Certainty artefacts: the constructs we create to make sense of the world

Thea Snow
Centre for Public Impact
6 min readMay 5, 2021

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Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

I’ve been thinking a lot about certainty lately. And uncertainty, too.

It goes without saying that there are vast swathes of literature on certainty. This piece doesn’t draw deeply on that literature; rather, it stems from my experiences and observations as a practitioner working in the field of reimagining government.

It began with a conversation a few months ago, which the 3A Institute and the Menzies Foundation convened around leadership. As part of that conversation, Genevieve Bell spoke about the need for leaders to create a sense of certainty for those around them; perhaps now more than ever.

At first, I was resistant to this idea. At the Centre for Public Impact, we advocate for the importance of embracing complexity in government. I’ve highlighted the importance of avoiding the temptation to try to make the illegible legible. Isn’t the role of political and public sector leaders, then, to encourage people to embrace uncertainty and lean into the reality of not knowing?

The 3Ai conversation challenged my thinking on this. As Genevieve pointed out, and as we all know, uncertainty is deeply uncomfortable for many (most?) people. This discomfort needs to be acknowledged and held in some way, rather than resisted or shunned. While we want to discourage what Sonja Blignaut has called “Obsessive Certainty Disorder”, what Genevieve appeared to be suggesting is that there is a role for leaders to play in helping people to feel grounded and safe despite this uncertainty — to help qualm “our existential angst.

And I’ve realised that I agree. There is a role for leaders — both within and beyond government — in creating a sense of certainty. Certainty creates a sense of security and predictability, which we, as humans, crave.

So, leaders do. They create rules and roadmaps which tell us what will happen, by when. This appears to help — to comfort people, and satiate the need for clarity and certainty. And this is great, except for one thing. What leaders are doing is not actually creating certainty — they are creating certainty artefacts — human constructs (often unconscious) which are designed to offer a sense of predictability and legibility despite the fact that the world is complex and there is, in fact, very little certainty at all.

Different forms of certainty artefacts

It is not just leaders who create certainty artefacts. Certainty artefacts appear to exist at different levels. Different forms of certainty artefacts include:

Institutional certainty artefacts. These are artefacts created and enforced by our institutions. For example, probability-based economic models, which continue to guide economic decisions and policymaking at the highest levels, appear to be a form of institutional certainty artefact. Despite the fact that the economic models often don’t translate to reality, our institutions hold onto them because they offer a sense of control and predictability that is important for the global economy to function.

Procedural certainty artefacts. These are artefacts that are often used at the level of an organisation or entity. They are the processes and practices we create to give ourselves a sense of structure and clarity. Examples are organisational five-year plans, or even annual budgets. Despite the fact that we all know that five-year plans almost never go to plan, and budgets often blow out significantly, we like to create these constructs because they help us feel more control and agency — a sense that we know what is going to happen, which means we can organise ourselves accordingly.

Personal certainty artefacts. We also create certainty artefacts in our own lives every day. I assume that my Monday will look a particular way. Of course, it might look completely different. There might be a terrible accident that I have to deal with. I might win the lottery. Or even something more benign might pop up, like a friend calling and needing some help unexpectedly. But I can’t hold all of those possibilities in my mind every day. So, I create my own certainty artefacts (what Kahneman and Tversky might call heuristics) around what my day, week and year will look like — seeking comfort in a false sense of predictability.

Paradigmatic certainty artefacts. There are also certainty artefacts which exist at the level of societal beliefs. These artefacts are invisible; embedded in our “deepest set of beliefs about how the world works.” Donella Meadows offers some examples of paradigmatic certainty artefacts:

Growth is good. Nature is a stock of resources to be converted to human purposes. Evolution stopped with the emergence of Homo sapiens. One can “own” land. Those are just a few of the paradigmatic assumptions of our current culture, all of which have utterly dumbfounded other cultures, who thought them not the least bit obvious.

These paradigmatic certainty artefacts act as the foundational structures which shape how we think and act. We believe them to be true and inviolable. We forget that we have created them.

All of these forms of certainty artefacts are useful, sometimes, and to some degree. Human beings would struggle to cope without them.

However, certainty artefacts are also very unhelpful when we forget, as we tend to do, that they are just that — constructs. When certainty artefacts are confused with reality, when we forget to constantly interrogate them, we end up in a place where we find ourselves believing them to be true. This leads to an unhelpful avoidance of our complex reality, rather than a critical engagement with it.

What we need to be encouraging is, I think, greater awareness of the constructed nature of these artefacts, and the need to hold them lightly. How might we do this?

Disrupting certainty artefacts

There appear to be two key challengers to certainty artefacts — disruptors, and uncertainty artefacts.

Disruptors are non-deliberate or organic events which disrupt or dislocate the artefact. An example is COVID, which has exposed the brittle reality of many certainty artefacts we have constructed across all of the levels outlined above.

COVID is requiring many actors in society who tend to rely heavily on certainty artefacts — particularly politicians — to acknowledge their limitations, to loosen the grip on certainty, and to admit that sometimes the best response is simply to say, “I don’t know.”

Uncertainty artefacts are deliberate constructs designed to encourage people to see beyond the constructed reality of our organisations, processes and routines. Uncertainty artefacts focus on highlighting the nuance, complexity and unpredictability which is necessarily flattened and muted in the construction of certainty artefacts. If we think about policymaking as an example, policymakers tend to rely heavily on quantitative data and academic literature to form the evidence base for their policies. Introducing “baggy, winding” personal stories, and asking policy-makers to encompass the differences between those stories, rather than smoothing them out, would disrupt the certainty artefact that sits behind most policies.

The complex stories of people’s existence — the web of relationships and factors which create patterns of results in their life — is what creates uncertainty from a policy-maker’s perspective. These stories are, therefore, uncertainty artefacts.

We can use uncertainty artefacts to remind people that certainty is a construct, sometimes useful, but often quite unhelpful. We can also leverage serendipitous certainty artefact disruptors as a way of revealing what sits behind the artefacts we create.

The usefulness and limitations of certainty artefacts

What I have realised, since that first conversation with Genevieve a few months ago, is that humans crave certainty and it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect people to change overnight. So, certainty artefacts have a place. However, it is critical to remember that, as Adrian Brown offered, “it is a matter of balance and not mistaking ‘the map for the terrain’.”

We must constantly remind ourselves that certainty artefacts are a construct, which need examination and interrogation — are these certainty artefacts serving a purpose? Are they obscuring important truths? If so, how might we disrupt the artefact, and encourage engagement with the messier reality which sits behind them?

At the Centre for Public Impact, we see our role as a Learning Partner as being, in part, about supporting people to disrupt their certainty artefacts in ways which feels constructive and safe. We aim to work with our partners to help them hold certainty artefacts lightly and use them in service of uncertainty. We believe that certainty artefacts are useful when they create a sense of security, but don’t result in people denying complexity in unhelpful ways.

The one question that remains lingering for me is this — are we ultimately aiming to reach a point where certainty artefacts aren’t needed anymore? Should we be pushing towards a new paradigm which sees uncertainty as truth; uncertainty as delight? Or will certainty artefacts always have a role to play, given the incomprehensible complexity of our reality? I’d welcome others’ thoughts on this!

Thank you to 3Ai Institute, whose invitation to join the conversation with Menzies Institute sparked these thoughts.

Thanks also to Adrian Brown and Toby Lowe who, through various emails back and forth on this topic, significantly contributed to the development of these ideas.

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