Beyond resilience: Toward “antifragile” urbanism

Artículo publicado originalmente en Better! Cities & Towns, el 9 de septiembre de 2013

Beyond resilience: Toward “antifragile” urbanism

Michael Mehaffy, Better! Cities & Towns

“Antifragile” is a term coined by the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who became prominent for his 2007 book The Black Swan. In it he argued that our lives are deeply shaped by rare events: financial crises, natural disasters and other negative events. (And some positive events too.) By definition, these events are not predictable as specific occurrences — but they are predictable as general phenomena, for which we can prepare and even benefit. Specifically, we can prepare for the inevitable occurrence of such unpredictable events by developing structures that, when these events occur, “have more upside than downside.” No mere academic, Taleb made a fortune as a derivatives trader, using just such a strategy. (Though now an academic, he argues for the salutary educational benefits of hands-on practice.)

For Taleb, the essence of “robustness” (or resilience) is that we have structures that can withstand these “Black Swan” events when they are damaging. (For example, the 2011 Japanese tsunami revealed that the Fukushima nuclear reactors were not robust; they were in fact “fragile”). But there is another category of structure beyond robust — what Taleb calls “antifragile” — in which the structure not only withstands such events, but gains benefits from them.

Taleb points out (in his 2012 book Antifragile) that this characteristic is everywhere in nature, and especially in biological systems. Muscles endure the strain and damage of exercise, and actually become stronger. The body gets infected with a small dose of an infectious agent and develops immunity. Indeed, evolution itself, as a cumulative process, relies on this “antifragility.” By contrast, removing shocks from these systems actually makes them weaker over time — lack of exercise, or lack of exposure to immunity-generating pathogens.

Key to this antifragility is the ability to fail in small doses, and to use that failure to benefit over time. Muscles get very small tears and strains, which result in strengthening; a few cells get infections and die, but not before sending out markers that identify the invaders. So keeping things “small enough to fail” (as opposed to “too big to fail”) is key. So is the ability to transmit lessons from these small failures, so that the structure can develop new strengths.

But getting “too big to fail” is precisely what’s going on all over the place today. (The banking crisis is a case in point.) “Modernity,” Taleb says, is dominated by a culture of specialists who are rewarded for excessive intervention, and for predictions that are routinely worthless. The big reward for them is not in creating antifragility or even resilience, but stability — or, more accurately, its appearance. Then, when disaster strikes, these specialists, who have very little “skin in the game,” pay a very small price, if any. The result is that there is no learning. We go back to making structures that are “too big to fail.”

Thus, instead of creating a world in which the most destructive Black Swans are more survivable, all the emphasis is on preventing such Black Swans, and creating an unsustainable state of normality. The inevitable result is that these Black Swans come anyway — ands then there’s really hell to pay. 

A forest ecosystem is a good example of what goes on. Often there are numerous small fires that play key roles in the health of the ecosystem, taking out undergrowth, allowing new species to thrive, and consuming fuel before it accumulates to dangerous levels. But the “modern” practice up until recent times has been to suppress the fires — and of course, the result has been that the fires come eventually anyway, and then they’re much bigger and more catastrophic.

There is an obvious corollary in economics. The more we suppress economic volatility, and the more we inject cheap credit (and debt) into the system to prop things up, and the more we let institutions get “too big to fail” — effectively socializing risk and privatizing profit — then the more we are setting ourselves up for a kind of global Ponzi scheme that is bound to collapse, even more disastrously than before. Taleb thinks 2008 was such a collapse — he made millions anticipating it — and he thinks we are now headed to an even bigger global collapse.

More broadly, Taleb sees a looming collapse of many human systems, under the management of their specialist-planners. They are not trained by failure, have no “skin in the game,” think reductively from the wrong models, and are biased toward intervention to prevent black swans rather than prepare for them. The examples he cites take up much of the book, including medicine, economics and politics. (But his is not an ideological politics of the usual left or right, but a pragmatist’s “cut through BS” politics of what works.) There are obvious lessons for planning and architecture too.

The promoters of this kind of planning are what he calls “fragilistas,” making strategic plans to avoid Black Swans instead of assuring that the Black Swans are smaller and more survivable — and even beneficial, as the result of an evolutionary process. The dominance of fragilistas across many disciplines is symptomatic of modernity, a problematic era of “humans’ large-scale domination of the environment, the systematic smoothing of the world’s jaggedness, and the stifling of volatility and stressors.” 

There is a short but entertaining section on architecture specifically. “We are punished with the results of neophilia” in cities, he says. “The problem with modernistic and functional architecture is that it is not fragile enough to break physically, so these buildings stick out just to torture our consciousness.” By contrast, the “improved caverns” of traditional environments offer “fractal richness” that he finds makes him feel at home.

Taleb points out, as Jane Jacobs did throughout her career, that our model of “planning” is fundamentally broken, demonstrably incapable of learning from its mistakes. We try to “plan” in a rational, linear, predictive sense, and the inevitable result is spectacular failure. Indeed, most of what passes for such planning today is pseudo-science, bureaucratic turf-building, and fragile clutter. Worse, it makes our entire civilization fragile.

What we can do, Taleb says, is to develop structures, and processes, that can evolve and get smarter. Intelligence is not just in the individual, or in the individual’s planning or design, but in the overall evolutionary process that we adopt. That’s why real-world experience is much more valuable than theory: it can evolve, whereas theory is mostly a static rational process of enforced deduction. It is fragile, and it breaks too often. When it does break, there is very little learning. When it doesn’t break, it only forestalls an even larger kind of collapse. This is where humanity is headed, he thinks, if we don’t adopt major structural reforms.

To be sure, Taleb says, theory is important, if it’s philosophical theory about useful decision-making. “Wisdom in decision making is vastly more important — not just practically, but philosophically — than knowledge.” That’s essentially what Taleb is sharing in his books — a theory of how nature works, and how we had better work too, if we want to survive.

Some will note the similarity to Jane Jacobs’ last book Dark Age Ahead… and to the idea that we need another kind of planning entirely, and another kind of design. We need a design for the process more than the product, and a “design for self-organization.”

Some will also note the implications for traditional patterns and practices, which now appear as evolutionary processes that confer antifragility. His description appears remarkably close to what Andres and Douglas Duany call the “vernacular mind” — the collective skill in producing beautiful and well-adapted habitat, which is evident throughout human history (at least, up to recent “modern” history).

We need to embrace and empower such a capacity, surely — instead of regarding its genetic treasury as a modern design taboo. Moreover, we need to embrace a different kind of design, and a different kind of planning — less about designing or planning the product, and more about designing the best, most antifragile possible process, and getting the obstacles out of the way. This is the best way — perhaps the only way — to assure that the product is stronger, smarter, better.

Michael Mehaffy is executive director of the Portland-based Sustasis Foundation, working to develop new neighborhood-scale tools and approaches for meeting the urban challenges of the future.

1 comment
  1. Gracias por esto, la verdad que es bueno conseguir sitios web como este, ahora mismo iniciaré un proyecto que tiene mucho que ver.

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