Our long time readers know that Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the Patron Saint of Strong Towns Thinking. His book, the Black Swan, is an absolute must read and one that I continually recommend to people wanting to understand Strong Towns.
There is a lot of talk here and in other places about fragility. How fragile is our economy? How fragile are our cities? We delve into these questions often and, as a result, I'm frequently bombarded with people asking me for THE answer that will make our cities more resilient.
While I have many rational responses that I frequently share, I disappoint people by acknowledging that I don't have a "solution". It might be better for me career-wise or financially if I pretended that there was a magic solution and that I had it here but, alas, that's not me. I may have confidence, but I'm not Icarus.
That doesn't mean I don't spend a lot of time seeking THE solution, or at least a better approach than what I've developed so far. To that end, I spend a lot of time listening to Taleb. While he doesn't talk about cities, he talks about life and economics and health and many, many things that give great insight into an approach we can apply here. His latest is this concept of "antifragility".
I mentioned the word "resilient" earlier. When asked what the opposite of fragile is, we often answer with resilient or robust. But as Taleb points out, the opposite of a box labeled "fragile - handle with care" would not be a box with no label but one that said "please mishandle". That is antifragility - the opposite of fragile - the notion that stress can actually improve performance.
The easiest example to comprehend for me is the mythical Hydra. If you cut off one head, two would grow back. As it is exposed to stress, it responds by becoming stronger.
Right now our cities, towns and neighborhoods are fragile. Our economy has technically been out of recession for years, growing at a slow but study pace, yet our cities are imploding right and left. That's an extremely fragile reaction to what is truly a minimal amount of stress. People who understand what is going on are trying to change our approach to make our cities more resilient. But what if our goal was not resilience, but antifragility?
Is there a framework that our cities can adopt that would propel them to continually grow stronger over time? Can we get to a point where nearly all cities are stable (not in jeopardy of total failure) or are steadily improving? Is there an approach where local stresses -- be they financial, social or political -- will cause feedbacks that will improve the city as a whole?
To me, these are the consequential questions for our time of transition. They are also the reason why the Strong Towns movement is not just another fad of the planning profession. None of this is easy. Embrace that reality and you can help us figure out what to do. I certainly don't pretend to know.
To help you get there and help us, here's a recent lecture from Taleb where he talks extensively about this notion of antifragility.
And in case you have not already preordered it, his next book is Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. It is scheduled to be released on November 27. Make sure you get it. There will be a quiz.
If you would like more from Chuck Marohn, check out his new book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1).
You can also chat with Chuck and many others about implementing a Strong Towns approach in your community by joining the Strong Towns Network. The Strong Towns Network is a social platform for those working to make their community a strong town.