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Antifragility in Troubled Times

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

Simulation Technology for Ecosystem Wellness through Antifragile Resource Deployment (STEWARD) blog series - part 3 of 7 (part 1)

In the first instalment of this blog series, I discussed how the West is shaping up for a second Cold War, this time against China as well as Russia, and how the winning weapon in this could be an enlightened form of capitalism, adoptable by any community, with the ability to deliver broad-based wellness.

In the second instalment, I discussed how the target of this weapon is an ancient enemy - inequality, which has brought down almost every society for 6000 years. I also argued that the tactics for employing this strategy will be different for every community, so we need a new form of simulation game.

The aim of the simulation game is to help communities become antifragile. But what does this mean, exactly?

People often ask how antifragility differs from resilience. An example would be how a community responds to the raised water levels caused by climate change. A resilient community builds stronger, higher flood defences. An antifragile community builds a canal and deploys low-cost underwater turbines. Resilience is defensive. Antifragility is opportunistic.

Antifragility is a neologism developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, to describe a form of complex, adaptive system that increases its capability to thrive in the presence of "stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures". Taleb's original application of the idea was financial, as a "barbell" strategy for investment. This is to place 85-90% of your portfolio in cash or its equivalent and the rest as hundreds of small speculative bets. The strategy delivers nothing much, most of the time, but pays off handsomely during a financial crisis. Taleb became financially independent in 1987 and profited from both the crashes of the noughties. He was lucky to start his career in the 1980s - had he been born thirty years earlier, his investments might not have paid off, and his ideas might not have drawn so much attention.

Thinking about antifragility from a community perspective, the key stressor is inequality, which weakens a community's ability to respond to others such as changes to climate and threats to freedom. The latter typically come dressed in sheep's clothing - for example, surveillance capitalism as free social media tools and neo-imperialism as infrastructure loans. However, traditional threats are still very much around, as we are reminded by current military posturing in the South China Sea.

Arguably, some communities need to think first about these old-fashioned challenges, since they are existential. Here as elsewhere, technology is a disruptor, and while it introduces new concerns, it can also level the playing field. China is leading the way in in EMP weaponry, but new forms of renewable, distributed energy provision can reduce a community's vulnerability. Russia is active in cyber-attack, but this can be a trigger for improving digital literacy at grass roots. For example, simply keeping software up-to-date is a main line of defence, and the need for it may be an employment opportunity for people who are currently disadvantaged. Communities concerned about physical borders can think about how drones have been getting cheaper, smaller, and smarter for a decade and sensors are now becoming more advanced. Deployed at coasts and rivers, such devices could be used to make fishing not only more sustainable but also more profitable.

There are also risks, especially from sharing our world with ever larger numbers of semi-intelligent devices. We need to understand and assure their behaviour, which may mean teaching them to be more human. This too can be an antifragile outcome. The success of statistical methods in recent years has led AI into what mathematicians call a local optimum. Knowledge graphs have enabled your smartphone to predict the next word you intend to type, often even helping you to write more clearly, but your phone still won't pass the Turing Test. To teach your phone that time flies like an arrow but fruit flies like a banana, we may need to backtrack, revive old techniques, and supplement them with new thinking.

It's interesting to think how focusing on longstanding forms of threat can unlock ways of dealing with very modern challenges. In the next instalment of this blog series, I'll discuss another ancient concern critical to the deployment of enlightened economic strategy. Communities come in all sizes, from a few houses in a hamlet or members in an online community of interest to millions of people who live on the same landmass. In these newly troubled times, how should we be re-thinking the notion of a nation?

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