Antifragile Urbanism, Skin in the Game, and Building What Works

Michael Mehaffy

One of the most important movements to emerge from the late 20th century was New Urbanism, a critique of autocentric suburbanism and architectural modernism that argued for human-scaled development patterns. The most important philosopher to emerge in the early 21st century is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “The Black Swan,” “Antifragile,” and “Skin in the Game,” among others. I have drawn from the ideas of both for this blog. Now, I’m delighted to see a short, readable essay that synthesizes the two.

In an article published in Public Square, “Beyond resilience: Toward ‘antifragile’ urbanism,” Michael Mehaffy applies Taleb’s concept of antifragility to the building of better places. If you’re looking for detailed policy proposals, this essay is not for you. If you’re looking for more fruitful ways of looking at policy proposals, then you will be  rewarded.

“Black Swans” are catastrophic events such as the sub-prime mortgage crisis or the Fukushima nuclear disaster that are unpredictable as specific occurrences but are predictable as rare-but-known phenomena. “Resilience” is the term popularly used to describe structures built to survive Black Swan events. Taleb uses the term “antifragile” — as in the opposite of fragile — to describe structures that not only survive but benefit from Black Swans.

Mehaffy, an urban designer based in Stockholm, Sweden, picks up from there:

Key to this antifragility is the ability to fail in small doses, and to use that failure to “gain from disorder” over time—paradoxically producing a greater order. Muscles get very small tears and strains, resulting in strengthening; a few cells get infections and die, but not before sending out markers that identify the invaders to many other cells. So keeping things “small enough to fail” (as opposed to “too big to fail”) is key. So is the ability to transmit lessons from these small failures, so that the structure can develop new strengths.

But getting “too big to fail” is precisely what’s going on in too many places today. The 2008 financial crisis, and its “too big to fail” banks, was a case in point. Modernity, Taleb says, is dominated by a culture of specialists who are rewarded for excessive intervention, and for predictions that are routinely inaccurate. The big reward for them is not in creating antifragility or even resilience, but stability—or rather, the temporary appearance of stability. Then, when disaster strikes, these specialists, who have very little “skin in the game,” pay a very small price, if any.

The result of this dynamic is that there is very little learning within the system, and we go right back to making structures that are more unstable over time. In evolutionary terms, we are not advancing into greater resilience, but lesser resilience.

Thus, instead of creating a world in which the most destructive Black Swans are more survivable, all the emphasis is on preventing such Black Swans, and creating an unsustainable state of normality. The inevitable result is that these Black Swans come anyway—with ever more catastrophic results.

We see this “too big to fail” and “too big to learn” phenomenon in system after system. We see it in central bank policies around the world. Central bankers are so terrified by the prospect of a recession that they continually pump more credit into financial systems, guaranteeing a bigger and more catastrophic crash down the road. We see it in California’s fire-fighting policies that suppress small wildfires but build up fuel for catastrophic wild fires. We see it in top-down social engineering policies and in special interest-driven land use policies.

Taleb, and by extension Mehaffy, are especially wary of “experts” and “planners” who have no “skin in the game,” that is, who suffer no downside when they fail. As Mehaffy puts it in the context of urban planning:

I would … consider traditional cities and buildings as embodiments of “ecological resilience”—or of antifragility—with a remarkable complexity and durability. By comparison, our large-scale engineered and artistically packaged buildings are remarkably fragile, and in effect “throwaway” structures. Yet we have the hubris to suppose that these stripped-down bits of packaged engineering are somehow more “modern” than the more complex, more fine-grained, more beautiful and more sustainable buildings—the ones that have in fact sustained—to which we fragilistas are encouraged to turn up our noses.

Taleb points out, as Jane Jacobs did throughout her career, that our “modern” model of planning and design is fundamentally broken, and worse, demonstrably incapable of learning from its mistakes. We try to “plan” in a rational, linear, predictive sense, and the inevitable result is spectacular failure. Indeed, most of what passes for such planning today is pseudo-science, bureaucratic turf-building, and fragile clutter. The result is that it makes our entire civilization more fragile.

What we can do, Taleb says, is to learn from nature, and develop structures and processes that can evolve and get smarter. Intelligence is not just in the individual, or in the individual’s planning or design, but in the overall evolutionary processes that we adopt. (And in the historic patterns that they embody.) That’s why real-world experience is much more valuable than theory: it can evolve, whereas theory is mostly a static rational process of deduction, translated into rigid enforcement of policies. It is fragile, and it breaks too often. When it does break, there is very little learning, and the system often goes back to the same prone-to-fail modes. When it doesn’t break, it only forestalls an even larger kind of collapse. This is where humanity is headed, he thinks, if we don’t adopt major systemic reforms.

This line of thinking is similar to that articulated by Chuck Marohn, founder of the Strong Towns movement (whom I have also highlighted in Bacon’s Rebellion). Marohn also espouses a doctrine of making many small, low-risk experiments, seeing what works, and building on what works. Strong towns are learning towns.

Few of our state or local governmental systems in Virginia are learning systems. They are dominated by ideologues and so-called experts with no skin in the game — people who suffer no repercussions from their failed prescriptions, who pass on the cost of their failures to the public, and who are insulated from the evolutionary process that weeds out failures. Virginia is an increasingly “fragile” state, increasingly vulnerable to catastrophes both natural and man-made. I’ll have more to say about that in the near future.

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8 responses to “Antifragile Urbanism, Skin in the Game, and Building What Works

  1. As an aside, environmentalists should appreciate Taleb’s logic in at least one regard: climate change. While it is possible to argue back and forth on the validity of climate model predictions, he asks, “What would be the correct policy if we had no reliable models?”

    We have only one planet. If we totally screw it up, there’s no going back. “This fact radically constrains the kinds of risks that are appropriate to take at a large scale. Even a risk with a very low probability becomes unacceptable when it affects all of us — there is no reversing mistakes of that magnitude.”


    This is a variant of the precautionary principle, and I find it hard to argue with… in the abstract.

    I would love to see Taleb analyze the risks and tradeoffs of renewable energy and the stability of the electric grid.

    • I’d suggest that anti-fragile theory demands that we deploy all known solutions that delete and/or dilute threat, including that we mix and sequence those solutions in ways the compound chances and speed of our success, especially if failure be not an acceptable option. Hence, renewable, nuke and gas solutions must work in tandem, especially since renewable generation cannot work without the other two.

    • I’d suggest that anti-fragile theory demands that we deploy all known solutions that delete and/or dilute threat, including that we mix and sequence those solutions in ways the compound chances and speed of our success, especially if failure be not an acceptable option. Hence, renewable, nuke and gas solutions in tandem are demanded, especially since renewable generation cannot work without the other two, and without deployment of nuke, a new three some is required, including coal now too, and history slows this will only increase greenhouse gas. Contrast today’s France with Germany now as proof of that.

  2. These guys – Taleb, Mehaffy, Marohn, and of course Jane Jacobs – are very smart people. They’ve been proven right time and again.

    We have two shining examples of the good and the ugly they describe right here in Northern Virginia –

    The Ballston Rosslyn corridor as it was rebuilt for today up from the bones of what went before many yesterdays past, an example, of “What we can do, Taleb says, is to learn from nature, and develop structures and processes that can evolve and get smarter.”

    As opposed to much of Fairfax County today relatively newly built but obsolete already, so what needs to be rebuilt on a framework “learned from nature, and developed on structures and processes that can evolve and get smarter.” Just as Arlington’s new downtown did, but for Fairfax now on a far vaster scale, including region wide now.

  3. A very good article outlining some principles for planning and designing for greater resilience. It needs to be about much more than built environment structures though, and it needs to be for “all hazards” natural and man made as part of a local/regional/state/national Preparedness agenda, along with “people systems” – what happens to the human beings.

    Global Climate Change is no longer about “Black Swans” it is happening now and many think it is beginning to move towards “run away” accelerating self reinforcing feed back loops. Designing in nature has a method – Permaculture and Systems thinking principles.

    Virginia has a group looking at building greater resilience – “Resilient Virginia” and they have a summer conference. We still argue from a public policy about mitigation strategies for Global Climate Change – it is nearly too late for that, public policy needs to be about Adaptation to what is happening and what is coming – building greater resilience. If you think it is too late (like the patient that is given a terminal illness diagnosis) then you provide palliative care and hospice – or “Deep Adaptation”, what’s needed for society at large in resilient systems. The Transition Towns movement is locally based and there are a few in Virginia.

  4. These are fascinating ideas, ones which are new to me. I look forward to your discussion of Virginia becoming a fragile state.

    In the meantime, I take note of your continued criticism of planning. What is the alternative–no planning? I don’t think you would advocate that. So, where is the balance between too much “fragile” planning and not enough planning”?

    At the beginning of this post, you warned us about not getting any detailed policy proposals. Fair enough, but, at some point, we will need some details and I would like examples. One good local example of the success of the evolutionary process would be Carytown.

    I do take issue with how you frame a couple of examples of “fragile” policies. It is not altogether the fault of central bankers. In this country, at least, it is the politicians who seem to be advocating the pumping of more money into the economy. And, we tried to move away from having “too big to fail” financial institutions by restricting some of their activities with the Volcker rule and other measures. But, the institutions, to some extent, have managed to get relaxation of some of the restrictions and there is continued pressure to repeal the Volcker rule. As for California’s wildfire policies, it is true that, as a society, we have been too enamored with Smokey the Bear and have adopted an approach that actively discouraged any forest fire. Now, we are beginning to recognize what naturalists have been saying for a long time: fire is an integral part of the natural cycle and the health of a forest. But, people like to build close to, and in, forests and get upset when the government does not put out forest fires that threaten their property. And, you can’t blame California solely. Most of the recent spate of fires in California was on government land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

    • Where is the balance between too much “fragile” planning and not enough planning”?

      That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? We need to find the right balance. The problem isn’t the planning so much as the zoning codes and comprehensive plans in which the planning is embedded. I propose to you the following: (1) Zoning codes, comprehensive plans and the bureaucracies that enforce cannot possibly be as responsive to changing trends and market conditions as the marketplace, codes, plans, and bureaucrats cannot possibly be as innovative as developers, home builders and private property owners.

      • Our zoning laws lock our land into a straight jackets. Our land is locked into obsolete and dying uses because we have not the means to escape these man-made straight jackets. These are called property rights. Property rights are tough to solve right.

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