The Ingenuity Gap is a book by Thomas Homer-Dixon that evolved out a 1995 article, The Ingenuity Gap. It is a moving plea for the attention and intelligence in the face of increasingly complex problems.
There are three layers to the book. First, the book is written as an intellectual travelogue. Homer-Dixon starts most chapters with anecdotes and descriptions of the places/people he visited in search of knowledge. The book is framed by a photograph of a girl in Patna, India that he seeks out 4 years later. Here is what he says about the travel side of the book,
These pages also tell the story of a journey of discovery – a quest – that took me around the world and to the farthest reaches of our knowledge. This journey was a search for the pieces of a puzzle – pieces that when fitted together would give me a picture of how we use our practical knowledge – ingenuity in all its variety – to adapt to rapid and complex change. (p. 7)
Second, Homer-Dixon summarizes what we know about key systems that affect our lives like the climate and global economic system. This is the strongest part of the book – he makes the case that these systems are, a) poorly understood, b) complex (and in the case of human systems getting more so), c) capable of changing in a non-linear fashion that is hard to predict and fix, and d) often believed to be stable. A telling point he makes about the climate is that we may have the ingenuity to fix it, but it will be a major change if we have to take repsonsibility for global climate.
Home-Dixon is great at showing how a blind belief in the capacity of mankind or the world to adapt is problematic. Even if we can adapt to some catastrophe, why not fix thing before they break? Why not try to keep the equilibrium we are in?
The third, and in my mind the weakest part of the book is the discussion of the ingenuity which is needed in the face of probably change. His definition of ingenuity is, as he admits on his web site, not developed. He defines ingenuity thus,
ideas that can be applied to solve practical technical and social problems, … Ingenuity includes not only truly new ideas – often called “innovation” – but also ideas that though not fundamentally novel are nonetheless useful. …
I began to think of ingenuity as consisteing of sets of instructions that tell us how to arrange the constituent parts of our social and physical worlds in ways that help us achieve our goals. (p. 21)
Ingenuity, which sounds a lot like phronesis in Aristotle, is the practical wisdom we need locally and globally to deal with the complexity and non-linear change facing us.
I do, however have some reservations about Homer-Dixon’s emphasis on ingenuity. He never really connects ingenuity to the powerful description of chaotic change. Ingenuity is almost anything that will help with these problems from innovative techniques to the will to implement things. Thus it is unclear if he thinks we need instructions for action or human potential to act (or both.) Most importantly, I think his description of what faces us calls not for more ingenuity but for implementable values. The lesson I get is that we need to decide what sort of world we want and act on that decision. Ingenuity is an associated skill which can be powerful when directed. When he talks about the Tamil terrorists, I couldn’t help thinking that they were ingenious, but misguided. Who will guide the ingenuity? How will we decide whether we are willing to sacrifice things for ends?
Homer-Dixon, as the page on Ingenuity Theory says, is still working this out. I think the route lies actually in the Greco-Roman philosophers who worried about practical wisdom. My question, as an educator, is how to we learn and encourage ingenuity?