By Sergio Mariotti
How can we forge a new alliance between the natural and human sciences in order to deal with complex problems? Can economics and engineering show the way? Where does transdisciplinarity fit?
Ilya Prigogine based his 1990s theory of complexity on the need for a “new alliance” between the natural and human sciences in order to restore a unified knowledge based on plurality, diversity and multiple perspectives.
I explore what this would mean if we focus on two disciplines – economics and engineering – in the context of one complex problem: a future society increasingly influenced by the cluster of organizational and market innovations induced by Artificial Intelligence technologies.
Economists and engineers have played a vital role in the evolution of our modern society. The related disciplines have intertwined with each other, leading to mutual cross-fertilization. Nevertheless, Artificial Intelligence sheds light on the inadequacy of both the economics and engineering mainstreams and their relevant paradigms in dealing with, and responding to, the profound economic, ethical and social transformations that have brought humanity into a new “complexity era.”
In Mariotti (2021), I concluded that what is required is a return to Prigogine’s ideas, specifically integration of complementary economic and engineering constructs, the protection of plurality, and the determination to understand and tackle possible tensions.
Transdisciplinarity provides a potentially fertile way forward as it:
- focuses on socially relevant issues
- transcends and integrates disciplinary paradigms
- involves participatory research
- searches for a unity of knowledge beyond disciplines.
Useful questions to ask are:
What kind of education should economists, computer scientists (mainly engineers), jurists, and other professionals have to effectively collaborate together to address Artificial Intelligence challenges (and opportunities)? What are the implications for the trajectories along which these disciplines and their theories should evolve?
Addressing these questions requires:
- making room in economics and engineering curricula for more holistic learning linked to the distinctive features of transdisciplinarity (ie., attention to the human being and to society, practicing mindfulness, developing social responsibility, participatory learning, search for the unity of knowledge).
- scholars well rooted in their own discipline, who are open to tackling complex problems and who are less self-referential and do not abuse disciplinary formalism.
- effective bridges among universities and between these and other institutions to develop research programs open to variety, creativity, and participation of cooperative networks of scholars and practitioners.
- huge private and public funds that accept seemingly inefficient redundancies in funding large-scale and long-term social and scientific experiments, ie., patient funding that looks at the trade-off between lower short-term R&D (research and development) productivity and a greater likelihood of generating new radical knowledge.
What do you think? Do these ideas resonate with your experience of tackling complex problems? Are there additional educational issues that you would bring to bear?
To find out more:
Mariotti, S. (2021). Forging a new alliance between economics and engineering. Journal of Industrial and Business Economics, 48. (Online – open access): https://rdcu.be/cj3jV (PDF 700KB). This paper also contains references for the work cited above.
Biography: Sergio Mariotti MSc is Professor Emeritus of Industrial Economics and Policy in the Department of Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering at Politecnico di Milano, in Milan, Italy. His research interests cover the economics of technology and innovation, and the economics of industrial and institutional change. His current research focuses on the economics-engineering nexus and the impact of artificial intelligence on markets and institutions.