Steven Johnson's TED talk on the origins of innovation is now available for viewing.
After an intro linking the Enlightenment to the rise of British coffee houses, Johnson argues that an idea is not an isolated thing that takes place in a "Eureaka moment", but a network of connections shaped in a context.
He illustrates this with a story from Design that Matters in which they noticed that neonatal incubators sent to communities in developing countries would eventually break down and no one would fix them because there was no surrounding network of trained technicians and available spare parts.
The researchers noticed that these communities were able to keep cars running, so they redesigned the incubator using entirely car parts. That way, the local networks of skill and parts woulld support their continued functioning.
Johnson argues that this model - of inventions cobbled together using existing parts - is a much better model to follow for creating and fostering innovation than the abstract model of Rodin's Penseur reflecting in solitude.
He also suggests that innovative ideas "fade into view over long periods of time"; and that half-formed hunches connect with other half-formed hunches through free discussion and sharing to develop into fully-formed innovations.
The lecture is definitely worth watching to the end, and not only for his awe-inspiring capsule history of the invention of GPS.
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