Innovation Thrives in Open Environments

New ideas are built from the scraps of other ideas that we've encountered. When we piece those scraps together in new ways, we innovate and create. In contrast, siloed societies and organizations prevent flow of ideas between minds, what Johnson describes as "information spillover."

For example, rigid hierarchies that centralized authority tend to be less innovative than marketplace societies that promote the circulation of people and ideas. The marketplace expands the pool of minds that can generate, share, and riff on good ideas already in circulation. This also helps put ideas in contact with other ideas, perspectives, and ways of thinking, helping to put them in revealing new contexts. As well, the cross-pollination of ideas can promote exaptation, or the adaption of traits identified in one context to a wholly new use in a different context.

Today, our approach is to protect our most innovative ideas as closely guarded secrets. But this may actually inhibit our collective ability to innovate. It insulates ideas from others, preventing the kind of productive collisions that drive even more powerful innovations. Patent law and digital rights management in a way incentivize us to slow innovation.

Notably, innovative systems ride a tight line between order and chaos. They allow for randomness and serendipity, but without being so unstable that ideas cannot cohere to one another. Innovation is not wholly unstructured. It benefits from implicit rules that serve as a kind of “genre”—a platform and paradigm that allow some people to play safely and others to experiment. Genres provide a stable set of resources that can be reused and repurpose and riffed on.



Johnson - Where Good Ideas Come From