Tag Archives: Nasem Taleb

Chief Resiliency Officers Versus Antifragility

At The Atlantic CitiesEmily Badger writes about a new program from the Rockefeller Foundation called 100 Resilient Cities, focused on equipping cities with a new employee called a Chief Resiliency Officer. The program states its goals as follows:

Building resilience is about making people, communities and systems better prepared to withstand catastrophic events – both natural and manmade – and able to bounce back more quickly and emerge stronger from these shocks and stresses.

[. . .]

There are some core characteristics that all resilient systems share and demonstrate, both in good times and in times of stress:

  • Spare capacity, which ensures that there is a back-up or alternative available when a vital component of a system fails.
  • Flexibility, the ability to change, evolve, and adapt in the face of disaster.
  • Limited or “safe” failure, which prevents failures from rippling across systems.
  • Rapid rebound, the capacity to re-establish function and avoid long-term disruptions.
  • Constant learning, with robust feedback loops that sense and allow new solutions as conditions change.

In his book Antifragile: Things that Gain from DisorderNassim Taleb defines antifragile as something that not only recovers from shocks, but becomes stronger after recovery, in line with the stated objectives of 100 Resilient Cities. Following its Great Fire of 1871, Chicago demonstrated antifragility. It rebounded rapidly from a disaster that killed 300 people and left one-third of city residents homeless, many without insurance after the fire bankrupted local insurers or the blaze destroyed their paperwork. Despite this great loss, residents of Chicago quickly rebuilt their city using private funding and private charity that was small relative to the amount of damage, but without any government funding. In rebuilding, Chicago developed safer building techniques both through entrepreneurship and with new insurance requirements and  new municipal building codes. The city invested in a better-equipped fire fighting force to lower the risk of fire damage in the future. Despite not having the telecommunications that seem critical to allowing fast disaster recovery today, Chicagoans began building new, safer buildings immediately, investing $50 million in the year after the fire, and tripling the real estate value of the burned blocks within 10 years. Its difficult to imagine a twenty-first century city allowing property owners to move so quickly through the approval process, and its difficult to imagine a Chief Resiliency Officer widening this bottleneck.

A bureaucrat like a Chief Resiliency Officer would not be able to learn the lessons from a natural disaster that the residents of Chicago did in their rebuilding efforts because this knowledge is dispersed, only to be discovered by individuals acting in what they believe to be their own best interest. Taleb describes bureaucrats as fragilistas because they do not suffer from downside risks and therefore cannot learn and grow stronger from shocks. If a disaster strikes a city equipped with a Chief Resiliency Officer and it turns out the city was ill-prepared, he or she will not be held accountable for failing to predict what may have been a very low-probability event. In fact, we often see government efforts toward making cities more resilient introducing fragility contrary to their stated intentions. For example, federal flood insurance minimizes the downside risk of owning flood-prone property. In turn, this encourages more people to live in the highest risk areas, putting them at greater risk when disaster strikes. Cities will not have an opportunity to learn from this to better prepare for future flooding because their rebuilding is subsidized; however, bureaucrats cite this insurance as a success because it facilitates rebuilding without adapting to risk.

The Transportation Security Administration offers a preview of what bureaucratic disaster prevention looks like; top down planning for low-probability events results in attempts to prevent the catastrophic events that we’ve seen in the past without realizing that we’re unlikely to see these same events in the future. As TSA critic Bruce Schneier explains:

Taking off your shoes is next to useless. “It’s like saying, ‘Last time the terrorists wore red shirts, so now we’re going to ban red shirts,’” Schneier says. If the T.S.A. focuses on shoes, terrorists will put their explosives elsewhere. “Focusing on specific threats like shoe bombs or snow-globe bombs simply induces the bad guys to do something else. You end up spending a lot on the screening and you haven’t reduced the total threat.”

Likewise, preparing for low-probability natural disasters, such as 100-year storms, is not something that can be done from the top down. To the extent an event is foreseeable, some individuals and firms will prepare for it, as we saw with Goldman Sachs’ generator and sand bagging efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The disaster revealed successful preparation methods, allowing more individuals and the city as a whole to learn and be better prepared for the next disaster. Chief Resiliency Officers are unlikely to accurately foresee low-probability shocks to their cities. To the extent that they protect cities from these shocks, they will likely take away the learning process that would make cities better able to withstand larger shocks, introducing fragility instead of greater resiliency.