Where do good ideas come from?

Where do good ideas come from?

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about innovation lately – what is it, what isn’t it, who does it. Steven Johnson’s video debunks one of the most common myths around innovation. People like the idea of the epiphany or the eureka moment when it comes to innovation – the idea that someone comes up with a miraculous idea overnight.

It just doesn’t happen that way. Or if it does, it’s extremely rare. As Steven points out, the invention of the World Wide Web took over 10 years. Often, great ideas take a long time to come to fruition. There are a number of reasons. Maybe the idea just needs some gestation, maybe the stars were not aligned to make the idea successful because they were too expensive, met a niche market or went after the wrong market. Bill Buxton gives some great examples in a recent Globe and Mail interview of technology that has been around for over 20 years that is really only starting to become popular today. He reminds us that Casio had a touch screen watch in 1984 (same year as the original Mac) where you would draw numbers on the screen using your finger to write a 1 or 3 or plus or minus. Amazing. He also talks about the IBM Simon, a touch screen mobile phone with only two buttons as UI that came out in 1983.

alt 
[Casio T500 touch screen watch. circa 1984 & IBM Simon. circa 1983]

Johnson in the video goes on to note the explosion of ideas is fuelled by our connectivity (the web, Twitter, Facebook, email, search etc). It makes serendipity something that can happen every day, not once a year when you’re at the library and happen to bump in to a book or person that changes your perception or shifts your understanding. 

The final part of this trilogy of stories I have been noodling on is Scott Berkun’s new book, The Myths of Innovation where he goes in to a lot more detail around the myth of the epiphany. I’d highly recommend the book and his blog has some great content and I particularly liked Essay #58 – How to innovate right now where Scott points out that one man’s innovation is another man’s idea (i.e. there are very few truly unique ideas in the world).

All of this, and some discussions with a few folks much smarter than me have led me to think about this murky world of innovation and ideas in a new way. It seems to me there are 3 types of innovation (I’m not sure yet of these words are the right ones so any feedback is welcome)

  1. Invention – truly new ideas that nobody has seen before or were not possible before. Try to think of some…there really aren’t that many truly new ideas.
  2. Reinvention – taking an existing idea and improving upon it. Most of what is coined as innovation today falls in to this bucket. The Dyson “hoover”, the MP3 player, the mobile phone. etc etc.
  3. Evolution – taking an existing product (that was once an invention) and evolving it, honing it. The Porsche 911 is a fine example of this. Evolved over 40+ years.

porsche-911-evolution

So what’s my point? It’s really just an observation that innovation must be one of the most overused words in the tech industry (I’ll be the first to admit Microsoft overuses it) so perhaps it’s time for a reassessment of what innovation really is…or at least an honest acknowledgement that what we sometimes call innovation, is actually more like reinvention or evolution. Neither of these are bad things in my opinion…as Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

Food for thought I hope.



  • The Buxton interviews were fascinating. Thx for the link.

  • It is pleasing to see Steven Johnson and his colleague, Kevin Kelly (What Technology Wants) joining  the new wave of thinkers who, within their own domains, are increasingly becoming aware of the evolutionary processes which extend beyond the biological realm.

    Henry Petroski of Duke University has, of course, been kicking those particular aspects around for many years

    But now ideas such as this are finally gaining much more acceptance.

    They have been previously discussed in a wider context in "Unusual Perspectives" and now in my newly published work:

    "The Goldilocks Effect : What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?".

    More info to be found on the Unusual Perspectives website. I

  • It is pleasing to see Steven Johnson and his colleague, Kevin Kelly (What Technology Wants) joining  the new wave of thinkers who, within their own domains, are increasingly becoming aware of the evolutionary processes which extend beyond the biological realm.

    Henry Petroski of Duke University has, of course, been kicking those particular aspects around for many years

    But now ideas such as this are finally gaining much more acceptance.

    They have been previously discussed in a wider context in "Unusual Perspectives" and now in my newly published work:

    "The Goldilocks Effect : What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?".

    More info to be found on the Unusual Perspectives website.

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