Can We Solve the Problems of the Future?
"The most persuasive forecast of the 21st century I have seen." -- E.O. Wilson, author of Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge and twice winner of a Pulitzer prize

“Human beings have been smart enough to turn nature to their ends, generate vast wealth for themselves, and double their average life span. But are they smart enough to solve the problems of the 21st century?” -- Thomas Homer-Dixon

Can we create ideas fast enough to solve the very problems -- environmental, social, and technological -- we’ve created? Homer-Dixon pinpoints the “ingenuity gap” as the critical problem we face today, and tackles it in a riveting, groundbreaking examination of a world that is rapidly exceeding our intellectual grasp.

In The Ingenuity Gap, Thomas Homer-Dixon, "global guru" (the Toronto Star), "genuine academic celebrity" (Saturday Night) and "one of Canada's most talked about and controversial scholars" (Maclean's) asks: is our world becoming too complex, too fast-paced to manage? The challenges facing us -- ranging from international financial crises and global climate change to pandemics of tuberculosis and AIDS- converge, intertwine, and remain largely beyond our ken. Most of suspect the "experts don't really know what's going on; that as a species we've released forces that are neither managed nor manageable. We are fast approaching a time when we may no longer be able to control a world that increasingly exceeds our grasp. This is "the ingenuity gap" -- the term coined by Thomas Homer-Dixon, political scientist and advisor to the White House -- the critical gap between our need for practical, innovative ideas to solve complex problems and our actual supply of those ideas.

Through gripping narrative stories and incidents that exemplify his arguments, he takes us on a world tour that begins with a heartstopping description of the tragic crash of United Airlines Flight 232 from Denver to Chicago and includes Las Vegas in its desert, a wilderness beach in British Columbia, and his solitary search for a little girl in Patna, India. He shows how, in our complex world, while poor countries are particularly vulnerable to ingenuity gaps, our own rich countries are not immune, and we are caught dangerously between a soaring requirement for ingenuity and an increasingly uncertain supply. When the gap widens, political disintegration and violent upheaval can result, reaching into our own economies and daily lives in subtle ways. In compelling, lucid, prose, he makes real the problems we face and suggests how we might overcome them -- in our own lives, our thing, our business and our societies.

Reading Guide

About this Book

Introduction

Can we create and implement useful ideas fast enough to solve the very problems -- environmental, social and technological -- that we’ve created?

Thomas Homer-Dixon explores this troubling and fascinating question in his best-selling book, The Ingenuity Gap, bestselling winner of the Governor-General’s Award for Non-Fiction.

The challenges we face in the 21st century -- from climate change to the AIDS pandemic to international financial crises to global terrorism -- converge, intertwine, and often remain largely beyond our understanding, and even beyond the understanding of the experts we trust. These problems, Thomas Homer-Dixon argues, are of a different order to any we’ve faced before, and rich and poor societies alike face a critical gap between our need for practical ideas to tackle them and our ability to supply those ideas: The Ingenuity Gap.

Thomas Homer-Dixon sets out wide-ranging evidence to support his case, writing with equal assurance on evolutionary psychology, complexity theory and earthquake science. But The Ingenuity Gap is also a personal exploration of the nature of our new world, from the British Columbia coast to London, from Las Vegas to Bihar, India. Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book provides a sobering perspective: as ingenuity gaps widen, the results are political disintegration and violent upheaval. But he also suggests ways for us to begin to deal with the problems confronting us.

The Ingenuity Gap
Summary

The Ingenuity Gap is divided into four parts, each based around one principal question:

• How are we changing our relationship to the world?
• Do we need more ingenuity to solve the problems of the future?
• Can we supply the ingenuity we need?
• What does the Ingenuity Gap mean for our future?

Part One: How are we changing our relationship to the world?

Exploring this first question, The Ingenuity Gap begins with the stunning story of a disaster aboard United Airlines Flight 232. After the jet’s tail engine blew apart, the pilots lost command of the rudder, elevator and ailerons essential to guiding the craft. Their experience serves as a disturbing metaphor for the condition of our planet: we face multiple, simultaneous, interdependent emergencies, from the hole in the ozone layer to antibiotic-resistant diseases.

The combined effects of the incremental changes in human population, technology and interactions with the environment have created a new world in which the unpredictability, complexity and pace of events, and the severity of global environmental stresses, are soaring. This means that the commonplace idea that human beings will always be able to come up with new ideas to solve new problems may well be misplaced optimism -- the challenges we face are of a different order to those of the past.

The oceans, atmosphere, and climate we depend on are complex systems: as they are pushed further and further from their norms, their feedback mechanisms make their behaviour unpredictable. Threshold events are sudden shifts in the behaviour of complex systems, which occur when the accumulation of small changes becomes too much for the system to take and it moves from one equilibrium to another. Examples include the sudden appearance of the hole in the ozone layer and unpredictable algal blooms in the ocean. As we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and produce huge amounts of chemically reactive nitrogen, we are fundamentally altering key relationships in the ecological systems we depend on. The effects could be catastrophic.

Human beings tend to adapt well to small changes; this is one reason we haven’t paid attention to what we’re doing to the planet. Furthermore, in rich countries, the new world we’ve created is an artificial, self-referential one: industrial haze and improvements in lighting prevent us from seeing the sky and stars, while paving every surface stops us thinking about the essential processes in the soil beneath us. We live on the meso-scale, ignorant of the micro- and macroscopic. Living in technological bubbles, the post-industrial elite may think it can solve all the problems the world has to offer: however, the systems we ultimately depend upon are starting to remind us of their importance.

Part Two: Do we need more ingenuity to solve the problems of the future?

Part Two of The Ingenuity Gap further develops the case that the problems we face are of a different order to those we’ve faced before, and extends it to social systems. Advances in complexity theory support the feeling many of us have that the technology we rely on to make our lives easier often makes them more difficult. All the evidence, measured by such factors as mathematical intractability and information content, suggests that our interactions are becoming ever more complex. The comparison between trying to take apart and remodel a 1950s car engine and a contemporary one bears this out.

However, the crucial systems we are embedded in are not only complex but chaotic, the chapter entitled An Angry Beast argues. A chaotic system magnifies the effect of small perturbations to the point that it is impossible to predict its eventual behaviour. Our profound ignorance of the nature of the chaotic systems around us makes managing them impossibly difficult. This applies to natural systems like thermohaline circulation, the movement of water between the upper and deep ocean, but it also applies to artificial systems such as the international financial markets.

Crises in the international economy are a vivid example of an essential system whose complex, chaotic behaviour is bewildering even to supposed experts. When immense markets linked by high speed communications networks flip into turbulent nonlinear behaviour -- as in Black Monday and the Asian ’Flu -- the pace and complexity of events calls for greater knowledge and management ingenuity than financial experts could ever hope to provide.

Unfortunately, the systems we depend upon have components and processes that we don’t even know exist: so-called unknown unknowns. In a world that prizes pace and complexity, we often neglect experiential knowledge -- wisdom accumulated over time, through long experience within a system. “Revenge effects” come to haunt us when seemingly innocuous decisions (such as storing dates in computer memory with two figures instead of four, which led to Y2K problems) have unforeseen results, and the people with the experiential knowledge to help have been discarded.

The inescapable conclusion is that given the massive, growing, chaotic complexity of the natural and social systems around us, we will need ever more ingenuity to solve the problems of the future.

Part Three: Can we supply the ingenuity we need?

Part three of The Ingenuity Gap explores the suppliers of ingenuity -- our brains, markets, and government institutions.

Our brains have evolved into astonishingly versatile suppliers of ingenuity. It seems likely that one of our evolutionary peaks came at a time of environmental instability, so that brains developed into amazingly adaptable and generalized problem-solvers. More recently, technological advances in the last 200 years might make us think there is no problem human ingenuity can’t solve. Taking examples from the letters of the author’s great-grandfather Thomas Dixon, The Ingenuity Gap details the trillionfold acceleration in speed of communication, and the billionfold improvement in the explosive power of military armaments.

However, while there have been improvements in fields like personal transport and agriculture, they are not as dramatic: it is between 50 and 300 times quicker to travel than it was in the early 1800s, and agricultural productivity has increased “only” fourfold. It seems that there are limits on ingenuity: certain physical characteristics of the world allow quicker advances in some domains than others. At the same time, while our brains seem to know no bounds, we’ve all had the experience of losing focus or feeling overwhelmed by data. It appears that adrenaline-charged hyperactivity fuelled by waves of data is the standard in almost everyone’s life: the price is the peace and quiet needed for high quality ingenuity. It’s not clear that technology can supply the ingenuity we need in the fields we need it in, and we have created a linked, accelerated world in which we make ingenuity harder to come by.

“Economic optimists” argue that market incentives provide an unfailing spur to ingenuity, but this is not always the case. Renewable resources on which we depend -- such as fisheries -- require much more careful management than we’ve seen markets provide in the case of non-renewables such as fossil fuels. The market’s ability to encourage ingenuity depends on the social frame in which it operates, but it appears that social ingenuity, in the form of creative political ideas and institutions, is sorely lacking. Not even economists, the most objective of social scientists, have a grip on the state we’re in. Centralized institutions seem less and less able to handle the complex problems we face, but the idea that we should just let systems take care of themselves is countered by the fact that the very landscape in which they operate is itself changing rapidly.

Given all these limits, the idea that societies will always be able to supply the ingenuity they need becomes more and more doubtful.

Part Four: What does the Ingenuity Gap mean for our future?

To find out how the Internet and other information technologies might affect ingenuity supply, Thomas Homer-Dixon travels to Las Vegas, to the Comdex computer, communication and software show. Comdex is a living example of the paradox we have all experienced: the very technologies of communication, travel and production that empower us can reduce our control of events, as we are constantly more pressured and overloaded by information. Disturbingly, governments seem to be afflicted by the same problem. They are faced with an increasingly turbulent reality literally incomprehensible to the human mind, and harried by a 24-hour media cycle that requires politicians to provide simple sound-bite responses to every problem. Meanwhile, technology gives small groups, such as lobbyists, ever more power to bog down creative policy in favour of special interests.

Las Vegas presents a disconcerting version of the future: the ultimate urban unreality, where hotels looking like Venice, New York and Treasure Island jostle each other. Walking through Vegas is like surfing the web, hyperlinking from place to contradictory place, effacing the realities of time and geography. This is a hedonistic postmodernist fantasy, a lobotomized world of distraction and diversion. With immense wealth and ingenuity rich countries appear to have learned how to manage natural environments and appear to have loosened their connection to specific physical resources -- but as we have seen, the earth is biting back with a new class of complex, chaotic, global problems.

Travelling to the state of Bihar in India leads to another experience of the future, distinct from but connected to that in Las Vegas: a vision of despair, cruelty, and vulnerability, where even rudimentary solutions to the technological and social challenges of everyday life are not provided, and where the links between population growth, land scarcity and institutional failure make daily life a misery. Bihar is an example of a society facing an ingenuity gap: in regions facing scarcity, prosperity falls, and people migrate, leading to rising social dissatisfaction and undermining government legitimacy. Violence further erodes society’s capacity to provide ingenuity.

More ingenuity would have decoupled villagers in Bihar from the harshness and scarcities of their natural environment, but scarcities do not tend to lead to more ingenuity: rather, they actually reduce the supply of ingenuity because they lead to conflicts among groups that hinder technical and institutional adaptation to scarcity. Inequalities of wealth and power, combined with severe resource scarcities, corrode political institutions, making necessary reform of economic institutions and policies impossible. The downward cycle begun by ingenuity gaps suggests a disturbing vision of the future.

Epilogue

In part, the author travelled to India in search of one child’s face: a little girl he had photographed on a previous visit, whose gaze inspired and oversaw The Ingenuity Gap. That search perhaps shows our ability to recognize each other in spite of all the odds. A sense of community is essential if we are to close the ingenuity gaps that will increasingly debilitate societies.

To return to the crash-landing of Flight 232 which started the book, it was luck, communication, preparation and cooperation that made the severity of the accident less than what it might have been: we will need all of these as we try to cope with the coming century.

We also have to recognize that an ingenuity gap in fact presents two problems: the rising requirement for ingenuity and the problem of supplying it. We tend to think about the ‘sexy’ solutions of increasing ingenuity supply through new technologies. But preventing problems is a much more effective method: if we could take our collective foot off the accelerator pedal, limit our sky-high consumption habits, reduce how much we think we need, and change our values by remembering with less hubris and arrogance our place in the world, we could make it a better place for all.

Discussion

1. How do you understand Thomas Homer-Dixon’s concept of the ingenuity gap? Do you think it is a useful lens through which to look at global problems? Why, or why not?

2. The Ingenuity Gap was published in 2000. How have the intervening years treated its ideas? Do you feel that Western societies are more or less arrogant and hubristic than five years ago? Would you argue that the September 11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq relate in some way to ingenuity gaps?

3. Which part of the book did you find most stimulating? Which part of the book did you find least convincing? Why?

4. Did you find The Ingenuity Gap a dispiriting or inspiring read? Based on your reading of the evidence gathered in the book, do you think we can supply enough ingenuity to solve future problems? What can we each do, in our own lives, to make the world a better place — and is it enough?

5. If you met Thomas Homer-Dixon, what question would you put to him about The Ingenuity Gap?