Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

6. Exaptation

  • Exaptation is when something is put to use for a task that it was not designed for. In nature, a prime example is the feather that evolved to control temperature but turned out useful for flying. Historically we have the winepress that Gutenberg borrowed to make his printing press. Punch cards designed to program looms were exapted to program computers. Vacuum tubes designed to make signals louder were exaptated to store digital data. The World Wide Web that was created to promote scholarship was exapted for shopping, sharing photos, and watching pornography.
  • It’s in cities where niche ideas and interests can survive that this process leads to concepts migrating from one domain to another. Studies show that the most innovative people have social networks with people from other disciplines. This is the so-called strength of weak ties argument. The discovery of DNA, for example, required input from multiple disciplines.
  • Apple might seem like a contradiction as it is notoriously secretive. A peek inside Apple, however, shows that unlike many companies that pass product designs to engineering, manufacturing, and sales sequentially, Apple allows every department to participate during the entire process. This leads to lots of intense discussions and innovative products. Even lone innovators like Darwin and Ben Fraklin have a coffee house of one in their brains. They have lots of hobbies and interests and often exapt ideas from one project to another.

7. Platforms

  • Living coral excretes minerals that slowly create e coral reef. The reef then becomes a platform, which supports uncountable other life forms. Beavers cut down trees and by so doing turn forests into wetlands, which are platforms for my other species. The coral and the beaver are keystone species as they have a disproportional impact on their ecosystem. Think of them as ecosystem engineers. GPS satellites created a platform that has spawned many other uses. The World Wide Web is a platform upon which many other platforms reside. Twitter is an example and as a platform, it supports many others including the almost 6,000 people who follow me(@DrDougGren).

Conclusion: The Fourth Quadrant

  • Governments don’t tend to be innovative as they are hierarchical. Any change has to be approved by someone who is the next level up and there are usually multiple levels that ideas have to traverse. Markets, however, allow good ideas to erupt anywhere as you just need someone to buy it.
  • Johnson now presents a diagram with four quadrants. They are labeled: Market/Individual, Market/Network, Non-Market/Individual, and Non-Market/Network. On one axis we see that innovations are either developed by an individual/small group, or they are developed over time with input from lots of contributors (Network). On the other axis, we see that innovations are either developed with a profit in mind (Market), or they are developed for their own sake (Non-Market). An example of Market/Individual would be the Gutenberg press. An example of Non-Market/Individual would be the World-Wide-Web. An example of Market/Network would be the vacuum tube, while an example of Non-Market/Network would be the Internet.
  • Johnson shows that over time there has been a shift from individuals to networks and from market to non-market, which can also be thought of as open-source. He gives many specific examples here. It’s easy to see why networks outperform individuals. The reason why non-market teams seeking no big payday do better is another story. As the non-market process unfolds ideas are shared so that more people can enter the game and help push the innovation. People seeking big paydays, however, keep their ideas secret and therefore don’t get any help. The network/non-market quadrant is Johnson’s fourth quadrant. This is where we find academic work that is soon published for all to see and borrow from.

Steven Johnson

  • Steven is the author of 12 books. See his Wikipedia page for details. The latest is Enemy of All Mankind. He is the host of American Innovations, Fighting Coronavirus, How We Got To Now. His undergraduate degree is in semiotics from Brown and his master’s in English literature is from Columbia. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Alexa Robinson and their three children. His website is StevenJohnson.Com, his email is sbeej68@gmail.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @stevenbjohnson.
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