Innovation – Where do groundbreaking ideas come from?



I’m sitting in a cafeteria in the Thong Lor area of Bangkok, a place quite popular among expats. I am wondering if the London-cafes mentioned by Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation are similar to the cafes we are familiar with nowadays.

I read this book some months ago. In a world that is betting big on innovation, I found it useful to know how innovation actually works and what the main triggers are that make it happen. Steven provides a classification of seven concepts/factors/situations in which innovation happens that make easier to understand the process of innovation. Here we go with a bit more explanation of each one 😉



This concept tries to explain all the possible innovations that are directly achievable in the current situation and with the current status of technology.

An illustrative example would be a room with 2 doors. Behind each of the doors there is another room with a random number of doors. In the first room you have just 2 other rooms available to enter, those rooms would be the adjacent possible of that situation.

After opening a door, you discover a room with 4 other doors. Now the adjacent possible would change and would be 5 rooms; the 4 new doors, plus the original door that was not chosen.

What this basically means is that:

  • You can’t invent the car before the wheel
  • Timing is a crucial factor for innovation; you need a specific level of technology plus the appropriate social mind-set to accept certain changes. Here an interesting video about this.



The name may already give you some hints of what this is about. Here comes the popular “networking” everybody is talking about! The term liquid refers to the density and the capability of adopting new configurations of a network.

Big cities are examples of liquid networks that trigger a dramatic increase in the flow of good ideas. The networks allow ideas to circulate more freely through a wider and more connected population. “Cities, markets, cafes or conventions recruit more minds into the collective project of exploring the adjacent possible”.




This doesn’t mean that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they are connected to the network.

Therefore to innovate… network, network and network! And not only with like-minded people, but people with different thoughts and perspectives. This will definitely enrich and reshape your initial ideas. Let your ideas flow through your network and you will be surprised of the new sets of possibilities that come up!



It is possible to define two types of hunches: the quick one, a flash judgement that comes mainly from the instinct, and a slow hunch. The latter has longer time frames, “it starts with a vague, hard to describe sense that there’s an interesting solution to a problem that has not yet proposed. They are fragile creatures, easily lost to the more pressing needs of day-to-day issues”.

Darwin kept his slow hunch about the theory of evolution for years until he finally developed it into what we know today. Taking notes on his thoughts and hunches helped him keep it in mind until he had all the pieces of the puzzle.

So if you have a hunch, please… do not forget it! You may have a great new theory floating around your mind 😉



For the hunch to blossom into something more substantial, it has to connect with other ideas. The hunch needs an environment where surprising new connections can be forged.

Collision of ideas across different disciplines and memories coming from the brain that suddenly connects with your previous thoughts to create great ideas. Internet and social networks have increased the possibility of serendipity.

A varied network would definitely help the chaotic search for the new possibilities that serendipity pursues.



Mistakes are an intrinsic part of innovation.

A mantra of the Web startup world is to fail faster and cheaper. “That doesn’t mean that mistakes are the goal, they are still mistakes, which is why you want to get through them quickly. But these mistakes are an inevitable step on the path of true innovation”.

Tim Ferris, in his book “The 4 Hour Workweek”, proposes a quick way to test online business ideas in a fast and cheap way. We will soon get to that in another article 😉



The base of this concept is to find use in something which was created for another use. Companies use exaptation by integrating ideas from different disciplines and industries.

Apple shows a curious case of this concept. While it remains a closed company for outsiders, it is highly connected between its different departments. It is clear that this highly connected way of ruling a company is more complicated and time consuming but can yield great results.

Great innovators possess a lot of hobbies or networks of enterprises. The clue here is to borrow tools from one discipline to solve problems in another.



The idea of platform is similar to an atoll formation. New things grow on top of previous things.

Although this could be seem similar to the adjacent possible, a platform is one step forward. You do not just open another door. You build a new entire floor full of rooms to explore.

The Internet or the GPS are good examples of great and successful platforms.

“The ability to build on top of existing platforms, explains why three guys could build Youtube in six months while an army of expert committees and electronics companies took 20 years to make High Definition TV a reality”.

A great way to foster these platforms is through open sources and total availability of data, so that it is possible to build on top of what is already there. We have seen this effect with Android and the crazy amount of Apps created for this operating system.


After reading the book the main conclusions I got were:

  • The main factor in history that has helped innovation has been the growth of cities and the increase in the density of population, which means more networks, more collision of ideas and more serendipity.
  • Your network and contacts really matter, so better take care of them.
  • Innovation due to market incentives is not as important as people think. To make profits it is necessary to protect ideas, which does not help the process of innovation.
  • Governments, associations and private companies must work together to create and support environments in which information is shared and flows freely.

And this is all for the moment, hope you enjoyed the read! If you did it, it would be great if you could give us a hand and share the article 😉 We need YOU to make AMBITIOUS TRACKS big!

Sergio Molino

Eyyyy! It's Sergio, a twenty-something years old guy, curious, adventurous and innovation, new ideas and, ofc, Ambitious Tracks lover ;) Join our adventure!

4 thoughts on “Innovation – Where do groundbreaking ideas come from?

  • October 28, 2016 at 2:44 pm

    Here comes an article that really is a good read. I am in awe of how good your writing is and how vast your knowledge is. Such a wide reader. Looking forward to the next one Sergio!

    • October 29, 2016 at 11:38 am

      Thanks so much Jmax! Glad you enjoyed it, much more will keep coming 😉 we really appreciate your support!

  • November 1, 2016 at 9:58 pm

    I love the way the author has exposed the ideas, really clear. I´m going to buy this book asap.

    Keep on!

    • November 2, 2016 at 1:42 pm

      Thanks so much AEPCort! Happy you liked the article and found it interesting 😉


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *