Steven Johnson is a great storyteller. His book, Where Good Ideas Come From, the Natural History of Innovation [1], is full of multiple stories that make a point of his title, filled with example after example of creative, innovative ideas that need space and time to germinate and come to full blossom. Here is how he couches his development of thought.

This is a book about the space of innovation. Some environments squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly. The city and the Web have been such engines of innovation, because, for complicated historical reasons, they are both environments that are powerfully suited for the creation, diffusion, and adoption of good ideas. Neither environment is perfect, by any means. (Think of crime rates in big cities or the explosion of spam online.) But both the city and the Web possess an undeniable track record at generating innovation. (p. 17)

Johnson recounts how Darwin could not propose his theory of the origin of species until many years later; after pages and years of note-taking, he finally understood what he witnessed when he first stepped off the Beagle into “the shallow waters of a beach of the Keeling Islands” to look in amazement at the “crowds of the coral ecosystem with the dart and shimmer of dazzling varieties of butterflyfish, damselfish .. feeding on plankton above cauliflower blooms of coral … tentacle of sea urchins.” (p. 4)

Other stories of scientists who followed similar paths to discovery after years of observation that their hunch leads them to scientific laws of nature are recounted in Johnson’s book. These are the innovations that needed time and space to surface in the minds of many early innovators.

Johnson’s point is that innovation takes place in the exchange and discussion of ideas, not in the vacuum of personal thought. For him, an idea is a neural network that develops when and where there is a lively exchange of ideas to create new breakthrough ideas. People of different backgrounds bounce thoughts and ideas off each other until an important idea cracks through the incubation process of an enlightening and warm environment of conversation. Through this slow discovery, an innovative idea fades into view after a long time.

In this setting, it is easy to consider that design thinking is an appropriate tool to employ for germinating new ideas that can become innovative. The process of design thinking is built on the exchange of ideas, much like what happens in a coffee shop. This is the theme of Johnson’s TED talk video. His theme in this video is one of collaboration; real innovation is done in the environment of the lively exchange of ideas. He emphasizes the need for connection of ideas rather than the protection of ideas. Coffee shops are open innovative systems.

Design thinking is human-centered, meaning that the team in the design thinking process is thoroughly intent on understanding the desire and need of the consumer/customer to bring about the most appropriate solution to the challenge in question. Design thinking is basically an innovative environment of exchanging ideas to reach a solution. Steven Johnson made reference in his TED talk to Timothy Prestero, who is a designer of solutions rather than products for special needs in third world countries. Prestero’s solutions happen in the exchange of ideas from many different resources, truly an interdisciplinary approach. Prestero’s mantra is “design that matters.”

Innovation is primarily a collaborative incubation of ideas to make this a better world for everyone.


  1. Johnson, Steve, (2010); Where Good Ideas Come From, the Natural History of Innovation, Riverhead Books, New York, NY

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