Book: The Ingenuity Gap

Cover image

The Ingenuity Gap: How Can We Solve the Problems of the Future?

Author: Thomas Homer-Dixon
Publisher: Knopf Canada

Despite all of society’s advances, our problems proliferate. Wars abound, environmental degradation accelerates, economies topple overnight, and pandemics such as AIDS and tuberculosis continue to spread. The Internet and other media help to disseminate knowledge, but they’ve also created an “info-glut” and left us too little time to process it. What’s more, advances in technology have made the world so bewilderingly fast-paced and complex that fewer people are able even to grasp the problems, let alone generate solutions. That space between the problems that arise and our ability to solve them is “the ingenuity gap,” and as we careen towards an increasingly harried and hectic future, the gap seems only to widen.

As he explores the possible consequences of this gap, Thomas Homer-Dixon offers an absorbing assessment of the state of the world and our ability to fix it. Culling from an astounding array of fields–from economics to evolution, political science to paleontology, computers to communications –he integrates his vast knowledge into an accessible and engaging argument. This is a book with profound implications for everyone that we can ill afford to ignore.


As the world becomes more complex, so do its problems—and the solutions to these problems become tougher to grasp, writes University of Toronto professor Thomas Homer-Dixon in The Ingenuity Gap. “As we strive to maintain or increase our prosperity and improve the quality of our lives, we must make far more sophisticated decisions, and in less time, than ever before,” he writes. Is the day coming in which our ingenuity can’t keep up? Homer-Dixon fears that it is: “the hour is late,” and we’re blindly “careening into the future.” What we face, he says, is a “very real chasm that sometimes looms between our ever more difficult problems and our lagging ability to solve them.” There are moments when Homer-Dixon comes close to sounding like a modern-day Malthus, with his never-ending worries about population growth, the environment, the strength of international financial institutions, civil wars, and so on. Yet parts of this book are downright fascinating; at its best, The Ingenuity Gap reads like one of Malcolm Gladwell’s stories for The New Yorker (or his book The Tipping Point).

Homer-Dixon is very good when he tackles particular problems, and his interests are wide-ranging, moving from the psychology of an airplane cockpit during a crisis to the depletion of the world’s fisheries to differences between the minds of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. He also dredges up fine details. Did you know that “the largest human-made structure on the planet is not an Egyptian pyramid or a hydroelectric dam but the Staten Island Fresh Kills landfill near New York City, which has a depth of one hundred meters and an area of nine square kilometers”? There’s plenty to argue with on these pages, and some readers will find Homer-Dixon’s tendency to write in the first person a bit self-indulgent. Yet fans of big-think books like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, and Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal will find The Ingenuity Gap riveting. —John J. Miller

In Speed and Politics the French thinker Paul Virilio famously developed the theory that speed defines today’s world. The communications revolution makes the world smaller, faster and infinitely more complex. In his fascinating new book The Ingenuity Gap, White House advisor Thomas Homer-Dixon, takes this argument a stage further, claiming that “if our societies are to manage their affairs and improve their well-being, they will need more ingenuity, that is, more ideas for solving their technical and social problems. But societies, whether rich or poor, can’t always supply the ingenuity they need at the right times and places. As a result, some face an ingenuity gap: a shortfall between their rapidly rising need for ingenuity and their adequate supply” Homer-Dixon’s updated version of Darwin’s theory of evolution rests on brain power, and the need for “copious ingenuity to address the commonplace challenges around us”. What follows is an absorbing but rather fruitless attempt to measure and quantify ingenuity, and Homer-Dixon’s accounts of how ingenuity has responded to a series of contemporary problems, stretching from pollution, global warming and the crisis of the global economy, to the dark side of artificial intelligence and information technology. However, this is a very long book for such a bold and snappy thesis, that veers between rather dubious forms of social engineering and utopian liberalism, as Homer-Dixon concludes rather hopefully that “as ingenuity gaps widen the gulfs of wealth and power among us, we need imagination, metaphor and empathy more than ever, to help us remember each other’s essential humanity”. Not a particularly novel or ingenious solution. —Jerry Brotton

Views: 76 • Modified: • Elapsed: 0.017 sec