Antifragile Epiphanies: Reflections from Caux

I had the pleasure of making a recent return visit to Switzerland for the Caux Forum for Human Security’s Dialogue on Land and Security. This was first held as a single full-day event on July 15, 2011. It was titled Restoring Earth’s Degraded Land, featuring a number of great speakers and presenters including UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja, former UK Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short, “The Man Who Stopped The Desert” Yacouba Sawadogo, Dutch researcher & natural resource specialist Dr. Chris Reij, and environmental film maker John D. Liu. Actually, this was the event that John and I first met which led to the making of the film “Green Gold” for the Dutch production company VPRO.

Given the complexity of the topic, 2013’s event was extended to four days and included Mr. Gnacadja, Dr. Reij, John’s wife Kozima Liu (who attended in his place), Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration pioneer Tony Rinaudo, and Holistic Management pioneer Allan Savory. Needless to say, there was a great deal of knowledge and experience to benefit from – and more time within which to cover everything than in previous years.

Personally, a few compelling conceptual connections were made during this trip that I wanted to document and share for those interested in such things.

For a while now, I’ve been excited by the work of Nicholas Nassim Taleb (NNT) with his focus on the subjects of uncertainty, randomness and, most recently, something he has called antifragility. There is a great deal about what he has presented which could easily be applied to the work we do in designing and working with natural systems. What follows are some observations I made during my week in Caux, reflecting particularly on the work of Mr. Savory with Holistic Management. I’ve also included excerpted portions of the Prologue to Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (Penguin Books, 2012):

NNT classifies biological systems as being antifragile by nature via degeneracy & functional redundancy — implying that physical death is a necessary part of living systems because it gives birth to new life and a renewal of function. Therefore (as a practical matter), everything has to point towards biological decay — as opposed to decay through oxidation (as explained by Allan Savory) — otherwise the onset of desertification and land degradation results. Oxidation is an indication of mismanaged land and, perhaps more critically, a missed opportunity to renew functional landscape.

Our job as designers is to not miss out on opportunities to facilitate the emergence of new life, new yields, new manifestations & expressions of energy ideally brought forth through biological decay.

One of the underlying problems we face especially in the modern industrial/post-industrial economies & societies of the Western variety is an aversion to death – i.e., an avoidance of thinking about it or talking about it as a practical reality – an unavoidable eventuality. This aversion prevents one from even beginning to properly understand how nature actually works; that death is a necessary aspect (and arguably the most important phase) of fuelling the genesis of new life. This is the key aspect of the “degeneracy/functional redundancy” of living systems.

Technically speaking, using NNT’s definition of terms, it would be incorrect to refer to nature being described as functionally resilient or robust. In doing so, the essential character of living systems would be ill-described. Nature does more than resist shocks – in truth, it requires periodic disturbances & perturbations in order to gain strength & maturity. Preventing nature from being anything other than antifragile would cause it to atrophy and lose vitality – it would ultimately undermine its ability to exist in the long term.

Creating arrangements & conditions allowing for as many encounters/interactions between multiple mutually-beneficial elements within a given system as can be facilitated is how the antifragility principle is ideally put to use. This is where design becomes most critical – at the beginning of the process. However, over-constraint or heavy-handed micromanagement of design can be counterproductive due to the possibility of “fragilizing” a system that is antifragile in character. There’s a complexity in the multifaceted, multifunctional relationships found in living systems that can be negatively impacted by oversimplification or too much organization, meaning misguided ill-informed ordering via management & design.

The most important role we can play in this antifragile process is to introduce the appropriate components into a given functionally-based arrangement, allowing for the most ideal relationships & interactions to self-select. A good example would be similar to what’s seen in a well-built aerobic compost pile; no one managing the actual process of decomposition – the biology associated with that process determines how it all happens. If the correct materials (in their proper proportions) are introduced and help is provided in ensuring enough air and moisture is present, then the rapid formation of biologically active organic matter is made possible. But all that was done on our part was to act as something of a match-maker and mover.

This distinction between resilience/robustness & antifragility is a non-trivial point to highlight because the working reality separating the two is worlds apart. Mistaking one for the other is a fundamental blunder that completely changes the nature of our work and how we are to properly understand the true character of what we’re dealing with. — Prologue to Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (Penguin Books, 2012)

As I had stated previously, the world has effectively been functionally degraded by replacing the autotrophic, antifragile, regenerative living systems infrastructure of nature with the fragile, extractive, degenerative & inanimate infrastructure of industrial systems.


II. The Antifragile

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile.

Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes (say, chicken soup or steak tartare with a drop of cognac), the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance… even our own existence as a species on this planet. And antifragility determines the boundary between what is living and organic (or complex), say, the human body, and what is inert, say, a physical object like the stapler on your desk.

The antifragile loves randomness and uncertainty, which also means — crucially — a love of errors; a certain class of errors. Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them— and do them well. Let me be more aggressive: we are largely better at doing than we are at thinking, thanks to antifragility. I’d rather be dumb and antifragile than extremely smart and fragile, any time.

It is easy to see things around us that like a measure of stressors and volatility: economic systems, your body, your nutrition (diabetes and many similar modern ailments seem to be associated with a lack of randomness in feeding and the absence of the stressor of occasional starvation), your psyche. There are even financial contracts that are antifragile: they are explicitly designed to benefit from market volatility.

Antifragility makes us understand fragility better. Just as we cannot improve health without reducing disease, or increase wealth without first decreasing losses, antifragility and fragility are degrees on a spectrum


In every domain or area of application, we propose rules for moving from the fragile towards the antifragile, through reduction of fragility or harnessing antifragility. And we can almost always detect antifragility (and fragility) using a simple test of asymmetry: anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragile; the reverse is fragile.

Deprivation of Antifragility

Crucially, if antifragility is the property of all those natural (and complex) systems that have survived, depriving these systems of volatility, randomness and stressors will harm them. They will weaken, die, or blow up. We have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything — by suppressing randomness and volatility…. Much of our modern, structured, world has been harming us with top-down policies and contraptions (dubbed “Soviet-Harvard Illusions” in the book) which do precisely this: an insult to the antifragility of systems.

This is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most.

If about everything top-down fragilizes and blocks antifragility and growth, everything bottom- up thrives under the right amount of stress and disorder. The process of discovery (or innovation, or technological progress) itself depends on antifragile tinkering, aggressive risk bearing rather than formal education


III. The antidote to the Black Swan


Black Swans (capitalised) are large-scale unpredictable and irregular events of massive consequence — unpredicted by a certain observer, and such [an] unpredictor is generally called the “turkey” when he is both surprised and harmed by these events. I have made the claim that most of history comes from Black Swan events, while we worry about fine-tuning our understanding of the ordinary, hence develop models, theories, or representations that cannot possibly track them or measure the possibility of these shocks.

Black Swans hijack our brains making us feel we “sort-of” or “almost” predicted them, because they are retrospectively explainable. We don’t realize the role of these Swans in life because of this illusion of predictability. Life is more, a lot more, labyrinthine than shown in our memory —our minds are in the business of turning history into something smooth and linear, which makes us underestimate randomness. But when we see it, we fear randomness and overreact. Because of this and thirst for order, some human systems, by disrupting the invisible or not so visible logic of things, tend to be exposed to harm from Black Swans, and almost never get any benefit. You get pseudo-order when you seek order; you only get a measure of order and control when you embrace randomness.

Complex systems are full of interdependencies —hard to detect — and nonlinear responses. Nonlinear means that when you double the dose of, say, a medication, or when you double the number of employees in a factory, you don’t get twice the initial effect, but rather a lot more or a lot less…When the response is plotted on a graph, it does not show as a straight line (“linear”), rather as a curve. In such [an] environment, simple causal associations are misplaced; it is hard to see how things work by looking at single parts.

Man-made complex systems tend to develop cascades and runaway chains of reactions that decrease, even eliminate, predictability and cause outsized events. So the modern world may be increasing in technological knowledge, but, paradoxically, it is making things a lot more unpredictable. Now for reasons that have to do with the increase of the artificial, the move away from ancestral and natural models, and the loss in robustness owing to complications in the design of everything, the role of Black Swans in increasing….


It is of great help that Mother Nature —thanks to its antifragility — is the best expert at rare events, and the best manager of Black Swans; in its billions of years it succeeded in getting here without much command-and-control instructions from an Ivy-league-educated director nominated by a search committee. Antifragility is not just the antidote to the Black Swan; understanding it makes us less intellectually fearful in accepting the role of these events as necessary for history, technology, knowledge, everything.

Robust is Not Robust Enough

Consider that Mother Nature is not just "safe". It is aggressive in destroying and replacing, in selecting and reshuffling. When it comes to random events, "robust" is certainly not good enough. In the long run everything with the most minute vulnerability breaks given the ruthlessness of time —yet our planet has been around for perhaps four billion years and, convincingly, robustness can’t just be it: you need perfect robustness for a crack not to end up crashing the system. Given the unattainability of perfect robustness — we need a mechanism by which the system regenerates itself continuously by using, rather than suffering from, random events, unpredictable shocks, stressors, and volatility.

The antifragile gains from prediction errors, in the long run. If you follow this idea to its conclusion, then many things that gain from randomness should be dominating the world today — and things that are hurt by it should be gone. Well, this turns out to be the case. We have the illusion that the world functions thanks to programmed design, university research, and bureaucratic funding, but there is compelling — very compelling — evidence to show that this is an illusion, the illusion I call lecturing birds how to fly. Technology is the result of antifragility, exploited by risk-takers in the form of tinkering and trial and error, with nerd-driven design confined to the backstage. Engineers and tinkerers develop things while history books are written by academics; we will have to refine historical interpretations of growth, innovation, and many such things….


Where Simple is More Sophisticated

A complex system, contrary to what people believe, does not require complicated systems and regulations and intricate policies. The simpler, the better. Complications lead to multiplicative chains of unanticipated effects. Because of opacity, an intervention leads to unforeseen consequences, followed by apologies about the “unforeseen” aspect of the consequences, then to another intervention to correct the secondary effects, leading to an explosive series of branching “unforeseen” responses, each one worse than the preceding one.

Yet simplicity has been difficult to implement in modern life because it is against the spirit of a certain brand of people who seek sophistication so they can justify their profession.

Less is more and usually more effective….


…[In summary], the fragile wants tranquility, the antifragile grows from disorder, and the robust doesn’t care too much. — Prologue to Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (Penguin Books, 2012)