Steve Johnson opens his talk telling us about a cafe in Oxford. The Grand Cafe, about ten blocks away, is the first coffee house to open in England in the 1650s. The coffeehouse was a critical technology in creating the Englightenment. What people were drinking did, indeed, matter – prior to coffee, people drank alcohol all through the day, because the water wasn’t safe to drink. Effectively, there was a population that was drunk all day long.
Think of this in personal terms – if you switched from a depressant to a stimulant all day long, you’d probably have better ideas. But the architecture matters to. The coffeehouse was a place where ideas could get together and have sex – it was the conjugal bed.
Johnson has been thinking about coffeehouses because he’s interested in the question, Where Do Good Ideas Come From? (This is, more or less, the talk of his new book.) He tells us that we have shortcomings in our language in discussing ideas. Our language – flash of insight, stroke of genius, epiphany – focus on ideas as atomic and disconnected. But an idea is a network – it’s a new configuation within your brain. How do you get your brain into new places where ideas can form?
We have terrible problems with infant mortality in the developing world. We know we can halve infant mortality rates by keeping babies warm. But it turns out that we generally can’t send $40,000 incubators to rural Africa – they work well for a year or two, and then they break, at which point no network exists to repair them. An innovative design group started to think about what technologies work in African villages – they discovered that it’s pretty easy to keep cars running in Africa. So they built an incubator that’s made from spare auto parts – it warms using headlights and an auto fan. If people can repair cars locally, they can repair and maintain the incubator.
Great ideas aren’t flashes of insights – they’re the cobbling together of diverse ideas into a new configuation. So we need to let go of the image of Netwon, the apple and the discovery of gravity. It’s rarely about individual contemplation – it’s more about the sort of chaotic, free-flowing ideas that happen in the coffeehouse or around the dinner table. We need to build spaces like this, including in their offices.
Researcher Kevin Dunbar was interested in how scientists innovate. He videotaped scientists in every aspect of their work and tried to figure out where the most important ideas happened. What he discovered is that almost all the important, breakthrough ideas happened at the weekly lab meeting, particularly as people shared the errors and frustrations in their work. Johnson terms this “the liquid network”, referencing both the coffeehouse and the fluid nature of discussion.
People tend to compress their stories of discovery into a Eureka moment. In truth, most great ideas a “slow hunches”. Darwin is a great example of this. He says that, while reading Malthus, the idea of natural selection simply popped into his head. But a historian of Darwin disputes his autobiographical account – there are passages in Darwin’s notebook that clearly prefigure the theory. Darwin had the concept, but it took a while for it to fade into view.
Most companies can’t cultivate ideas that might be important in 20 years – some, like Google, try to, but it’s challenging. Many worry about protecting these ideas – they’d be better focusing on connecting them and helping them come to fruition much earlier.
In October 1957, Sputnik has just launched. In the APL lab in Maryland, two twenty-something scientists are chatting over lunch, and wonder if anyone is listening for this satellite. So the two go back to an office, hack together a receiver that, within a few hours, is able to track the satellite. They record the satellite on audiotape, and start considering the sounds they’re getting – they’re quickly able to calculate the speed, based on the doppler effect. Eventually, they get permission to use the new UNIVAC computer for this strange experiment, and within a few weeks, they’re able to map the satellite’s orbit.
A couple weeks later, their boss pulled them aside and asked, “Could you figure out the location on the ground where a satellite was launched, based on how the satellite orbits?” The reason – we have these new nuclear submarines, and it’s really hard to throw a missle at Moscow if you don’t know where we are. And this was what led to Global Positioning satellites… which Reagan finally opened up in the 1980s.
And now that GPS is open, Johnson guarantees that at least one of us in the audience has used GPS to identify a coffeehouse in Oxford in the last day or so. From finding a satellite to fighting a cold war, to finding a soy latte, chance favors the connected mind.