Sunday, November 24, 2013

Is "antifragile" better than "resilient"?

"Antifragile" is a word you can't find in the dictionary. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author and student of probability and risk, coined the word because, after looking at languages across the world, he could not find a word which describes the ability to improve with stress rather than merely resist it as the word "resilient" implies. Antifragile has now become the title of Taleb's latest book. Much of what I am about to say in based on this book.

An obvious example of something that improves with stress is the human body which gets stronger, more fit, and less prone to disease with exercise. Stress, but not too much stress--a cement truck running over you is too much stress--actually improves the performance of the body.

The same is true of the mind. Lying around watching television programs of the innocuous kind that don't challenge anything you believe is unlikely to make you more mentally acute. Difficult problems in life or in mathematics that require careful and prolonged problem-solving can sharpen the mind. Problems in life that cause a mental breakdown may not be good for you unless you come out of the breakdown a new person better prepared for the reality you must cope with--what Taleb informs us is called "post-traumatic growth" in the psychiatric profession.

The word "resilient" is easy to find in the dictionary. And, we should focus carefully on the second definition: "returning to the original form or position after being bent, compressed, or stretched." This seems like a good thing, and to a certain extent it is. Resilient systems, people and societies are good at maintaining their current operation or returning to their previous condition if disturbed.

Now, here's why antifragility rather than resilience might be a better goal for the sustainability movement. Resilience depends, in part, on knowing what kinds of stresses you will be subject to and building up defenses against those stresses. Antifragility does not require that you know what the stresses will be in advance since you expect to be strengthened by them. Again, too much stress will wipe out an antifragile system. But, it will also wipe out a resilient system. So, the added advantage of working toward a state of antifragility is twofold: You will not have to predict all the the stresses you will encounter to prepare for them; and, you will likely benefit from those stresses and so need not be afraid at their approach.

What does this mean in practice? Natural evolutionary strategies are antifragile. Nature tries many, many experiments--many species and subspecies and newly arising species--which increase the chances that some experiments will succeed. Survivability is increased by diversity among plants and animals because as conditions change, some versions will better adapt than others. Here, nature does not know in advance what conditions will prevail, but puts out enough diversity so that some plants and animals will likely survive. So, the antifragility of a system actually depends on some of the parts being fragile.

In business this model is most aptly illustrated by the venture capitalist (VC) who accepts that he or she cannot know in advance which ideas will succeed. So, the VC invests in a great number of fledgling companies knowing that most will fail, but that a few will succeed and flourish so much so that the reward will far outweigh the losses incurred in unsuccessful ventures. Mirroring the process, there are many VCs with varying approaches, philosophies and resources. Some go bust while others thrive. It's the diversity that is important to society.

This is how entrepreneurs perform an important service for the economy. The diversity of startups means many strategies and practices will be tested against the conditions prevailing in the economy and in society. Many will fail, but the few that survive can be a benefit to society.

Now, the specialist knows and does only one thing and can be a company or person. And, the specialist is typically made obsolete or severely impaired in income when conditions change drastically. I worked in the advertising industry just as the changeover from physical artwork to electronic artwork was taking place. Almost overnight designers could now simply type a few commands or perform a few mouse clicks to change the typography in their pieces. Previously, the industry had supported an entire infrastructure of typesetters. Within a short period, the typesetting business was gone.

It's not wrong for people to specialize. In the complex world we live in, most people must do so in order to find employment. And, those employed in typesetting have long since gone on to work at other things. But, we have built huge institutions upon which our society depends for its stability in banking, shipping and manufacturing that are exceedingly fragile. They do not stand up to outsized stresses.

We saw that in 2008 when the banking system, hit by contagion and fear, nearly collapsed which then nearly took out the worldwide logistics system. Sellers feared they might not be paid for goods they were shipping and halted deliveries because bank letters of credit (which were payment guarantees) were not trusted. Alternatively, many small failures in the banking system would have been much less consequential. But, a few large failures, because of the interlocking nature of worldwide finance, nearly brought the whole system down.

So, society can benefit from many small failures as they are the path to adaptation telling us what does not work. The successes, of course, give us information about what works, but not necessarily why those strategies worked.

Now, here is the crucial point about making society as a whole antifragile: THE WEAK MUST BE PROTECTED. If the weak are not protected, few people will take the risks necessary to find successful adaptations to the constantly changing social and natural conditions on planet Earth. Instead, most people will become risk averse, fearing that they will become weak and unprotected if they fail. Protecting the weak is entirely the opposite of what reactionary idealogues tells us to do to encourage highly innovative societies.

Another way the weak are protected is when failure does NOT carry with it any stigma. In this respect the United States has a culture that far outpaces most others on the planet. The United States is a place where starting over is not only acceptable, but encouraged, where failure is imagined as a possible gateway to future success--i.e., we believe people learn a lot from failure and recognize that many factors including just plain bad luck can be the cause.

So, the United States gets mixed marks--it does not protect the weak well, but does not stigmatize failure in most cases. Think about where your country rates on these two measures, and it will give you a rough idea if it has the necessary social conditions for antifragility.

Now, you might guess from the previous discussion that size in an important determinate in making a society antifragile. Here is where those advocating for what it often called "relocalization" have a point. Moving the logistics of everyday living from an interlocking worldwide affair to one that is regional or, in some cases, local will have the effect of creating many diverse logistical systems around the globe, each better adapted to the local or regional conditions, and none entirely dependent on a rigid, hyperefficient (and thus fragile) worldwide system that cannot withstand heavy stresses รก la 2008.

The other characteristic of an antifragile system is that it will contain buffers, or to put it into logistical terms, it will have inventories--substantial inventories--in case shipments don't always get through in time. In our current system, we believe inventories are bad and try to eliminate them with dangerously fragile just-in-time delivery systems.

In the decentralized system, inventories are a source of strength. Just ask someone who has an ample inventory desperately needed by a region or town. That person will profit from such an inventory while his competitors shut down. And, the people who need the goods will be thankful to get them in a time of instability.

(I confess that the implications here are not entirely savory. The person having the inventory is antifragile in that he or she makes a killing financially when the system breaks down. But, at least the town or region is not left without essential goods and might decide to insure greater antifragility in the future by insisting on greater inventories which then give the whole town or region a competitive advantage. This also might be interpreted as resilience and certainly resilience and antifragility can and do coexist in any economy or society.)

The antifragile idea has so many other implications--for example, a bias toward city-states rather than nation-states--that I cannot catalogue them here. For that you should start with Taleb's Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder and see where your imagination takes you.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

4 comments:

ChemEng said...

The large oil companies understand this philosophy to some extent. They invest in multiple alternative fuel projects knowing that most of them will go nowhere. But if one project does turn out to be successful the oil company has a piece of it and is a traveler on a road to the future.

Dunc said...

There's another problem hidden in the second definition of "resilient" which you quote - the resilient system returns to its original form after being subjected to stress. If the stress is a result of a shortcoming of that form, it will be repeated until the system eventually fails. Resilience of this kind actually militates against adaptation and improvement.

auntiegrav said...

I call it "Net Future Usefulness": any species (or system, for that matter) goes extinct or persists based on the ratio between its consumption of resources and its generosity toward its resources (including itself and its offspring). Antifragility is a subset of that ratio.

Anonymous said...

Exercise is NOT stress, it's only for those rich enough to afford it, who do no physical work. If we properly define stress, I can't think of anything that improves with stress. Insect pressure will kill many trees, the ones left will still suffer and be stunted, same with fire or drought or strong winds. While those that survive may be better able to withstand the same stress, it is unlikely they will be equally suited to surviving a different stress.

There is no word for antifragile because it doesn't exist in the real world.