June 3, 2020
BEAM: In recent years there seems to have been an endless stream of global events that have tested collective resilience. How does the concept of antifragility help you comprehend and analyse these events?
The way we've tended to think about our systems to this point has been all about “robustness”. But if something is robust, then there will be a limit to its strength, and we are just waiting for something stronger to wipe it out.
Antifragility gives us a framework to look at organizations and our cities as if they're living organisms. Living organisms are not just robust, they are antifragile, because they actually grow in strength by being stressed, just as when we exercise, we get stronger.
So I think the antifragility concept is a pretty good way of thinking about how we make growing in strength an absolutely fundamental part of our infrastructure; an approach that ensures that every time we experience a stress, we're going to learn, we're going to grow, we're going to get stronger.
BEAM: You talk in your work about the potential of disruptive events to expose fragility and, potentially, to create whole new systems designed to be antifragile. Do you think COVID-19 is one of those moments for cities in particular?
I think COVID-19 is certainly one of those moments for cities. The question is not if it’s a disruptive event - or at least a disruptive sequence - but is it one that we could have recognized was coming? I think the answer to that has to be, to a fair extent, yes.
There's been a lot of discussion about whether COVID-19 was a“black swan” - an unpredictable, very unlikely high impact event - or a “white swan”, a very likely high impact event. Some people even talk about it as a “grey rhino”.
Now, you can imagine a rhino charging towards you. It's very obvious, very big, and it's going to do a lot of damage, but despite that, most of the time we ignore these kind of threats. So I think COVID-19 was one of those things that was always going to happen in some way or another. In fact, one of the covers of Time Magazine back in 2017 declared that we weren’t ready for the next pandemic, and that has certainly proved to be the case. And in terms of cities, I think it's one of those defining moments when we need to think again about the infrastructure of our cities from the point of view of the increasing turbulence we're seeing in the world, and the likelihood of more and more of these disruptive events occurring.
BEAM: Cities are inherently hyper-connected. So what can be done to increase antifragility within cities, and which players in a city's community of stakeholders could and should lead these efforts?
I don't want to imply that connectivity is bad. It's very important and very good that cities do have at least some kind of level of interconnectivity because that's what makes a city like a living organism; it’s the life, the soul, and the future of the city. Its ability to regenerate itself, and to adjust to change, comes from the very hyper connectivity that resides within the infrastructure of the city, both hard and soft.
I make the distinction between hard and soft because cities are to some extent hardwired because of fixed infrastructure; we've laid down the transport network, the roads and the buildings. This is the “hard skeleton”of the city, and will always take longer to change. So it’s likely that what we need to do in the first instance is prioritise change of the soft elements, which we can change faster and more easily.
Looking at the history of cities it is quite interesting how, when disruptive transportation systems developed, cities adjusted to those impacts. Good examples are the motor car and the railways, both of which caused massive disruption when they first appeared because the cities themselves were not ready for them. The roads couldn't cope with all the vehicles, and we had instant traffic jams and gridlock. Similarly, with the railways, the appearance of terminals in cities again created congestion and gave rise to “living the wrong side of the track”, where areas close to the railway terminus became less desirable almost overnight, social deprivation became the norm, and we still have the legacy of it today in many of our cities. In these scenarios our cities were not agile antifragile living organisms, They were too rigid. The hard systems were more dominant and cities couldn't respond fast enough.
These transport innovations made our cities more vibrant, more energetic, but also brought costs of dislocation, disruption, and deprivation; we created in our cities not just benefits, but problems as well.
So, the question is, when change takes place, is the infrastructure capable of adjusting to change? And it's quite interesting to see now, that the way our cities have been developed, they're not particularly good for the changes COVID-19 demands - for amongst other reasons, they're not particularly suited to social distancing.
Cities were never developed with social distancing in mind and it shows on our pavements and it shows on our cycle paths.
Longer term, I believe one of the outcomes of this pandemic has to be that our city planners pay a lot more attention to the need for that sort of flexibility and safety in the way they create public spaces.
BEAM: In his work, Nicholas Taleb talks of the “modern model of planning and design” being fundamentally broken, and worse, demonstrably incapable of learning from its mistakes. What models do you think cities and their stakeholders should use instead of the one they currently rely on?
It's a lovely quote because it completely highlights the concept of antifragility: the idea of a system built for an assumed purpose, but the environment (external and internal) changes and results in that system breaking.
I believe that is exactly what is happening with our cities. There's a number of levels at which this is obviously true. Firstly vehicles usage; we have such a large proportion of empty seats in vehicles. The congestion in our cities is actually much bigger than it needs to be, simply because of empty seats, and consequently we have many more vehicles on the roads than are necessary.
Of course, we developed public bus systems in order to try and compensate for that. But they're not that convenient, because they have to be rigid. They have to have pre-determined routes on which they run, and operate on fixed timetables that give citizens a sense of reliability and reassurance.
The ultimate development in mobility is the micromobility form, because these transportation types provide for us the ability to get from A to B in a vehicle that can take a single person efficiently and effectively.
They have the ability to adapt their route for any local hazards or disruptions as and when they occur. We can put paths for micro vehicles in places where we can't put roads, and that creates all kinds of opportunities to reduce the bottlenecks in our transport system.
This flexibility and autonomy also helps to democratize transport within the city, which has never been a particular aspect of our transportation systems since the birth of cities.
Moving from rigidity to flexibility is one of the antifragile principles that I believe we need to think about, and encouraging an increasing volume of trips onto smaller units such as bikes and e-scooters would be a particularly sensible way of building flexibility into our transport infrastructure.
BEAM: There's a growing body of evidence that suggests public transport may have been an accelerator of COVID infection rates. How did different transport modes fare in their fragility rating?
Well, there's short term fragility and long term fragility. The infection rate issue is an immediate concern, of course. Tragically,bus drivers are not doing very well in their survival rates compared to other key workers, at least in the UK, and the figures bear out a similar pattern in most other countries
Bringing people together on a single vehicle, whether it's a train or a bus or even a motor vehicle where people are sharing rides, is exposing people to unnecessary risk, whereas keeping them apart is obviously beneficial. So in that sense, the ability of the transport system to resist the fragility of a pandemic depends on the ability to keep people separate; the smaller the transportation unit, the better. And of course, because we want to avoid unnecessary lockdowns of life and the economy, the more of those smaller transportation units we can then get on to roads and other paths the better.
Beyond that, we should be thinking about transportation networks which will, in fact, withstand the threats that are “known unknowns”.
Today. we've got rigid systems based on defined tracks and on restricted routes, but the smaller the unit size of a transportation unit, the greater the likelihood that we create a level of diversity that, in the face of the next crisis, will allow immediate regrouping and restructuring. That will give citizens the ability to cope by taking different routes, different paths, different vehicles and different ways of using transport.
So, in order for transport to be antifragile, smaller units are a prerequisite; cities need to embrace micromobility technology, and the development of infrastructure to support those vehicles.
BEAM: Lastly, let's talk about the category of micromobility itself. You talk in your work about antifragility as a way of analysing how businesses and industries evolve, and the power of disruptive technologies to reduce rigidity and fragility for users(cloud computing being a good example) whilst increasing fragility for legacy models. How do you see the transportation category developing over the coming decades? And how do you think it will redistribute fragility in the category?
Really good question. So the difference between micromobility and the cloud computing analogy is that cloud computing represented a centralization; a bringing together into one place and the creation of a bigger unit. So whilst local fragility was reduced by this - because your files are not at risk locally - if the centralised system does go down we potentially lose everything everywhere simultaneously. And if we have a security risk, it's a bigger security risk than we had before.
I think the difference with micromobility is that it moves us from larger units and centralized systems to smaller units and local decision making. And that in turn creates anti-fragility because they make us better able to circumvent obstacles which appear on the network using fast, real-time information collected and collated by modern communications systems,and applied through applications operated at the level of the individual citizen.
Smaller units fits very well with a lot of the antifragile principles. The basis of antifragility in natural systems fits with Darwinian ideas of the survival of the fittest; if we've got diversity and small units, some of the units will survive in unexpected disruptive environmental disturbances. But if we have identical units everywhere, they won't survive.
That’s why diversity should be deliberately introduced into any system to enhance the chances of survival in the event of new threats.
Of course, there will be teething problems. Every time we've introduced new technologies, we have teething problems. Just as the road system wasn't ready for the motorcar and the railways created slums immediately around the termini, micromobility will bring its own challenges. Perhaps there have been a number of accidents that shouldn’t have happened, but that may be less about micromobility itself, than the infrastructure in the city not being ready for it or the necessarily insurance and safeguards being in place for the early generation of micromobility,
As the category grows up and matures, I hope we’ll see the development of the infrastructure to support the development of micromobility within our cities, as well as within the wider transportation network. That will play a major part in making our cities more antifragile in the face of whatever currently unseen and unknown threat will emerge next.
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