Innovation or Artifact: An Objective View

Are you tired of hearing the word innovation being applied to every new thing? Are you skeptical of claims of the next, new, ‘revolutionary’ innovation? If you are, you are not alone. The term ‘innovation’ is attached to anything and everything that has even a hint of something new and different, no matter how minor. The word ‘innovation’ is overloaded with meaning and emotion. Something that is an innovation is good, it is desirable – but it is a word that is greatly overused.

All innovative activities have an entity that is the focal point of attention and action. Unfortunately the word that is most often used to describe this entity is the term ‘innovation’. How often do we hear, ‘this is a great innovation’, or ‘we need to create our next innovation’. One issue is that the word ‘innovation’ is both a verb and a noun. When used as a noun, it is ambiguous and confusing. It would be nice to have a term that encompasses the non-emotional, non-evaluative meaning that the noun ‘innovation’ takes on and that can be universally used when discussing all of the various forms that innovation (verb) results in. There is such a word that has been being used more and more lately and that word is ‘artifact’.

The term ‘artifact’ was used by Herbert Simon in his 1969 book, The Sciences of the Artificial[i], to refer to phenomenon or entities that are ‘artificial’ in the sense that they are contingent upon a designer (as opposed to natural phenomenon).  The word ‘artifact’ comes from the latin arte “by skill” + factum “thing made”. The use of the term artifact has been gaining in prevalence. One advantage of a word like ‘artifact’ is that it is not overloaded with meaning and emotion. A created artifact can be an innovation (i.e. highly successful, widely adopted), or it could be the opposite. It is up to the market to determine if an artifact, even a highly inventive one, is a true innovation.

People who write about and research innovation, people like  Kevin Kelley[ii]Brian Arthur[iii] and David Lane[iv] have been using the term because it conveys exactly the right essence of what we are focusing on when we discuss innovation. The artifact can be anything that will change human interaction with the world. It is the human created entity that can have both tangible and intangible aspects and that can be much more than just a physical or informational object. The term does not presuppose or limit the ultimate nature of what it is we, as innovators, are trying to accomplish. An artifact can be as complex or as simple as necessary. An artifact does not need to be a single, unitary thing. It can be an entire system of physical, informational and behavioral effects. In today’s world, this is increasingly the case.

The Nature of Artifacts

The term artifact refers to any human construct that produces an outcome or experience that is measureable and meaningful to oneself or others. Artifacts include not only the products and services we normally think of when we consider the term ‘innovation’ but they also encompass rule-systems such as business models, organizational structures, and operations to produce and deliver other artifacts as well as legal, economic and other social systems used to organize human behavior.

An artifact is the result of intentional human activity. A house, an iPod, a toaster are artifacts, but so is an organization (e.g., a company), a law or a music composition. It is through artifacts that people experience the world and it is artifacts that people and organizations create. The term includes any realized manifestation of atoms, bits and rules that is the result of intentional human action. Figure 1 below depicts the tripartite structure of an artifact.

Artifact: Atoms-Bits-Rules

Figure 1 – The tripartite composition of an artifact – atoms, bits, rules

  • Atoms: Comprise an artifact’s material aspects
  • Bits: Comprise an artifact’s informational aspects
  • Rules: Comprise an artifact’s behavioral aspects (i.e., the human – artifact interactions)

Virtually all artifacts are comprised of all three elements. Most will readily acknowledge the first two, atoms and bits (see James Gleick’s ‘The Information’ for a fascinating history and view of the relationship between ‘its and bits’[v]), but it is the third element, the rules, that have been largely ignored and that can provide new perspective and insight on the nature of artifacts and of innovation. Any and every time a new artifact is created, it contains within it and surrounding it, not just the physical and informational forms of its existence, but also the implicit and explicit rules by which it is experienced. The implications of this perspective are clear. Ignore an artifact’s ‘rules’ at your own peril.

Take the Kindle[vi] as an example. It is a clearly an artifact that is comprised of a complex web of physical and informational technologies. But it is also an artifact that has built into it a complex web of rules. How books are purchased, how they are accessed, read, shared (or not), archived, indexed, searched, etc. are all sets of rules that are just as much a part of the Kindle’s design as the screen or the content of books in its memory. They are experienced by an adopter of the Kindle just as much as the physical or informational aspects are.

The term ‘artifact’ is useful because it allows us to stop using the term ‘innovation’ to refer to something new. It supersedes terms like ‘product’, ‘service’, or ‘business model’ and lets us talk about all of these various manifestations of what we create using one, meaningful term. The artifact becomes the comprehensive design of the entire human interaction with something new – including the rules by which the new thing is experienced. The artifact expands our perception of what a new innovative entity can and should be.

[ii]     Kelly, Kevin; What Technology Wants; Penguin Books (September 27, 2011)
[iii]    Arthur, Brian; The Nature of Technology; Free Press; Reprint edition (August 11, 2009)
[iv]    Lane, David; Complexity and Innovation Dynamics; in Handbook on the Economic Complexity of Technological Change, Antonelli C. (ed.), (2011), Edward Elgar, pp. 63–80.
[v]     Gleick, James, The Information; Vintage (March 6, 2012)
[vi]    Wikipedia entry for the Amazon Kindle
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