The Natural History of Innovation
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A modern, interdisciplinary analysis of the social-environmental patterns most suited to idea generation, and how we can use their lessons to foster innovation.

Wired contributing editor Johnson (The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America, 2008, etc.) identifies seven such patterns: the adjacent possible, liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity, error, exaptation and emergent platforms. In each chapter, the author outlines the basic principle of a pattern, then contextualizes its importance with an array of historical and contemporary examples. He emphasizes the importance of the “space of innovation” as being paramount to success. An individual’s genius, he argues, is less imperative than a fertile “intellectual ecosystem,” and networks are vital, as evidenced by the astounding creative production of interconnected systems like the Internet and the vibrant density of cities. Using the remarkable “epic diversity” of coral reefs as a metaphor, Johnson posits that an environment embracing an open flow of information and thought is more likely to produce ideas at a higher rate than a closed or hierarchical network. Combined with several more daily patterns, like writing everything down to aggregate a thought process or picking up a new hobby, soliciting such “liquid networks” is bound to help percolate that big idea. On a broader scale, businesses, schools and even the government would benefit from greater interconnectivity. The author notes that had the FBI had access to a greater information network in the weeks leading to 9/11, agents may have connected the dots to Mohamed Atta in time. Johnson also traces the origin of several magnificent ideas—Darwin's theory of evolution, Kekulé's insight into the molecular structure of benzene—and presents them in the context of one of the seven patterns. The author recounts dozens of examples in this vein, touching on fields as varying as economics, information technology, biology, social networking and literature. Throughout, his infectious enthusiasm and unyielding insight inspire and entertain.

A robust volume that brings new perspective to an old subject.

Pub Date: Oct. 5th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-59448-771-2
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Riverhead
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2010

Kirkus Interview
Steven Johnson
October 6, 2014

In How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson explores the history of innovation over centuries, tracing facets of modern life (refrigeration, clocks, and eyeglass lenses, to name a few) from their creation by hobbyists, amateurs, and entrepreneurs to their unintended historical consequences. Filled with surprising stories of accidental genius and brilliant mistakes—from the French publisher who invented the phonograph before Edison but forgot to include playback, to the Hollywood movie star who helped invent the technology behind Wi-Fi and Bluetooth—How We Got to Now investigates the secret history behind the everyday objects of contemporary life. View video >


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