A new alliance between the natural and human sciences?

By Sergio Mariotti

Sergio Mariotti (biography)

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:

  1. focuses on socially relevant issues
  2. transcends and integrates disciplinary paradigms
  3. involves participatory research
  4. 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.

6 thoughts on “A new alliance between the natural and human sciences?”

  1. Thank you for the stimulating post and paper!

    One question: At crossroads of economics and engineering, one important scholar that comes to my mind is Herbert Simon, also a pioneer of Artificial Intelligence.
    I wondered if you have considered his work especially, and how this would fit within your framework?

    • Dear Cyrille,

      first of all, let me thank you for your paper on “Communication of the Humanities and Social Sciences”, which has greatly inspired me!
      As for Herbert Simon, I did not mention him explicitly, but I did refer to his notion of bounded rationality as a foundation of the “economics of complexity”. In particular, regarding AI, what I have criticized is the opinion of some economists who think that the advent and development of AI leads to perfect rationality, as AI agents will have infinite computational power and thus their behavior can be described by the analytic apparatus of marginalism, which Simon rejected.
      Do you think otherwise?


      • Dear Sergio,

        Thank you for your kind response.
        Yes, I agree with you on the relevance of “bounded rationality” as a foundation of the “economics of complexity”.
        I was thinking that Herbert Simon is also a great illustration of a transdisciplinary individual (awarded by both the Nobel prize in economy and the Turing prize in computer science, great system theorist…) … maybe a primary source of inspiration to forge the new “economics–engineering alliance” that you nicely describe (but maybe this is just a personal opinion, just to share my thought with you).

        Best regards,


  2. Thank you for a very interesting and much needed blogpost and paper, Sergio. Your blogpost triggered a few thoughts for me…

    My initial thought from your post was that the inclusion of a genuine Transdisciplinary (TD) vision for tertiary education within the existing structure of siloed disciplinary faculties, suggests the need for transformation in the way universities are currently structured and disciplines/academics are rewarded and incentivised to collaborate….which of course is challenging (but with some promising developments globally).

    I highly appreciate your reflection and recognition for the inclusion for the ‘social dimensions’ (i.e. attention to human beings in society, social responsibility etc.) in engineering and economics curriculum. And just to note, these dimensions are highly developed in many humanities and social sciences curriculums….. Therefore a closer step toward developing a genuine, collaborative TD response to AI (artificial intelligence) challenges would be to include the ‘experts on social dimensions of socio-technical change – AI’ i.e. humanities and social science (HASS) disciplines/curriculums/discourses at the very beginning of such as endeavour. This is particularly important to ensure there is ‘broad’ TD input, rather than ‘narrow’ TD which relegates the perspective of social dimensions of AI to engineering and economics perspectives (unfortunately this week sees another HASS faculty from a major Australian university disbanded! in favour of investment in STEM disciplines, this seems to suggest a lack of appreciation for HASS perspectives and expertise…:(

    One final thought is that I do believe that STEM disciplines/academics (and all disciplines/academics for that matter!) would significantly benefit from a critical reflection on their own epistemological and ontological stance i.e. how do they know what they know, and why do they act how they act, in relation to their theoretical, methodological and data-driven decisions (particularly important when considering the ethical challenges AI presents to society in the very near future)

    Thank you so much for your post, I really enjoyed reading it!
    Kindest Regards

    • Dear Dena,

      thanks for your appreciation and for the comments that I fully agree with. In my paper, I focus on the relationships between a social discipline (economics) and a STEM discipline (engineering), but I agree that a genuine response to the changes induced by artificial intelligence absolutely requires the inclusion of HASS disciplines. I believe that the real challenge on our part is to propose solutions that can be implemented in practice and give the right balance between specialization and transdisciplinarity, thinking first of all that the latter is also, as I write in the paper, a “way of being of researchers and scientists, i.e., integral thinkers who are mindful or conscious of the need for plurality”. This not only implies profoundly innovating, as you correctly say, the structure and incentives of universities, but also taking action in the previous formative phases.

      Best wishes


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