Ideas that add up #84

Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells us in a new book Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand, how beneficial it can be for individuals, institutions and systems to exercise a bit of variation and flexibility.

Is this not one of the main lessons from modern biology: that species have survived and evolved through a number of smaller units, called populations? These colonise biotopes with different conditions; and a species can thereby tolerate the destruction of one population with the survival of another. This insight, applied with intelligence and sensitivity, should certainly give us a general working model for how we arrange our lives.

Letter in FT, December 8th, 2012

Resilience, in an unpredictably changing environment, is achieved through the accidents of surplus and variation. That’s how mother nature does it.

In institutional systems, organic flexibility has to be either designed-in or tolerated as a corollary of diversity among regions or groups. When that doesn’t happen — when the pendulum of governance swings too far from laissez-faire to command-and-control — the resulting system is rigid and brittle.

Among individuals, variation is a given and flexibility is part of our birthright — we’re nature’s creatures. But we’re also drawn to social conformity, taking comfort in a sense of belonging and safety. We run with the systems, voluntarily nailing ourselves down to plans, property and possessions, and slotting into approved economic roles.

These certainties buy us security. But then again, at times of galloping change, these certainties may prove fragile…

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