the secret to innovation

In the “Genius of the Tinkerer,” Steven Johnson explores the secret to innovation, essentially the recombination of existing odds and ends.

It’s a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal’s new weekend edition, of which I’ve become a big fan in just its first edition.

Johnson’s essay is adapted from his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. But he takes ways too much space to explain the evolutionary underpinning of his idea, comparing it to primordial biochemical reactions.

The big idea here is that big ideas are more likely to come from recycling and recombining old ideas than from eureka moments, which makes sense given our human limitations.

Stuart Kauffman has called this the exploration of adjacent possibilities, a lovely phrase that Johnson believes suggest how the boundaries grow as we explore them, with each new combination opening up a new combination.

Ideas in particular are works of bricolage, Johnson says, construction or creation from a diverse range of available things. It’s a word from the French for a handyman. It means we “take the ideas we’ve inherited and stumbled across, and we jigger them together in some new shape,” he writes.

He illustrates this with several examples. Gutenberg changed the world by adding metal type to a wine press and scientists from MIT created a neonatal incubator from car parts readily available in developing countries.

Johnson also points to the scene in Apollo 13 where chief engineer tosses a pile of filters, hoses, canisters, duct tape and other things found on the lunar module onto a table and says “We gotta make something that fits in a hole for this by using nothing but that.”

I like this example, especially since it undermines Johnson’s evolutionary hypothesis about chemicals colliding in primordial soup. At work in every instance he cites is intelligence, not randomness.

Here is how Johnson puts it in the end:

The canisters and nozzles are like the ammonia and methane molecules of the early earth, or those Toyota parts heating an incubator. They are the building blocks that create—and limit—the space of possibilities for a specific problem. The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.

I do like the line about getting more parts on the table. I’m just glad the astronauts didn’t have to wait for the carbon dioxide filter they needed to evolve.

But I digress. What I really like is that sharing God’s image allows us to explore the adjacent possibilities, creating both poetry and iPods. Each possibility opens the door to another one, merely shadowing the complexity of creation itself.

Even the strictest creationist could get to the place Johnson arrives.

He just wouldn’t have so far to go.

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