What kind of environment creates good ideas?

All of us live inside our own private versions of the adjacent possible. In our work lives, in our creative pursuits, in the organizations that employ us, in the communities we inhabit – in all these different environments, we are surrounded by potential new configurations, new ways of breaking out of our standard routines. We are, each of us, surrounded by the conceptual equivalent of those Toyota spare parts, all waiting to be recombined into something magical, something new.  It need not be the epic advances of biological diversity, or the invention of programmable computing. Unlocking a new door can lead to a world-changing scientific breakthrough, but it can also lead to a more effective strategy for teaching second-graders, or a novel marketing idea for the vacuum cleaner your company’s about to release. The trick is to figure out ways to explore the edges of possibility that surround you. This can be as simple as changing the physical environment you work in, or cultivating a specific kind of social network, or maintaining certain habits in the way you seek out and store information. 

Recall the question we began with: What kind of environment creates good ideas? The simplest way to answer it is this: innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts – mechanical or conceptual – and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts. Environments that block or limit those new combinations – by punishing experimentation, by obscuring certain branches of possibility, by making the current state so satisfying that no one bothers to explore the edges – will, on average, generate and circulate fewer innovations than environments that encourage exploration. 

From “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson – Riverhead Books