Waterloo Institute for Complexity & Innovation (WICI) occasional papers report on findings of research projects pursued under the institute’s auspices.

No. 6 - "Exergonic Innovations: The History of Britain’s Coal Exploitation" by Clayton J. M. Dasilva


This essay explores how humans reveal, access, and harness new primary sources of energy from nature. While the overall importance of energy to our economies and societies is well appreciated, the processes by which we make novel forms amenable to use are not well conceptualized. The advances that have occurred throughout history are viewed as sporadic and taken to be disconnected: the discovery of fossil fuels, of electrical phenomena, of nuclear fission, for example, and the corresponding inventions that employ them, are not often theorized in the context of big history and human social-ecology. All of those forms of energy have always been present in nature, however; what has changed is humanity’s ability, through knowledge and technology, to harness them for our own purposes. This essay investigates the technological relationship between humanity and its environment, using the Industrial Revolution in Britain as a case study of exergonic innovation, where the invention of the Newcomen steam engine transformed Britain’s conception of coal and its potential, as well as that of British society. A complex systems causal framework is introduced to shed light on the nature of this kind of innovation.

Downloadable copy of “Exergonic Innovations: The History of Britain’s Coal Exploitation” (PDF)

No. 5 - "Exploring the State Space of Ideological Possibility" by Matto Mildenberger


This literature review summarizes recent political psychology literature on ideology. The report was commissioned by WICI to inform a broader project on ideological change. It proceeds in four sections. Part I reviews spatial accounts of ideological structure, interrogating the number of dimensions necessary to fully describe ideological positioning. Part II considers the individual-level determinants of ideological attachment, including genetic, physiological, cognitive, social and institutional factors. Part III surveys theories of ideological change and persistence. A concluding section suggests a series of foundational questions that WICI’s research on ideology should engage.

Downloadable copy of “Exploring the State Space of Ideological Possibility” (PDF)

No. 4 - "Twenty-First Century Snake Oil: Why the United States Should Reject Biofuels as Part of a Rational National Security Energy Strategy" by Captain T.A. ‘Ike’ Kiefer


The U.S. military has been funding biofuel research, buying test and demonstration quantities of biofuels, and is now funding construction of new bio-refineries with the stated objectives of helping to commercialize production, increase the domestic fuel supply, reduce dependence upon foreign oil, and reduce fuel costs associated with oil price fluctuations. The military’s role is part of a larger federal government energy strategy pursued by consecutive Presidential Administrations to migrate the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels toward domestically produced biomass-based fuels that are purported to be perpetually renewable, easier on the environment, and enhancing to national security. Current military and national energy policy and strategy need to be informed by a better understanding of the physical limitations and negative consequences of large-scale biofuels cultivation and consumption that are only now starting to receive due attention. This paper presents a physical evaluation of key characteristics of liquid transportation fuels and highlights the deficiencies that preclude biomass from becoming a primary energy source and biofuels from replacing petroleum as a national-scale transportation fuel. These factors include petroleum-dependence, energy return on investment (EROI), energy density, power density, water footprint, food competition, environmental damage, land confiscation, and life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This paper argues that biofuels do more to harm the causes of national and global security than to help them.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or Air War College.

Downloadable copy of “Twenty-First Century Snake Oil: Why the United States Should Reject Biofuels as Part of a Rational National Security Energy Strategy” (PDF)

No. 3 - "Why the Mind Matters: A Cognitive Agenda for World Politics" by Manjana Milkoreit


Working with the basic assumption that all human behaviour has cognitive origins, this paper explores the potential value of a cognitive approach to the study of world politics. After a brief outline of the fundamental questions a cognitive research program could and should answer, the paper introduces cognitive-affective mapping as a novel research tool that can facilitate such a program by providing ‘access to the mind’. Cognitive-affective maps open up a wealth of analytical opportunities, including a comparison of individual and collective belief systems and mental structures that shape political processes and outcomes at all levels from the individual to the global. The paper concludes with a brief summary of ongoing research that seeks to identify distinct belief systems regarding international cooperation on climate change among participants in the UNFCCC negotiations, using cognitive-affective mapping.

Downloadable copy of “Why the Mind Matters” (PDF)

No. 2 - "Green Complexity Economics: Modeling Global-Scale Environmental, Resource, and Ecological Challenges Dawn" by Cassandra Parker and Thomas Homer-Dixon


The paper outlines why a complex-systems approach is needed to address pressing questions in environmental, resource, and ecological economics, and it describes some general complex-system tools and methods that could aid the development of a “green” complexity economics.

Downloadable copy of “Green Complexity Economics” (PDF)

No. 1 - "A Complex Systems Approach to the Drug War in Mexico: Resources, Violence and Order" by Michael Lawrence


This paper develops a complex systems analysis of the drug war in Mexico. While other accounts stress the chaotic turmoil of the conflict, this approach begins by examining the relationship between the violence and the formation of order. It explains the drug war as an integral part of the Mexican state’s incomplete governance transition from decades of patronage and authoritarianism towards free market democracy and the rule of law. It also argues that Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) are constructing nascent patterns of criminal order spanning multiple spheres of social relations. Framed this way, the paper analyzes the drug war in Mexico as a conflict between two different systems of resource extraction struggling to construct rival patterns of social order. It then draws on thermodynamics and the complex adaptive systems literature to compare the abilities of the drug trade and the Mexican state to convert available resources into favourable patterns of social organization. The paper outlines the ways in which the different natures of their respective resource bases favour distinct ‘styles’ of social order creation, with different levels of adaptability and resilience. Rather than focus on particular DTOs or kingpins, it then adopts a system-level analysis to explore the ways in which these different characteristics affect the dynamics of the violence today. The paper ultimately argues that the differing natures of the state and the drug trade as systems of resource extraction constrain their respective abilities to create organization, and that these differences advantage the drug trade. The conclusion considers the implications of this approach for policy and for the development of a new ‘security as resilience’ paradigm.

A message from the author: In the introduction, my paper notes the dearth of systematic analysis of the drug war in Mexico; subsequent to its publication I came across a fantastic paper by researchers at the Applied Systems Thinking Institute that responds to this deficit as I sought to do in my own paper. Whereas my paper applies complex adaptive systems and thermodynamics thinking, these authors take a different tack by systematically mapping the causal loops of the drug war. The two papers thus provide complementary examples of the different ways in which complex systems thinking may be applied to this pressing security issue, and I recommend reading them in tandem.

Downloadable copy of “A Complex Systems Approach to the Drug War in Mexico” (PDF)

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