. Thanks, Steve.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thanks, again.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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