Because I’m such a fan of Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, I chose to download another book by him that Amazon recommended, called Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Usually I avoid books like that that sound like the latest evolutionary-biology-turned-pop-psychology type of text. But based on my enjoyment of his other book, I downloaded it and began reading anyways.
Lately I’ve been mentally debating the risks of big change versus the comfortable rhythms of my mostly-suburban lifestyle. Some of this line of thinking comes from my desire to buy a house in an urban-ish SoCal neighborhood and some of it has to do with my thinking about what I want to do with my life once I’m an empty-nester. I feel torn between a desire for nature and quiet and places with ponds and lots of trees (and perhaps, an ocean nearby), and the hustle of an urban space filled with noise and smell and remarkable public transportation options. As I was mulling through this possibilities recently, a friend suggested that cities are more generative spaces, where more innovation occurs–and that if I want to stay in a world of high-tech, I would be better served by making a leap to such a space. Johnson argues along these lines, too, saying:
“Recall the question we began with: What kind of environment creates good ideas? The simplest way to answer it is this: innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts—mechanical or conceptual—and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts. Environments that block or limit those new combinations—by punishing experimentation, by obscuring certain branches of possibility, by making the current state so satisfying that no one bothers to explore the edges—will, on average, generate and circulate fewer innovations than environments that encourage exploration.”
While I don’t think that cities have an exclusive market on “innovation” or “experimentation,” I do feel convinced that I need to surround myself with a lot of novel input in order to foster my curiosity about the world and my place in it. Often, my best ideas come when I’m outside of familiar territory (i.e. my living room couch or the neighborhood where I’ve lived for 20 years), so I think I need to continue to find ways of doing that, more often.