I went to an actual book club tonight run by organised by Sicamp (Social Innovation Camp – they run weekends putting techy and charity people together to solve social problems) and Bethnal Green Ventures (who seem to do something similar). They were looking at Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson (you can watch his great TED talk here about how – amongst other things – coffee shops started the Enlightenment in England because they were where “ideas could have sex”). In true book-club form I hadn’t actually read the book, so the discussion was kind of like my A-level English class where did my best to blag my way through. (Sorry to the other participants!)
Johnson’s big theme is that we have a misleading idea about how great ideas come about. We picture good ideas coming from a brilliant individual cut off from the world (‘solitude is the soul of genius’ wrote Edward Gibbon) being struck suddenly by inspiration.
Johnson turns this on its head. Ideas fade slowly into view (he calls this the ‘slow hunch’). They are around for years until the circumstances are right for their genesis. And the circumstances can mean that ideas meant for one purpose end up solving very different problems. As the Telegraph writes:
[Ideas] are the result of the right place and the right time; of chance and failure; of letting things mull for a bit; of thinking across borders. He asks us to rethink where we place innovation … [Johnson] looks at how the artistic glories of Renaissance Florence also produced double-entry book-keeping and how the printing press was developed using technology originally designed for winemaking.
The temptation to try and follow this path is highly tempting. (Darwin for example pretended in his autobiography that his ideas for natural selection cam suddenly one day in his office in 1838, yet we know from his notebooks that the ideas had been nagging him for decades).
Yet the question that struck me from the discussion was, do we need innovation? In this sense: is it the lack of new ideas that is holding us back? So often, it seems to me, it’s not the idea we’re lacking (how about eating healthily? how about drinking water for all children everywhere?), or even the know-how, but the ability to make that idea a reality.