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December 6, 2012

Antifragile Cover

Noted essayist, author, scholar and trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s recently published book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder should mark a radical turning point in the way academics and practitioners alike think and talk about risk and resilience. It probably won’t, but it should.

Taleb notes that the recent surge in interest and discussion surrounding resilience and sustainability do not do justice to what makes certain systems truly different and worthy of our understanding and emulation. As he rightly asserts, unlike most things modern, these systems actually benefit from challenge and change. They don’t just survive change. They thrive because of it.

In the past, I have written about resilience in a way that emphasized adaptation and learning as distinguished from simply getting by more or less intact through bending not breaking. Conceptually, I was arguing something just shy of Taleb’s central thesis. Disasters and trauma not only can but often do make us stronger and better by encouraging if not teaching us how to behave differently. (The difference here being that sometimes we already know what’s needed, but cannot find the fortitude to do it consistently.)

Sometimes the pain and suffering of bad experience can be a good experience because it teaches us something, if not about the world in which we live then about ourselves and our place in that world.

This view, Taleb suggests, gives us too much credit and assumes a degree of personal agency that may be lacking, if not altogether irrelevant to our circumstances or the consequences. Sometimes, we owe our adaptability to luck alone and not design. Some days you’re the windshield; others you’re the bug that goes splat! rather than riding the slipstream over the car’s roof. Past experience has nothing to do with your ability to navigate the circumstances in which you find yourself.

That view may seem bleak to some, but that fact does not diminish the relevance or importance of learning from experience and taking steps to grow from adversity. It does, however, put it in the proper context.

A genuine appreciation of that context should encourage or maybe even inspire us. Instead of making our organizations or society more vulnerable by eliminating, controlling and minimizing risks, perhaps we should see focus on how our systems interact with them. As such, we should see change or challenge first and foremost as an opportunity to strengthen the larger systems in which the experience of it is embedded.

In a practical sense, then, what does this mean when applied to local public safety arrangements? Well, it should encourage us, for instance, to ask whether firefighters really make cities safer. Does the fact the fire service is a short phone call away make people more or less likely to take unwelcome or unfortunate risks? Do the consequences of these risks make the community better or worse off? How should we assess these impacts? What should we do about the impacts we discover if our goal is to make the community safer, stronger and better for everyone in the long run?

I’m not going to try and answer these questions just yet. You are welcome to give it a go, however, and see what comes of the debate (if anything).

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