Finding Inspiration In A Coffee Cup

The coffeehouse was a hub for information sharing.These new establishments drew people from all walks of life. Suddenly the people from all sectors of society were meeting and exchanging ideas and this allowed an exchange of all sorts of ideas and concepts.”

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, by Steven Johnson


Ever start wondering where good ideas come from?Brewing Coffee

Author Steven Johnson did – and found himself in a coffee house. That quotation above from his book describes the impact of coffeehouses on the Enlightenment culture of the 18th century.

The coffee house provided a center of communication for news and information. Naturally, this spreading of news led to the spreading of ideas, and the coffee house served as a forum of innovation.

Researchers in recent years have recognized that the coffee shop phenomenon is actually just a mirror of what occurs within cities. Two-thirds of all growth takes place in cities because, by simple fact of population density, our urban spaces are perfect innovation labs. The modern metropolis is crowded. People are living atop one another; their ideas are as well.

In fact, Santa Fe Institute physicist Geoffrey West found that when a city’s population doubles, there is a 15 percent increase in income, wealth, and innovation. (He measured innovation by counting the number of new patents.)

But just as the coffeehouse is a pale comparison to the city, the city is a pale comparison to the Internet. The net is allowing us to turn ourselves into a giant, collective meta-intelligence. And this meta-intelligence continues to grow as more and more people come online. By 2020, nearly three billion people will be added to the Internet’s community. That’s three billion new minds to potentially learn and exchange ideas.

Group Of Friends Meeting In Coffee ShopThe upside of this flood is immeasurable. Never before in history has the global marketplace touched so many consumers and provided access to so many producers. The opportunities for collaborative thinking and the resulting innovations are encouraging.

Innovation from new technologies can also be ‘disruptive’, in that they threaten those established in existing markets. New ideas have this same disruptive potential.

No surprise that certain societies therefore want to limit access to the global exchange of ideas. I am a Canadian. I live and work in Beijing, China. I have learnt to live without Google and limited access to Wikipedia.

Is the power of innovation cut short when censorship attempts to limit a society from the dynamics of the unlimited global exchange?

In Beijing alone, Starbucks opens a new coffee shop every day! The five Starbuck coffee shops in my small area of Beijing, are jammed with people…noisy and full of talk. Beijing has almost the same number of people as the whole of Canada…a perfect innovation lab! Just the sheer number of people will have an impact.

This is the vitality of living in a city like Beijing…..seemingly endless ideas in business…art…. music…technology. Innovation like water will find its way to the ocean. Perhaps with the help of reasonably good coffee on every block.

PS: I learnt about Steven Johnson`s book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, from a tourist drinking coffee in one of my local coffee shops.

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