From the grand 1770s building to the smart minimalist modern interior, arriving for an event at the RSA always makes an impression. Even more so when entering the great room with the wonderful mural “The process of human knowledge and culture” by James Barry, depicting various images of music played in pagan times, the grandeur of ancient Greece, wars, collaboration, religion, worship and decadent royal courts. All in painstaking detail and still in amazing good condition. The room itself is a windowless rectangle with rows of seating sloping up from the stage. Modern technology blending sympathetically with elaborate 1770s details and serving as testament that the RSA is not one to be baffled by newfangled technology. As we’re told, the video feed, podcasts and possibly an illustrated version of the talk can soon be downloaded from their website, or through their iPhone app, if you’re that way inclined. ( See the RSA website).
The room is an ideal setting for the talk by bestselling author, Steven b. Johnson, on his new book: “Where do good ideas come from”, not the least because the RSA is a very keen supporter of creativity and innovation, and several of Mr. Johnson’s case studies for his book are past RSA fellows.
Mr. Johnson opens his talk with dispelling the myth about the eureka moment, the moment when suddenly a person is struck with a brilliant new idea. Even Darwin, who claims the idea of the Origin of Species came as an epiphany, was developing his theory, or hunch as Mr. Johnson calls it, for years before which is evident from Darwin’s own notebooks.
Introducing the notion of Cities as catalysts to new ideas, Mr. Johnson argues that cities enable people to bounce ideas off one another, share discoveries or build on the ideas of others. An example he gives is the London coffee houses, which among many other ideas gave birth to Lloyds of London. The mix, variety and sheer number of people in cities create exponentially more opportunities for ideas to collide and create new ideas.
A concern for today’s society, he warns, it a growing obsession for ring-fencing our ideas so we can reap financial benefits. This kind of behaviour comes at a cost. It makes it difficult for ideas to collide and create and build on ideas, limiting the potential benefit of an idea. While IP rights has its place, it should not be used too heavily.
Truly open environments, where people develop ideas because they are passionate about it, e.g. open source software or the internet, can generate amazing new ideas and create platforms on which commerce can flourish, giving opportunities that would not have been possible had people not been willing and able to build on the ideas of others.
The GPS system was an accidental innovation – an example of how one simple idea can collide with other ideas and create an innovation that today most of us use. Food for thought.
I bought the book, I’ll let you know what I make of it.
Author: Kristine Pitts