Steven Johnson is a prolific writer, thinker and speaker. His book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ is a brilliant look at how innovation is often a gradual process rather than something that comes in a blinding flash of inspiration – something we’ve covered right here a few times recently. And his TV series “How We Got to Now” is a must-watch.

In some of my recent talks, I’ve been explaining the 250-year history of the smartphone to offer a more realistic look at the innovation process. And in this TED talk, Steven does a similar thing to show the importance of play in the development of new ideas and products. He believes that fun is where the future is.

A playful state is a curious state

In this talk, he starts with the development of the flute about 40,000 years ago. When stone age man was inventing tools for survival, it seemed surprising that we’d invent something with so little practical use. But this invention kicked off a series of developments that have helped to shape the modern word.

It led to the organ, played by a keyboard. Which, in turn, led to the very keyboard I’m currently using to rattle these words out (on a bus in the middle of the Jordanian desert). The organ eventually led to the programmable organ, played using cylinders studded with pins. Which in turn led to programmable weaving machines, the Jacquard loom, Babbage’s analytical engine and modern computers.

All from the first simple bone flute that was most likely the result of some happy tinkering.

Simple delight and amusement can lead to breakthroughs

People often use the term ’necessity is the mother of invention’ but, in this talk, Steven demonstrates that playfulness is perhaps more important. A playful state is a curious state. Simple delight and amusement can lead to breakthroughs that applied effort and direct thinking just won’t give you.

This has implications for education and how organisations approach innovation. The po-faced and formal productivity-focused method kills play. And, as Steven points out: “You’ll find the future wherever people are having the most fun.”

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Steven Johnson is a prolific writer, thinker and speaker. His book 'Where Good Ideas Come From’ is a brilliant look at how innovation is often a gradual process rather than something that comes in a blinding flash of inspiration - something we’ve covered right here a few times recently....
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Dave Birss
Founder and Editor at OpenForIdeas.org
Dave is obsessed with creativity. He's been a musician, illustrator, stand-up comedian, poet, radio DJ, television presenter and advertising creative director. He also wrote A User Guide to the Creative Mind.
Now he runs Open for Ideas and helps individuals and companies become more creative.
You can find him speaking at conferences all over the world. And sharing his thinking in boardrooms, universities and dimly-lit pubs.