Becoming Antifragile Through Failure

This week, we've invited Strong Towns members to respond to a series of questions on Nassim Taleb's book, AntifragileYou should really read the book (it's a big inspiration for Strong Towns thinking), but if you haven't, you'll still find it easy to jump in on these topics and conversations, based on the first four chapters of Antifragile.

The following response is Grant Henninger's answer to this question: 

How does affluence stifle innovation? Are we actually better off with less resources? Is scarcity an outcome we should be hoping for, despite that difficulties?

How do you innovate? First, try to get in trouble. I mean serious, but not terminal, trouble.
— Nassim Taleb

Many communities are in serious trouble and are faced with either changing the way they have developed and do business, or encountering terminal failure. However, cities that are not currently in trouble are able to continue developing in their traditional fashion, even if it will lead to eventual decline. In some sense, failing cities have an advantage over today's successful cities when it comes to future prosperity, if they are willing to recognize it.

For failing cities, the question becomes: Is it better to prop up the failing patterns of development as long as possible, or to respond to the existing feedback by abandoning business as usual and trying something new? The challenge, as always, is political. Is it possible to overcome momentum and the interests of those that benefit from the current system (at the expense of everyone else)? The closer towards failure a city find itself, the easier that political debate is to win. Failing cities like Lancaster, CA can acknowledge that their current patterns of development are unsustainable and choose to do something different (hopefully using a Strong Towns approach). Cities that are simply suffering from a slow decline, but are able to maintain the illusion of solvency (by robbing Peter to pay Paul, mostly), may not find it as easy to acknowledge their impending failure.

Of course, solvent cities can also choose to abandon their unsustainable development patterns, but it is much more difficult to win the political argument that it must be done. For example, cities with sufficient housing demand can subsidize the maintenance and repair of older infrastructure on the backs of newer homeowners. Such a system displaces the problem (i.e. it causes higher home prices) while hiding its true cause.

A system that overcompensates is necessarily in overshooting mode, building extra capacity and strength in anticipation of a worse outcome and in response to information about the possibility of a hazard.
— Nassim Taleb, Antifragile

A failing city that recognizes its failures can often overcompensate and become much more successful than the cities that aren't currently failing. Failure is an opportunity for a city to diversify its methods of success, providing redundancy in the event that one or more methods fail in the future.

In this way, today's failing cities can become much more successful and antifragile, even more so than today's successful cities. Because they have a need to change, failing cities can reposition themselves to better prepare for an uncertain future. These communities that are down on their luck can use their present circumstances to catapult themselves to success by acknowledging the need to change, and marshalling the political willpower to make that change a reality.  

Failing cities do not have an inherent advantage over successful cities when it comes to addressing failures and becoming solvent. Any city can look at its own situation and decide to make changes where necessary. The difference is that failing cities are forced to be introspective and it is much easier to convince people to make the necessary changes when the status quo is clearly not working.

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About the Author

Grant Henninger is a life-long resident of Anaheim, CA. He is currently serving on the Anaheim Planning Commission and previously served as Chair of the Anaheim Community Services Board. Grant is committed to making Anaheim a lovable place, and not just home to the Happiest Place on Earth. Grant is also very active on Strong Towns' discussion forum, Slack, so if you want to get to know him, that's a great place to start.