What’s so new about ingenuity?
Thomas Homer-Dixon argues in his The Ingenuity Gap that the increasing complexity, pace and unpredictability of our world make a greater demand on our ingenuity than ever before. He suggests there is a gap that emerges between this demand and our ability to supply the ingenuity required to match it.
I’ve been thinking a little bit about ingenuity lately, particularly the distinction between ingenuity, innovation, invention and creativity, and there are a couple of characteristics of ingenuity that I like. One of these is picked up in The Ingenuity Gap, which notes that innovation describes new ideas being put into practice, but ingenuity “assumes that ideas don’t have to be new to be useful”. I think this nuance appeals to my distrust of the hype that accompanies technical innovation.
A similar theme was picked up in the excellently-named Hopeful Monsters and the Trough Of Disillusionment blog post last week from BERG. Matt Jones reports on a workshop that re-imagined applications for those commonplace technologies that would fall into the Trough of Disillusionment in Gartner’s Hype Cycle, like low capacity USB sticks, landline telephones or accelerometers. Resulting for example in Matt Webb’s comment “cross-breeding thumbdrives and, oh, something else that triggered a thought about audio… and the product that came up was audio textbooks on super cheap hardware for the developing world”.
The RSA is an organisation in the rare position of being able to look back as well as forwards. Its original working practice of giving out premiums “for any and every work of distinguished ingenuity”, has meant that the organisation has a long perspective on many technological developments over many years. Some of these [pdf link] are as relevant now as they were in their day.
I wonder if, when we face huge public spending cuts and the need to use the Earth’s resources more sustainably, some of the solutions might lie in past ingenuity as well as future innovation. So to stretch the original metaphor, might some of the most appropriate bridges over the ingenuity gap be those that have simply fallen out of use rather than ones that need engineering from scratch…?