In the second decade of the 21st century, surprise is no longer surprising. We are seeing a steadily higher incidence of unanticipated and sometimes catastrophic change, such as financial crises, pandemics, sharp spikes in food prices, disruptive meteorological events, and severe social and political unrest.

The 20th century’s disciplinary-based approach to research and policymaking cannot address such problems effectively, because they are intrinsically transdisciplinary. Human beings are embedded in a nested and interconnected hierarchy of complex socio-ecological systems, including the biosphere and the global economy. These systems are increasingly perturbed by powerful, simultaneous and often interacting stresses, including rapid population growth, systemic imbalances in the global economy, enormous gaps between rich and poor classes, worsening scarcity of high-quality energy, and severe damage to Earth’s environment.

In this context, innovative problem solving demands a complex-systems approach that integrates knowledge across disciplines. The study of complex systems, which has developed over the last several decades, lies at the intersection of the physical, biological, and social sciences. Contributors come from biology, computer science, ecology, economics, history, mathematics, philosophy, physics, political science, and sociology. The field’s research ranges from the investigation of general principles of self-organization to the modelling of specific real-world systems like forest ecologies.

This work has produced a substantial body of methods, ideas and results, including deep insights into the processes behind the extraordinary rates of innovation in complex adaptive systems as diverse as modern markets and mammalian immune systems.

But despite enormous promise and high expectations, the study of complex systems has yet to produce practical results that significantly better our world. It has not, for instance, helped improve real-world processes of social and technological innovation, nor has it helped policymakers address more effectively the world’s most urgent problems. This disappointing outcome is not entirely the result of the limited progress of complex-systems studies: human societies’ procedures and structures are deeply resistant to change, in part because most societies remain firmly grounded in “mechanistic” world views that have guided apparently successful problem solving in the past.

The University of Waterloo is uniquely situated to unlock this promise. It has an entrepreneurial intellectual culture that encourages transdisciplinary research; it has a long-established strategic vision that promotes innovation; it has enormous program strengths in fields of central relevance to complexity studies, including applied math and computer science; and it has close associations with research centres such as the Perimeter Institute and the Centre for International Governance Innovation that have a deep interest in the behavior of complex systems.

We have therefore created an interdisciplinary institute — the Waterloo Institute for Complexity & Innovation that integrates complex-systems knowledge from the university’s faculties, departments, centres and schools and that will draw complex-systems expertise from around the world to address the most pressing problems of the 21st century.

Waterloo Institute for Complexity & Innovation (WICI) logo.