Why we must create a science of the artificial
We live in a very largely artificial world. You are certainly aware of this when reading this article on your phone, tablet or computer, seated in a chair or armchair, in a house, building or on the train. We are surrounded by a myriad of artificial objects, artifacts (Latin factum, do, and ars, artis for artificial). Even things that seem natural to us are artificial: a cultivated field of wheat is artificial, it does not exist in the state of nature; the apples and tomatoes we eat are artificial, they have nothing to do with what our ancestors ate and even our grandparents only forty years ago. A farmer from Larzac or an organic farmer themselves live in a world that is largely as artificial as a grain farmer in Beauce. All three would be aliens for our ancestors.
But we are not surrounded only by artificial objects tangible. We also created objects intangible: organizations, groups, governments, contracts, markets. Those are social artifacts, which exist only in our heads, based on mental models. A 20 euro banknote is a social artefact: beyond the paper on which it is printed, itself already a complex object, its value is based only on a mental model, a collective belief shared by a large number of individuals. and institutions for which “20 euros” means the same thing.
As Yuval Harari observes in his book Sapiens on human history, this ability to share mental models is uniquely human: give a monkey the choice between a banana and a 20 euro bill, with which he could in principle buy a lot of bananas, and he will choose the banana: the mental model means nothing to him. But also ask the inhabitant of a country whose currency has collapsed and he will no doubt make the same choice: the mental model of his currency is no longer shared, it is no longer worth anything and the world of tangible objects regain the advantage temporarily.
The characteristic of Sapiens, our species, is that the universe that it manipulates is very largely made up of social artifacts. Living in an artificial world, we are far removed, in our daily life, from the purely physical natural and material world. The shift towards a world of services is only one of the many aspects of this very largely socially and cognitively constructed reality. Most employees today arrive at the office in the morning and leave in the evening having spent their day manipulating social artifacts that sometimes only translate into a bunch of bytes changing on a remote computer. It is one of the fascinating characteristics of the modern economy to create wealth from artificial concepts, that is to say in fact to create artificial worlds based on shared mental models.
The very definition of an artefact is that it does not exist in the state of nature. The question then is: where do these artifacts come from, and how are they created? Not existing in the state of nature, they are the product of human creation, and without human action they would not exist. For example, if economists define a market as the place where supply and demand meet, they do not tell us where this supply and demand come from, and why they meet there and not at another. . In fact, a market is an institution, ie a social artefact defined by a set of rules defined over time. Some regional markets have existed since the Middle Ages. How are these artifacts created?
It was to answer this question that fifty years ago, the researcher Herbert Simon called for the creation of a new science class, artificial sciences, in his eponymous work published in 1969. By science is meant a body of theoretical and practical knowledge. The artificial sciences would be distinguished from the sciences natural (physics, chemistry, biology) and sciences social (sociology for example) to take into account thehuman intention (purpose in English) specific to the process of creating social artefacts. From his work with Saras Sarasvathy, a young researcher whose doctorate he supervised at the end of the 90s, was notably born the effectuation, the logic of action of entrepreneurs. Along with the implementation, entrepreneurship is seen as one of those ‘science of the artificial’ concerned with the creation of social artefacts: products, firms and markets and mental models in general.
As Sarasvathy and Simon point out in the last article written together just before the latter’s death in 2001: “Entrepreneurial expertise, like artistic or scientific expertise, is essentially a form of creative expertise. In other words, the creation of a business or a market is a special case of a larger phenomenon of novelty generation.This is why for Sarasvathy, the future is not already written, waiting to be discovered; it is created by human action.
Simon’s call was not really followed even if he himself was very influential in several fields: artificial intelligence, of which he was one of the fathers, economics (Nobel Prize in 1978 for his work on decision-making in an organization) and therefore entrepreneurship with performance. At a time when everyone recognizes the importance of entrepreneurship and innovation, even today the issue of organizational transformation in the face of major disruptions, it is a shame that his call has gone unheeded. Many teaching programs in these disciplines remain locked in a paradigm of discovery, based implicitly on the idea that our environment is relatively unchangeable and that the best an entrepreneur can do is find a favorable position in it. However, this is the complete opposite of what Simon and later Sarasvathy say. The future is to be created, so we need a science of human action to formalize the way to create it.
Execution has made a major contribution in this effort, but we feel that there is still a lot to do because it goes much further than entrepreneurship. In our book Mental model strategy, we write with Béatrice Rousset that in the world that is emerging today, “the competitive advantage will not only be the ability to change one’s mental model, but to produce mental models at will, or even to allow customers to produce their own mental models. “
What is necessary is to erase the very strong distinction today between, for example, science and management, to make it possible to bring together a number of disciplines having in common the notion of creating a social artefact, and whose entrepreneurship n is just one of them. We need a science of the artificial because our world needs to be able to change its mental models and invent new ones. But above all we need to train current and future executives whose job will become mainly devoted to the management of mental models to produce and develop social artefacts.
However, Simon observes, while the decisive role of the design and creation of social artefacts in all professional activity asserts itself, the natural sciences have eliminated the artificial sciences from their programs. Engineering schools have become schools of physics and mathematics; schools of medicine became schools of biological sciences while schools of management became schools of finished mathematics (or applied sociology today). He concludes: “Today we have to imagine a vocational school which simultaneously achieves these two objectives: a teaching of a good intellectual level which covers both the natural sciences and the artificial sciences ”.
About the performance, read my article Effectuation: How entrepreneurs think and act… really. See also my book Effectuation: the principles of entrepreneurship for all. Regarding mental models and their role in social (and not just organizational) transformation, see my book co-written with Béatrice Rousset: Mental model strategy: finally cracking the code of organizations to put them back in motion. Herbert Simon’s book, The sciences of the artificial, is not always easy to read: it contains pearls but that the author does not really develop and parts that are completely obsolete today that we can easily skip. But it is a founding work (and translated, it must be emphasized, by Jean-Louis Le Moigne, a great specialist of the author).
Philippe Silberzahn is professor of entrepreneurship, strategy and innovation at EMLYON Business School and associate researcher at thePolytechnic School (CRG), where he received his doctorate. His work focuses on how organizations manage situations of radical uncertainty and complexity, from an entrepreneurial perspective with the study of the creation of new markets and new products, and from a managerial perspective with the study management of disruptions, strategic surprises (black swans) and complex problems (“wicked problems”) by large organizations.