Here's a humbling thought: at any given point during the innovation process, you're restricted by the thousands of ideas from other innovators. How?  

"There is no way, however smart you are, however many eureka moments you have, to invent a microwave oven in 1650," Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, said.

He spoke Monday at the CITE Conference and Expo, an event in San Francisco which drew about 500 attendees. "There's a whole range of things that have to happen until that is even thinkable," he said. 

The different directions that your ideas can go based on the context of the time are called the "adjacent possible," according to Johnson. 

"In any system that is evolving over time, at any moment in that evolutionary process, if you kind of pause it, freeze it and look at the current state of the system -- there's a finite set of moves that the system can make," he said. "And a much larger set of moves for transformations it can't make."

This might seem to be a dismal and confining thought, but it's actually a great lens through which to look for new ideas. Johnson told the story of how a few MIT students did just that in order to develop a lifesaving medical technology.

A Thought-Provoking Case 

Consider the neonatal incubator. The device, which really only started seeing use in developed countries within the past 100 years, has added an incredible 35 years onto humans' life expectancy, Johnson said. In developing nations, however, incubators are less widely used today.

Part of the problem is that after these expensive units are shipped to places that need them, they don't last long. Without anyone who has the technical knowhow to maintain or fix the complex machines, they eventually go unused. Looking for a solution to this problem, a group of MIT students traveled to an affected Sub-Saharan African town.

"They decide to approach it exactly through the lens of the adjacent possible. What is possible? What is really going on in the context of this prototypical mid sized Sub-Saharan Africa town?" Johnson said. 

When they got there, they surveyed the tools, technology and the expertise available. They found that while many people lacked TVs, DVRs, microwaves and other appliances, almost every other block seemed to have a Toyota 4Runner. 

Given that there were plenty of people who could repair and maintain a Toyota, they started to think it would be great if they could just build an incubator out of car parts. So that's what they did. "On the outside it's a nice sleek neonatal incubator, on the inside, it is a Toyota," Johnson said, showing a picture of the incubator under the hood.

The story is a prime example of how context can lead to great ideas. But Johnson said it serves as a metaphor, too. "We all like to imagine that our ideas are like that fancy state of the art, $100,000 piece of technology right off of the bat. But in fact they are actually much more like this," he said. "They are cobbled together from other spare parts."