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'Eureka moments' and other myths about tech innovation

John D. Sutter
Innovation happens best in group settings, not when people ponder alone, according to writer Steven Johnson.
Innovation happens best in group settings, not when people ponder alone, according to writer Steven Johnson.
  • Several writers are debunking myths of innovation
  • The "eureka moment" isn't common, writes author Steven Johnson
  • An MIT study finds ordinary people, not big companies, invest more in innovation

(CNN) -- An apple fell on Isaac Newton. Electricity struck Benjamin Franklin.

Based on those well-worn historical examples, you might think all inventors, creators and idea dudes are hit with wonderfully brief "eureka moments" that instantly propel our culture to new heights of innovation and discovery.

But what if that's all baloney?

A number of writers this month have been challenging these and other long-held beliefs about innovation -- from the fact and fiction of that "a-ha" moment to the kinds of people who tend to innovate, and which ideas are best.

Drawing much of the attention is Steven Johnson's new book, "Where Good Ideas Come From." But a recent academic paper from MIT and the release of "The Social Network," that movie about Facebook's innovative founder, have been stirring up the bloggers, too.

Here's a quick look at some of these innovation myths. Chip in your own thoughts in the comments section below. If you're on Twitter, you can use the #goodideas hash tag to discuss Johnson's book, and join us for the #cnntechlunch conversation Friday at noon ET. We'll chat about these issues then.

Myth No. 1: Ideas just pop into people's heads

The invention of the World Wide Web shows that great ideas don't arrive as epiphanies, Johnson writes in "Where Good Ideas Come From."

"The Web came into being as an archetypal slow hunch: from a child's exploration of a hundred-year-old encyclopedia, to a freelancer's idle side project designed to help him keep track of his colleagues, to a deliberate attempt to build a new information platform," Johnson writes.

He told in an interview that "concepts take time to develop and incubate and sit around in the back of [innovator's] minds sometimes for decades."

So don't expect to wake up with out-of-the-blue brilliance.

Myth No. 2: Big tech firms do most of the innovating today

Based on the spectacles that tech companies make out of announcing new products (when Apple unveiled a new iPod in September, Chris Martin from Coldplay and Lady Gaga were on hand), it would be easy to think that the big companies of Silicon Valley are doing most of the innovating these days.

Not so, according to a recent study.

Eric Von Hippel of MIT and colleagues found that regular Joes spend more money in aggregate on developing new consumer products as all of the innovation firms in the UK. And more than 6 percent of the 1,173 people studied had participated in "household" innovation.

"Hippel's work suggests that people like you and me (and Mark Frauenfelder) are a hidden engine of economic development as we reshape the things that we buy," Alexis Madrigal writes in The Atlantic's tech section. "If we assume that American households are as innovative as their British counterparts, 14.5 million of us develop products, and we spend something like $18 billion a year doing it."

Myth No. 3: Ideas form most often during 'alone time'

Perhaps it would be wise to stop sitting in that chair, staring out the window and hoping for your next great idea to waft into your brain from that cappuccino you've been nursing.

Good ideas most often come from group brainstorms, writes Johnson, or at the very least from contact with a well-informed network of people.

"What I'm saying is individuals have better ideas if they're connected to rich, diverse networks of other individuals. If you put yourself in an environment with lots of different perspectives, you yourself are going to have better, sharper, more original ideas," he told Salon.

In his book, Johnson cites a study from McGill University that used hidden cameras in four leading scientific labs to watch how scientists worked. Innovative discoveries tended not to happen in isolation, the book says. Instead, scientists were most innovative when they met for brainstorming sessions.

"The ground zero of innovation was not the microscope," Johnson writes. "It was the conference table."

Myth No. 4: The best ideas are new

If "that Facebook movie" taught us anything, it's that some of the best ideas need a jumping-off point. In the film "The Social Network," two Harvard twins prod Mark Zuckerberg, now Facebook's CEO, to help them build a social network. And the twins, in turn, are piggybacking on ideas from Friendster and MySpace.

In "Where Good Ideas Come From," Johnson gives this concept a wonky name: "the adjacent possible." It refers to the idea that inventions and ideas have to build on each other. Just because you have a crazy-awesome concept in your head doesn't mean this is the time to execute it. And it's not bad that products tend to build on top of one another -- improving as they go.

Johnson lists Charles Babbage as the best example of this. Babbage pretty much invented the computer -- in the 1800s. But available technology wasn't ready for him. There were no silicon chips, for instance.

"Babbage simply didn't have the right square parts," Johnson writes. "Even if Babbage had built a machine to his specs, it is unclear whether it would have worked, because Babbage was effectively sketching out a machine for the electronic age during the middle of the steam-powered mechanical revolution."

Babbage died before realizing his blueprint for the "Analytical Engine." He was too far ahead, and his idea didn't build on others of his time.

The Economist writes in a review of the book: "Cultural and social life is also an exploration of the adjacent possible, as one unexpected door opens and then leads to others."


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