As Steven Johnson explains, "The argument of this book is that a series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments. I have distilled them down to seven patterns, each one occupying a separate chapter. The more we embrace these patterns - in our private work habits and hobbies, in our office environments, in the design of new software tools - the better we are at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking." I strongly agree with Johnson that there is much value to be found in seeking commonalities between and among most (if not all) forms of creativity and innovation. Further, I also strongly agree that "we are often better served by [begin italics] connecting [end italics] ideas than by protecting them.
Clearly, Johnson endorses the open business model about which Henry Chesbrough has so much of value to say in two of his books, Open Innovation and Open Business Models. Both in nature and in culture, "environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments. Good ideas may not want to be free but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete"...if indeed compete at all.
Co-creation has great power externally for those who forge strategic alliances but it also has great power internally for others such as Apple, a company that "remains defiantly top-down and almost comically secretive in its development of new products." Although Apple has largely adopted a fortress mentality toward the outside world, "the company's internal development process is explicitly structured to facilitate clash and connection between different perspectives." Indeed, its development cycle looks more like a coffeehouse than an assembly line." Insofar as co-creation is concerned, innovation is not a zero sum game: teams of great innovators can - and do - thrive in both internal and external cross-disciplinary environments as can each individual within her or his own private work routines.
To me, some of the most valuable material is provided in Chapter IV, "Serendipity," as Johnson explains how and why a pattern of what he characterizes as a "slow hunch" can crystallize into a "dream-inspired epiphany." If I fully understand this pattern as Johnson explains it (and I may not, at least not the chemical aspects), it suggests a phenomenon of co-creation in which both the conscious and subconscious domains of the mind are involved. He cites a number of sources (e.g. Friedrich August Kekuylé von Stradonitz, Robert Thatcher, William James, Stuart Kauffman, Henri Poincaré), each of whom has contributed to the development of a better understanding of the role that serendipity (i.e. accidental and beneficial connection of ideas) can play throughout the process of creation and innovation.
Johnson examines a formidable challenge: How to create environments "that foster these serendipitous connections, on all the appropriate scales: in the private space of your own mind; within larger institutions; and across the information networks of society itself." Indeed, such fortuitous connections can occur almost anywhere on the planet, given what Cass Sunstein has characterized as the "architecture of serendipity." Johnson asserts, and I agree, that the Web "is an unrivaled medium for serendipity if you are actively seeking it out," given the potential access it offers for collisions, connections, and recombinations.
Throughout his lively narrative, Johnson substantially increases our understanding of how and why some environments ("spaces") nourish innovation and others don't. The seven patterns that he discusses with both rigor and clarity come about as close as any explanation can to equating a coral reef (or rain forest) with the invisible layers of software that support today's Web. He also shares what he perceives to be "the ultimate explanation" of Darwin's Paradox: "the reef has unlocked so many doors of the adjacent possible because of the way it shares." He could have been describing various social media and all of the different "tribes" (as Seth Godin characterizes them) that also "compulsively connect and remix that most valuable of resources: information."
This is one of very few books in recent years about which I felt impending sadness as I began to read the final chapter and then an appendix in which Johnson provides a "Chronology of Key Innovations, 1400-2000." I think so highly of it that I plan to re-read it again soon, curious to know the extent to which, thanks to Steven Johnson, the seven patterns continue to "unlock so many doors of the adjacent possible" in both the conscious and subconscious domains of my mind.