On Friday, I got the galley copies of my new book, to be published in early October. It’s called Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Of Innovation. I’ve been working on this one for almost five years now, though in some ways the idea for it is almost a decade old. The subject of the book is right there in the title: it’s a book that tries to grapple with the question of why certain environments seem to be disproportionately skilled at generating and sharing good ideas. It’s a book, in other words, about the space of creativity. Part of the fun of it—though also the challenge of writing it—is that I look at both cultural and natural systems in the book. So I look at human environments that have been unusually generative: the architecture of successful science labs, the information networks of the Web or the Enlightenment-era postal system, the public spaces of metropolitan cities, even the notebooks of great thinkers. But I also look at natural environments that have been biologically innovative: the coral reef and the rain forest, or the chemical soups that first gave birth to life’s good idea.
The book is built around dozens of stories from the history of scientific, technological and cultural innovation: how Darwin’s "eureka moment" about natural selection turned out to be a myth; how Brian Eno invented a new musical convention by listening to too much AM radio; how Gutenberg borrowed a crucial idea from the wine industry to invent modern printing; why GPS was accidentally developed by a pair of twenty-somethings messing around with a microwave receiver; how a design team has created a infant incubator made entirely out of spare automobile parts. But I have also tried to distill some meaningful—and hopefully useful—lessons out of all these stories, and so I’ve isolated seven distinct patterns that appear again and again in all these innovative environments. (Each pattern gets its own chapter.)
I first started working on this idea in the background as I was writing The Ghost Map, my book about John Snow’s brilliant solution to the mystery of cholera. (One of the lessons of Where Good Ideas Come From is the importance of having “background” projects.) In researching it, I stumbled across the story of Joseph Priestley and the discovery of plant respiration, and got so inspired that I decided to write The Invention of Air first. At the time, it occurred to me that this new book would effectively turn out to be the theory lurking behind the narratives of Ghost Map and Invention; both those books were portraits of world-changing ideas and the environments that cultivated them. So I have come to think of the three books as a kind of informal trilogy: two tight-focus case studies leading up to a wider vista. (Snow and Priestley each make small appearances in Where Good Ideas Come From.) The new book differs from the last two in that it is prescriptive; it’s my version of a how-to book, supported with stories of great ideas from the past (along with a few stories of ideas that failed for interesting reasons.) If it works, you should walk away from it as a reader not just with some interesting anecdotes about the amazing biodiversity of a coral reef, or the invention of the vacuum tube, but with something hopefully a bit more practical: ideas for making your own spaces—where you work, where you think, where you pursue your hobbies, where you read—more innovative as well.
There’s much more to say, including information on the tour we’re planning for October. (And early November in the UK.) But in the meantime, if the book sounds interesting, you can pre-order it already on Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com. (Pre-orders, by the way, are a great way to help authors whose work you want to support—it helps not only by generating a sale but also by showing advance interest in a book.) We’ll be talking about Where Good Ideas Come From here on the blog and on Twitter through the summer, but I look forward to seeing many of you in person when I hit the road for the book tour in October.