Just a few minutes ago, I took this picture about 10 blocks from here. This is the Grand Grand Cafe here in Oxford. I took this picture because this turns out turns out to be the first coffeehouse to open in England in 1650.That's its great claim claim to fame, and I wanted to show it to you, not because I want to give you the kind of Starbucks tour of historic England, but rather rather because the English coffeehouse was crucial to the development and spread of one of the great intellectual flowerings of the last 500 years, what we now call the Enlightenment.
And the coffeehouse played such a big role in the birth of the Enlightenment, Enlightenment, in part, because of what people were drinking there. Because, before the spread of coffee and tea through British culture, what people drank both elite and mass folks drank day in and day out, from dawn until dusk was alcohol. Alcohol was the daytime beverage beverage of choice. You would drink a little beer with breakfast and have a little wine at lunch, a little gin particularly particularly around 1650 and top it off with a little beer and wine at the end of the day. That was the healthy choice right because the water wasn't safe to drink. And so, effectively effectively until the rise of the coffeehouse, you had an entire entire population that was effectively effectively drunk all day. And you can imagine what that would be like, right, in your own life and I know this is true of some of you if you were drinking all day, and then you switched from a depressant to a stimulant in your life, you would have better ideas. You would be sharper and more alert. And so it's not an accident accident that a great flowering of innovation happened as England switched to tea and coffee.
But the other thing that makes the coffeehouse important is the architecture of the space. It was a space where people would get together get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise, and share. It was a space, as Matt Ridley talked about, where ideas could have sex. This was their conjugal conjugal bed, in a sense ideas would get together get together there. And an astonishing astonishing number of innovations from this period have a coffeehouse somewhere in their story.
I've been spending a lot of time thinking about coffeehouses for the last five years, because I've been kind of on this quest quest to investigate this question of where good ideas come from. What are the environments that lead to lead to unusual levels of innovation, unusual levels of creativity? What's the kind of environmental what is the space of creativity? And what I've done is I've looked at both environments like the coffeehouse; I've looked at media environments, like the world wide web, that have been extraordinarily innovative; innovative; I've gone back gone back to the history of the first cities; I've even gone to biological environments, like coral reefs and rainforests, that involve involve unusual levels of biological innovation; and what I've been looking for looking for is shared patterns, kind of signature behavior that shows up again and again in all of these environments. Are there recurring recurring patterns that we can learn from, that we can take and kind of apply to apply to our own lives, or our own organizations, or our own environments to make them more creative and innovative? innovative? And I think I've found a few.
But what you have to do to make sense of this and to really understand these principles is you have to do away with a lot of the way in which our conventional conventional metaphors metaphors and language steers steers us towards certain certain concepts of idea creation. We have this very rich vocabulary to describe describe moments of inspiration. We have the kind of the flash of insight, the stroke of insight, we have epiphanies, we have "eureka!" moments, we have the light bulb moments, right? All of these concepts, as kind of rhetorically florid florid as they are, share this basic assumption, which is that an idea is a single thing, it's something that happens often often in a wonderful illuminating illuminating moment.