Why I believe issues such as BSE and Aids demand new ways of understanding

October 27, 2000

Our world is increasingly complex, fast-paced and unpredictable. We have grown accustomed to diverse and intricate ways of living and we are no longer in tune with the processes of the natural world. This has led to problems such as sudden international financial crises, climate change, pandemics such as Aids and political upheavals. To help overcome them, we need ingenuity.

There is a critical gap between our "need" for ideas to solve complex problems and our "supply" of ideas. Even though the supply of ingenuity is increasing, it has to be in the right place and at the right time.

Our most monumental challenge is global climate change. Our greatest need is to understand the phenomenal complexity of natural systems - though there is similar complexity and unpredictability in our international social and financial systems.

There are four main constraints affecting science's rate of progress: humans' cognitive limits; the intrinsic complexity of the natural world; the nature of scientific institutions, which lack funding and people; and the broader context of social values and culture.

The constraints are visible in the way that policy-makers have handled the BSE crisis, which has led to a groundswell of often unfounded distrust in science. The crisis also demonstrates how science has been forced to scramble to catch up with an unforeseen problem and then scramble to try to find a solution.

It demonstrates the "unknown unknown" - where we are often ignorant of our own ignorance.

The ingenuity needed to plug this gap will have to come from new ways of thinking and of ordering our social, economic and political institutions and behaviours. It will require universities to teach more creatively. There will need to be more specialisms to deal with the increasing complexities, but universities will also have to show the underlying linkages between subjects - science students will be aware of ethics and social systems; social scientists will understand technology.

The Ingenuity Gap: How Can We Solve the Problems of the Future? is published this week by Jonathan Cape, £20.00. More details at http:///www.ingenuitygap.com

Thomas Homer-Dixon is director of the peace and conflict studies programme and associate professor of political science, University of Toronto

Interview by Helen Davies

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