Where do good ideas come from?

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

How to Focus and Make Connections

[tweetmeme]Yesterday we had a seminar titled “How to Focus and Win”, given by The Twins: EnvironMENTAL Training. I found this event very interesting for two reasons.

The first is my personal frustration with the struggle to stay focused when working on something that I find boring and tedious. This inability to get my brain to cooperate and focus when doing boring tasks can mean that those tasks get left until the last minute when fear of missing the deadline forces my brain into action – A method I applied with varying degrees of success in my student days when doing revision. Even more frustratingly, I have colleagues who seem to have endless control over their focus and are able to stay focused regardless of how repetitive and dull the task is. So why can’t I do it?

Well, according to Chuka & Dubem Okonkwo, who gave the seminar, focus is something that can be trained. They showed us a selection of techniques that they use to help their clients train their brain to stay focused when doing boring tasks. They gave us some simple (though not easy!) games to do. E.g. counting in two ways at the same time, both counting down from 1000 and up from 1. (1000, 1, 999, 2, 998, 3 and so on. Try it, it’s not as easy as it may seem). The idea is that by commanding your brain to perform and focus on boring tasks – you train it so that you can stay focused whenever you need to. You also learn to find your own motivation and be able to make the most of boring tasks.

Chuka and Dubem also had us work through some visualisation exercises. Which leads me to my second point: being aware of and registering your surroundings and the impact this has on creativity.

“When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.Steve Jobs

I agree in particular with the last (underlined) point here, and this as well is something that can be trained. The exercises we did were all designed to demonstrate how easily we can recall and visualize what we already know, but they were also alluding to how much information we miss. Think about your walk home from the station or bus stop, you walk it everyday, but could you direct someone to take the same route when you’re waiting for them at home? What shops will they pass? Any land marks? Traffic lights? What if I asked you to draw your mobile phone, without looking at it, just from memory? Now compare this to your mobile. What’s different? Do you now see something you hadn’t registered before? The more detail you remember the richer your experience is.

The mobile is a good example of something you use everyday, so in theory you should be able to draw it in rich detail. But it can be harder than it sounds. We mostly don’t pay attention to the details. By training your brain to look at something and then later visualize the details, you should not only improve your ability to remember details, but also your ability to make connections.

What do you think? Have you tried something like this before? Did it work for you?

Author: Kristine Pitts