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Why there is such a thing as a bad idea

On the plane back from a recent trip to Seoul I was able to catch up on some books including Philip Ball's very readable ones on shapes and flow and Jonah Lehrer's new book on creativity which gathers a lot of recent evidence and case studies in a very digestable way.

That includes research on the different types of creativity associated with sudden insights and hard graft; on the right balance of insiders and outsiders; and much older (but still often ignored) research on why brainstorms don't work and why the common notion that its bad to criticise ideas is unhelpful (criticism is a spur to more creative and better ideas - I always like Michael Young's encouragement that any innovator should seek out their severest critic).  

Saying that there is no such thing as a bad idea is unfortunately a good way of getting bad ideas. Interestingly the two main weaknesses of the book confirm its central arguments. 

The first is a tendency to repeat claims uncritically, a common character of current science writing.  So, for example, the claims that there are statistical patterns correlating city size and productivity are correct as broad generalisations but fall apart if you look at the actual numbers (or to put it another way the claims only stand up if you manipulate the numbers to fit the claims). 

The same is true of some of the claims for power laws. 

The other weakness in a book that celebrates the virtues of diversity is that it is almost wholly American in its frame of reference - the great majority of authors and case studies come from just one country (and I guess it goes without saying that all the references are in just one language), and its values are very much the likeable ones of liberal east coast USA. 

Silicon Valley's enduring strength comes from its ability to attract in the world's best. But the US' biggest weakness in this century is its parochialism, literally not seeing the world beyond its borders.


In Aldeburgh I recently experienced an intensive burst of contemporary music. The festival is a fantastic showcase of the strength of the serious end of music.  The UK is blessed with many of the world's top composers, and Aldeburgh attracts in the best musicians and composers at all ages to play and soak up the creative atmosphere (which isn't just musical: the whole complex is dotted with art works by Maggi Hambling, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume and others).   

The music ranges from the conventionally beautiful to the odd. One concert of music by Helmut Lachenmann mainly saw the Arditti Quartet scratching, scraping and squeaking their instruments, along with bursts of whispery strings.

But the performance had the audience (which included at least two of the world's top pianists - Brendel and Aimard) listening as hard as I've ever seen, and appreciating the composer's promise that we would hear the very different qualities that silence can have, sometimes coming after a fading out, after beauty, after a loud crash or as relief after ugly sounds.  


I recently read Geoff Dyer's Zona, an odd book that shouldn't work. It describes Tarkovsky's film Stalker scene by scene, with digressions on everything from the loss of much of the film stock of Tarkovsky's first takes, to Dyer's regrets at never having had a threesome.

It should be boring but is probably the best book I've ever read about a film, a true labour of love but also nicely irreverent (and rightly critical of Tarkovsky's excessive reverence towards himself in his last films).


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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