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The Ingenuity Gap – Book Review


The Ingenuity Gap by Thomas Homer-Dixon
Published 2000 by Alfred A. Knopf, Toronto
ISBN 0-676-97148-2

Most books on creativity and innovation focus on product development and solving business and technical problem. Rarely does one read about the need for innovation in how we arrange our social, political and economic lives. Solutions in these realms are primarily based on tradition, custom religion, or ideology and go unchallenged.

What makes The Ingenuity Gap unique is that it pays great attention to the need for applied creativity to social inventions (designs that solve social, political and economic problems) in order to generate alternative ways to manage our social, political and economic lives.

We seldom think of the rules and roles employed to regulate human behavior as technology or as solutions to problems. The nuclear family, for example, is a social invention, a solution to the challenges of child rearing and the distribution of wealth. Like all inventions, in time the effectiveness of the social invention of the family as we know it degenerates as people live longer lives and the politics of gender relations shift. Consequently the social institution of family requires creative thinking and innovation.

Our preference however is to spend much of our time and energy creating tangible technology-like bridges, computers and new forms of entertainment. Why? Perhaps because social inventions are intangible. They are seen as “handed down” and not to be questioned. Social technology lives in the realm of the sacred, of tradition and of faith. According to Homer-Dixon however even our future progress in technical innovation is threatened unless we pay more attention to inventing new social technology. The call for balanced investing in both technical and social innovation is this book’s greatest gift.

The challenge facing all of humanity, according to Homer-Dixon, and especially those who live in developing and underdeveloped states, is the ingenuity gap. He defines the latter as “the shortfall between society’s rapidly rising need for ingenuity and the inadequate supply.” This book exposes the wide range of factors that limits our ability to supply the ingenuity required for the coming century. These factors include the crush of information that we cannot manage, and the critical lag-time between recognition of a problem and the delivery of sufficient ingenuity to solve it. Moreover, the hyper abundance of information may actually reduce out ability to produce new and useful ideas because we don’t take the time to reflect.

Thomas Homer-Dixon is Director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program and Associate Professor of in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Interestingly, he chooses to critique the American Political Science Association as a case study of an institution experiencing an ingenuity gap. In the end he does not hold much hope that the APSA will ever close the gap.

Homer-Dixon defines ingenuity as the capacity to generate ideas that can be applied to solve practical technical and social problems, such as problems that arise from water pollution and cropland erosion. He points out the great need for ingenuity to deal with both technological and social challenges. The management of our relationship with an increasingly complex world requires immense and ever-increasing amounts of social and technical ingenuity.

Dealing with social challenges is not easy. What is easy is pointing fingers. The ultimate solution, according to some, is to demand leadership by overcoming the lack of political will. However, according to Homer-Dixon, what we complacently identify as a lack of political will is often, in reality, a lack of social will. We are all part of the problem, and our societies as a whole, not just our leaders, are ineffective in providing solutions to the challenges we face.

Of course, the challenge to develop new social inventions is much more difficult in certain parts of the world that in others. In the affluent “West” there are schools and clean water, public health and other aspects of an infrastructure that supports an ongoing supply of educated people that will supply the needed ingenuity. In developing countries this infrastructure falls short, and these differences will be insignificant in the end. Given our rapidly integrated world, the problems resulting from a growing ingenuity gap in the developing world will affect us all, rich and poor.

Homer-Dixon raises more questions than answers. Essentially, he writes that we can either reduce the demand for ingenuity and/or increase its supply. He offers a market solution, albeit one that includes an active role for national governments and international organizations. The author calls for an integration of emotion and reason to mobilize our moral sensibilities, create a sense of the impossible, and achieve a measured awareness of our place in the universe.

Homer-Dixon’s work is important for all of us who are interested in the creative process and building a better world for rich and poor alike. This volume is well researched and documented. On the downside, the author sometimes takes a bit too much time to make a point. Moreover, it will not appeal to those who are looking for tools and techniques. On the plus side, it builds a bigger context, much larger that the glitzy world of consumer goods and services that sets the stage for most books on the subject of innovation, and in this way it provides nourishment for leaders who want to help build a better world.

Reviewed by Paul Rousseau.


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