Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University

Suspension bridge going from one side of mountainside to the other with waterfall in background.

On January 1, 2020, I left the University of Waterloo to become the director of the new Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University. I was delighted to be welcomed simultaneously into the School of Environment and Sustainability (SES) as an Adjunct Faculty Member and to meet the wonderful faculty and staff in the School. For at least the next two years, the Cascade Institute will be located in offices in the Sherman Jen Building, and as the Institute develops its program, I hope it will contribute much to research and teaching within SES.

What is the Cascade Institute? It’s a Canadian research center addressing the full range of humanity’s converging environmental, economic, political, and technological crises. We use advanced methods drawn from complexity science to map and model global systems; our aim is to identify high-leverage intervention points in cognitive, institutional, and technological systems that could rapidly shift humanity’s course towards fair and sustainable prosperity. Royal Roads University is a perfect location for our work, as a leader in training professionals to apply creative solutions to entrenched problems.

Two scientific premises guide our approach. First, we assume that today’s planetary socio-ecological system is “complex” in the scientific sense of the word. All complex systems have dense and recursive causal connections within and across multiple scales of organization, features that allow multiple causes to operate simultaneously, often synergistically, within positive and negative feedback loops. The result is disproportionate causation:  in complex systems, there is often little clear relationship between the size of a cause and the size of its effect. Sometimes, a small change might cause an enormous effect; but other times, even a very large change in the system might produce little effect overall. This is what complexity scientists mean by “nonlinear behavior.”

These features of our planetary socio-ecological system present humanity with extreme dangers—and extreme opportunities. The dangers arise from the real possibility that this system—already under severe stress—is close to an irreversible shift into a new pathway that would radically degrade human well-being and civilization’s long-term prospects. The opportunities arise from the enormous leverage available in highly nonlinear systems, if the right intervention points can be found and exploited. In today’s complex, hyper-connected global system, a series of precisely targeted and timed interventions could plausibly produce a “virtuous cascade” of change that helps flip humanity onto a far more positive path.

Second, we assume that societies are organized around cohesive sets of worldviews, institutions, and technologies, which we call “WITs.” Within each WIT, the three components are tightly interdependent: they influence each other, depend on each other, and usually hang together in a cohesive way. For example, a prominent part of our Western worldview is a commitment to personal freedom and independence. This commitment supports and is supported by our institution of (partially) free economic markets. The commitment to freedom also reinforces—and is reinforced by—the technology of private cars, which allow for extraordinary personal mobility, by historical standards. The tight links among these three WIT components mean, among other things, that policymakers will find it hard to reduce use of private cars or, more profoundly, change the way markets operate without addressing people’s beliefs and emotions about their personal freedom.

By carrying some of a society’s information and structure through time, a given WIT plays a role analogous to a gene in a biological system. Whether the WIT survives over time depends on its “fitness”—that is, on whether it can thrive and reproduce itself in its larger environment.

By this account, humanity’s global crisis arises from a worsening mismatch—or a lack of fit—between many of the WITs that currently dominate our societies, on one hand, and the fundamental properties of the global socio-ecological system in which our societies are embedded, on the other. In everyday terms, humanity’s beliefs and values today are too narcissistic, its political systems too hidebound and short-sighted, its economies too rapacious, and its technologies too dirty for a small, crowded planet with widening social inequalities and fraying natural systems. It looks increasingly likely that our societies’ prevailing worldviews, institutions, and technologies will eventually lose the unforgiving evolutionary contest to other WITs that are better adapted to humanity’s evermore extreme circumstances.

In our work, the Institute’s researchers identify intervention points in WITs within societies, among clusters of societies, and at the global level. For instance, we’re studying how shifts in beliefs and emotions could stimulate norm cascades and mass political mobilization in response to the climate crisis (the global School Strike movement being one example)—changes that could then alter the balance of risks associated with carbon assets in financial markets, rapidly accelerating the transition towards carbon-free energy systems.

Today, in the urgent context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Institute has built on this scientific foundation to develop two new research programs.

In the first—on inter-systemic cascades—we’re mapping causal routes through which the pandemic could sequentially destabilize associated national and global systems. This program focuses on how the pandemic could cause cascades of change in a nexus of three key systems—economic, energy, and food—in the context of five other systems (see the adjacent diagram).  


Diagram of an octagon with each point being a different area of concern - Economy, Health, Social Order, Food, International Security, Energy, Environment, Transportation.

Importantly, cascades of change across social systems do not have to be pernicious—that is, harmful to people’s general well-being. Instead, they might be broadly beneficial or virtuous, if they create opportunities for our societies to transition away from locked-in worldviews, institutions, and technologies to new and better states. They might help us move, for instance, from dependence on fossil-fuel technologies to low-carbon alternatives, or from low-resilience, monocultural agriculture to more diverse and resilient food production.

The ISC program aims to show how pernicious cascades arising from the pandemic can be avoided and virtuous cascades promoted.

Our second new research program focuses on norm cascades. In this program, we’re searching for opportunities the pandemic might create for rapid and deep change in people’s norms—that is, in their beliefs, moral values, and emotional responses about how they should behave and how the world ought to be—that could in turn accelerate the sustainability transition, especially towards zero-carbon energy systems.

The pandemic has been a brutal shock to many people’s core beliefs about their responsibilities to others, the appropriate role of government, the fairness of extreme social and economic inequality, the value of scientific and technical expertise, ethical relations between humans and nature, and (perhaps most importantly) human beings’ interdependence and shared identity at the planetary level. Humanity will not address the COVID-19 challenge effectively if people retreat into tribal identities and wall themselves off from each other. The pandemic is a collective problem that requires global collective action—as do other critical global problems such as climate change.

Indeed, the pandemic appears to have put humanity on a cusp between two dramatically different worldview pathways into the future—one of solidarity and another of division. Along the solidarity pathway, astute social leaders could frame the problem in ways that catalyze an urgently needed tipping event in humanity’s collective moral values, priorities and sense of self and community, reminding us of our common fate on a small, crowded planet with dwindling resources and fraying natural systems. Along the division pathway, leaders could instead promote powerful ideologies of exclusion and antagonism to deepen differences between groups and turn them against each other. Some populists are already blaming outsiders and other nations for the pandemic and stoking rising anger against governments and public health officials who are advocating measures to suppress the pandemic.

At the Cascade Institute, we’re using use advanced methods for mapping people’s worldviews to identify general mechanisms of rapid change in people’s norms. We then hope to show how, in the context of the pandemic, these mechanisms might be harnessed by policy makers, corporate and civil society leaders, and educators to steer societies towards a solidarity pathway, particularly with regard to addressing climate change and the sustainability transition.

Those of us working under the umbrella of the Cascade Institute—currently six researchers distributed across Canada, but all hoping to converge on Victoria and Royal Roads University, when the pandemic wanes—are enormously excited to be joining the SES community. We look forward to sharing our research, knowledge, and ideas, and we’re keen to learn from the students and faculty on campus. Thank you for helping to make this initiative possible.

If you wish to learn more about the Cascade Institute, please contact me.