Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

Jun 27, 2014
Originally published on April 8, 2016 10:19 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode What Is Original?

About Steven Johnson's TEDTalk

Earlier this year, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk decided to give away his company's patents for free. It might seem like a strange business move, but Musk said he wanted to inspire creativity and accelerate innovation. Writer Steven Johnson says this is the way great ideas have been born throughout history.

About Steven Johnson

Writer Steven Johnson is the author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, The Ghost Map, and Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Johnson was founder and editor in chief of FEED, one of the earliest online magazines. He is the host and co-creator of the new PBS and BBC television series How We Got to Now.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, what's original - how everything is built on something that came before it. Not too long ago, a group of shareholders met at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.


ELON MUSK: Good morning. Welcome to Tesla's 2014 annual shareholder meeting.

RAZ: And people in that room were waiting to hear from Tesla's CEO Elon Musk. And unbeknownst to all of them, he was about to hint at something really big.


MUSK: It is surprising that there hasn't been more activity from other car companies to make serious electric vehicles.

RAZ: In other words, he was asking the question, why aren't more big automakers making new and better electric cars?


MUSK: I'm contemplating doing something fairly significant on that front, which would be kind of controversial with respect to Tesla's patents.

RAZ: Something controversial with respect to Tesla's patents? Because when you're developing a new technology, that's the one thing you care about most - that the idea is yours and yours alone. But a couple days later, Elon Musk was interviewed on the BBC.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You said a few days ago that you intended to do something fairly controversial with patents. It's not clear what you meant by that. Are you considering giving technology away?

MUSK: You're on the right track.

RAZ: He was up to something. And a couple days after that, Elon Musk broke the news.(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS NEWS REPORTS)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER 1: Elon Musk has never been one to follow the crowd. Now he's taking a unique approach to Tesla's patents. He's giving them away for free.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER 2: He says this is part of the company trying to spur innovation and development of electric vehicles across the entire industry.

RAZ: From now on, he said, anyone who wants to take Tesla's technology, anyone who thinks they can build on it or make it better, they can.


MUSK: We're trying to figure out how to accelerate the advent of electric cars and to the degree that we create technological barriers to that, it's not going to happen.

RAZ: Now, while giving away a patent might seem totally radical today, it turns out that some of the greatest inventions in history happened because people shared their ideas and they let others build on them, people like Ben Franklin.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Ben Franklin, like, never patented anything he did, and he always kind of released any information about what he'd come up with as widely as possible. And he had a great explanation to this, which is he said he sent his ideas out into the world so that they would attract the attentions of the ingenious.

RAZ: This is Steven Johnson. He wrote a book called "Where Good Ideas Come From."

JOHNSON: Ideas and innovation thrive in environments where ideas are free to flow from mind to mind and to be reused and repurposed and remixed in interesting and surprising ways. And a lot of the technology we're dependent on has come out of that kind of collaborative network.

RAZ: And Steven has argued in his books that the most innovative, inventive people are...

JOHNSON: Building on top of the other people's idea in lots of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. So you can't think a thought without somehow echoing somebody else's thought.

RAZ: And one of those innovative people Steven has written about is a man named Joseph Priestley who lived during the 18th century. And even though he was British, he happened to be really tight with the American founding fathers.

JOHNSON: Priestley's one of these figures from this period who made a number of huge breakthrough discoveries, in chemistry in particular. He isolated, for the first time, a number of different gases, collaborated with Franklin. He was really the first person to realize that plants were creating oxygen. And he did these things just kind of in his lab.

And so we look back at those people in that period and we're like, gosh, they were so smart back then, you know. How did this person who had basically no official training as a scientist, how did he end up being the discoverer of so many things? And I think the answer to that mystery is really that that was a moment in time where we had this incredible new tool of the scientific method. You could go out into your garden, and you could discover things for the first time. So in a sense, the kind of - the soil of scientific discovery was very shallow at that point. You didn't have to dig very far to get something really interesting.

RAZ: But here's the thing, we think of ideas during this time as being completely new and original. But even then, people like Priestley and Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, they didn't just come up with ideas of their own. They would build on each other's ideas. And they would actually get together.

JOHNSON: And they would have these, like, endless sessions where they would talk about electricity and chemistry and the American political situation and new ideas and kind of religious developments and just a whole host of science and social and technological innovations. And out of those conversations, just an amazing series of new ideas emerged.

RAZ: These kinds of sessions were happening in Boston, Philadelphia, Paris, Vienna and London in coffeehouses. Steven Johnson picks up the rest of the story from the TED stage.


JOHNSON: The coffeehouse played such a big role in the birth of the Enlightenment in part because of what people were drinking there, right? Because before, what people drank day in and day out, from dawn until dusk, was alcohol, right? Alcohol was the daytime beverage of choice - right? - because water was unsafe to drink. Until the rise of the coffeehouse, you had an entire population was effectively drunk all day. And you could imagine what that would be like, right? If you were drinking all day, and then you switch from a depressant to a stimulant, in your life, you would have better ideas. It's not an accident that a great flowering of innovation happened as England switched to tea and coffee.

But the other thing that makes the coffeehouse important is the architecture of the space. It was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise. And an astonishing number of innovations from this period have a coffeehouse somewhere in their story. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about coffeehouses for the last five years because I've been kind of on this quest to investigate this question of where good ideas come from. What is the space of creativity? And what I've been looking for is shared patterns, kind of signature behavior that shows up again and again in all of these environment. And I think I found a few.

But what you have to do to make sense of this is you have to do away with a lot of the way in which our kind of conventional metaphors and language steers us towards certain concepts of idea creation, right? We have this very rich vocabulary to describe moments of inspiration, right? We have kind of the flash-of insight epiphanies. We have eureka moments. We have the light-bulb moments, right? All of these concepts share this basic assumption, which is that an idea is a single thing. Something that happens often in a wonderful, illuminating moment. But more often than not, they're cobbled together from whatever parts that happened to be around nearby. We take ideas from other people, from people we've learned from, from people we run into in the coffee shop and we stitch them together into new forms and we create something new. That's really where innovation happens.

RAZ: When we think about an idea or a moment in history, it's just that, right? Like, it's a moment where somebody says I've got it. Like, I've figured this out. And that actually never happens, right?

JOHNSON: Right. For some reason, we have this need to tell stories about creativity and innovation in terms of eureka moments. And it's partially because I think it's a good story, you know, it's just great to kind of be, like, the apple fell from the tree and thus he had a theory of gravity.

RAZ: Wait, that didn't happen?

JOHNSON: Well, on some level, the tricky part about it is there are moments where you become conscious of an insight about the world, but the important part of it is that it's inevitably preceded by this long kind of incubation period. This is what I call the slow hunch. And the most important ideas normally have this slow hunch formation and sometimes that can take months or years, and in some cases for decades.

RAZ: Yeah, so in your TED talk you mention those American scientists in Maryland who were working at the Applied Physics Laboratory...


RAZ: Who were totally, like, psyched when Sputnik launched.



JOHNSON: It's October of 1957 and Sputnik has just launched.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR 1: The epical scientific achievement by Soviet Russia.

JOHNSON: And of course, this is nerd heaven, right?

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR 2: Today, a new moon is in the sky, the 23-inch metal sphere placed in orbit by a Russian rocket.

JOHNSON: And two 20-something researchers at the APL are there at the cafeteria table having an informal conversation with a bunch of their colleagues. And these two guys are named Guier and Weiffenbach. And they start talking and one of the says, hey, you know, has anybody tried to listen to for thing? There's this, you know, man-made satellite up there in outer space that's obviously broadcasting some kind of signal. We could probably hear it. And it turns out Weiffenbach is kind of an expert in microwave reception and he's got a little antenna set up with an amplifier in his office.

And they start kind of noodling around - hacking, as we might call it now. And after a couple of hours, they actually start picking up this signal 'cause the Soviets made Sputnik very easy to track. It was right at 20 megahertz because they were afraid that people would think that it was a hoax. And so these two guys are sitting there listening to this signal and before long they think, well, geeze, this is kind of historic, we should record it. And they start recording these little beep, bleeps. And they start writing down the kind of date stamp, time stamps for each little bleep that they record.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER 1: You are hearing the actual signal's transmitted by the earth circling satellite.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER 2: Until two days ago, that sound had never been heard on this earth.

JOHNSON: And then they start thinking, well, gosh, we're noticing small little frequency variations here, we could probably calculate the speed. And eventually they get permission to use the new, you know, UNIVAC computer that takes up an entire room, that they had just gotten at the APL, to run some more of the numbers. And at the end of about three or four weeks, it turns out they have mapped the exact trajectory.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Right now it's north of Auckland, New Zealand and moving southeast.

JOHNSON: Just from listening to this one little signal.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In 10 minutes, about 1,500 miles north of middle America.

JOHNSON: A couple of weeks later, their boss, Frank McClure, pulls them into the room and says, hey, you've figured out an unknown location of a satellite orbiting the planet from a known location on the ground. Could you go the other way? Could you figure out an unknown location on the ground if you knew the location of the satellite? And they thought about it and they said, well, let's run the numbers here. So they went back and they thought about it and they came back and said, actually, it'll be easier. And he said, oh, that's great because, see, I have these new nuclear submarines that I'm building and it's really hard to figure out how to get your missiles so that it'll land right on top of Moscow if you don't know where the submarine is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. So we're thinking we could throw up a bunch of satellites and use it to track our submarines and figure out their location in the middle of the ocean. Could you work on that problem? And that's how GPS was born.

RAZ: That's such an incredible story.

JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah. You know, here we have this gesture that's second nature to us now...

RAZ: Yeah.

JOHNSON: We kind of look down at our phone, figure out where we are, get directions.

RAZ: Or like where can I find - the other day I was looking for Target. And my GPS was going really slowly and I was annoyed. I was like, hurry up, tell me where the Target is.

JOHNSON: Yeah, we're irritated at the idea that, like, this magic device in our hands is not instantly telling us where Target is. But think of all the different fields of expertise and different kinds of problems that had to be solved to be able to make the magic of GPS happen. So obviously the whole history of computing, to be able to have a small computational device with a screen and a graphic interface, you have to understand the way that gravity works; you to understand the way that space works; you have to be able to build the rockets that can put the GPS satellites up there; you have to understand satellites and the way that satellite communications are going to work. You also have to have incredible timekeeping technology, down to a billionth of a second. So that's just the beginning of all the kinds of problems that had to be solved over thousands of years in a way for us to be to look down at our phone and say, like, oh, Target is, like, five minutes away.

RAZ: Yeah, thousands of years went into that moment.

JOHNSON: (Laughing) It better - I hope you had a good time at Target because people worked for a very long time.

RAZ: Yeah, I went there at the right time. There weren't very long lines.

JOHNSON: (Laughing).

RAZ: So here's the thing, right? We don't like copycats. Like, our instinct is to say, oh, that's unoriginal or that's derivative. And yet we are all, like - to be human is to copy.

JOHNSON: Yeah, and I think there is a - still a useful distinction between copying and - to use the kind of musical phrase - remixing, right?

RAZ: Yeah.

JOHNSON: Look, we all have to copy, and to some extent education is copying. But when we're looking at people who are creating things, and we're trying to evaluate their work, I think there is an understandable criticism where we feel that something is clearly derivative. The problem is when we get into the idea that something has to be wholly original, that's where we get into trouble. And in fact, when people seek out something that is wholly original, I think they often fail because they can't do it, right? Trying to come up with something that's entirely new is almost always impossible. And it's much more productive to think about, you know, how do I combine things; how do I a bunch of things that already exist and remix them into something new?

So one story I love - when Apple was trying to come up with the design and kind of functioning of their retail stores - and looking back on this, it's funny, you know - a lot of people were very skeptical about this. They were like, what's does Apple know about doing stores? They're going to open these stores in shopping malls and downtown areas, and this is going to be a big flop. They don't know what they're doing with this. And the normal way you would do this is you would look at their direct competitors in that field and say, OK, you know, we're a consumer-electronics store so let's look at Best Buy or RadioShack or something like that and see what they're doing and try to do it a little bit better. But Apple wanted to be Apple and wanted to think different and reinvent the the whole process. And they were like, well, we want to create a store that's so great that people would just, like, come and hang out in it, you know, even if they don't want to buy anything, they just want to be there. So, you know, what would be an environment that's like that where the customer's really happy and really enjoys it?

And so they decided to study high-end hotel chains. And so they sent a bunch of employees into the Ritz-Carlton training program and had them, like, take this program. And they came back and they said, OK, so what secret? And one of the things that they came up with was that this, you know, the thing that people love about a high-end hotel is they love the concierge. Like, you go to the concierge and whatever you ask for, like, they're working on it and it's just such a great thing. And so they said, well, what would be the equivalent of a high-end hotel concierge in a computer store? What would that look like? And that's how they came up with the Genius Bar. The Genius Bar is basically a hotel convention dragged over into a new environment kind of reimagined slightly. And now the Genius Bar is so popular that, you know, you have to make an appointment three weeks in advance...

RAZ: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...To actually meet with them. And the Apple Store's the most profitable-by-square-foot retail environment on the planet.

RAZ: So who knew, without the Ritz-Carlton, you wouldn't have the Apple Store?


RAZ: And without, you know, I guess, like the Palace of Versailles, you wouldn't have the Ritz-Carlton.

JOHNSON: On some level, you could look at each of those steps and say, well, that's derivative. Like, it was derivative of Apple to borrow an idea from Ritz-Carlton. But what's clear is that they've borrowed it, but they've repurposed it in a new way. And that's the line. That's where really the most effective forms of creativity happen, is where you, you know, reimagine something old in a new context.

RAZ: Steven Johnson is the author of "Where Good Ideas Come From." Check out all of his talks at ted.com.


AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) My life is brilliant, my love is pure. I saw an angel, of that I'm sure. People killing, people dying, children hurt and you hear them crying. Can you practice what you preach won't you turn the other cheek. I won't hesitate...

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show, what's original, this week. If you missed any of it or you want to hear more or you want to find out more about who was on it, you can visit ted.npr.org. You can also find many, many more TED talks at ted.com. And you can download this program through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. This track, by the way, that we hearing again is called "4 Chords." It's by Axis of Awesome, who call themselves Australia's most awesomeness comedy band. I'm Guy Raz. You've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.