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What happens when we shock a system?

Have you ever noticed that some things in the world like to be disrupted? Rogue militant groups set out to garner counter-attacks that distract their opponents while draining their resources. Viruses encourage multi-cellular organisms to activate their immune systems in attempts to wipe them out. Teenagers seek the disdain – and occasional wrath – of authority figures in their lives.

These seemingly counter intuitive behaviors are the centerpiece of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. They are the “teachable moments” that enable us to truly understand the driving dynamics of systems that undergo shock. Indeed, there are entire categories of systems that benefit from disruption.

As a first example, consider the wave of new startups that arise in the aftermath of economic collapse. The entrepreneurs who have long awaited the opportunity to step out from under the constraints of a prior paradigm are free to explore and create anew. We are seeing this all around us in the exploding field of social entrepreneurship today. Those companies whose legacy has been to rape and pillage, laying waste to vast ecosystems of the natural and social worlds, held the attention of financiers for decades. And now that many core institutions of the old world order – particularly the financial ones – have deteriorated to the point of ruin, those among us who strive to create business and have a moral conscience at the same time are able to step in and fill the void.

This is why we are now seeing a vast expansion of micro-finance, whose earliest business models were field tested more than thirty years ago, in the form of micro-credit lending companies like Kiva and crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. It is why the cooperative ownership models – the inspired “post-capitalist” solutions of the 60’s generation – are now rising at a meteoric rate in all forms of collaborative consumption that run the gambit from Airbnb to Zipcar.

Another class of examples can be found the evolutionary nature of living systems. Life, once spawned, is very difficult to eradicate. Consider the use of pesticides to poison an ant colony in your house. Early efforts may suggest that your “toxic avenger” tactic has won out. Until, that is, a toxin-resistant strain of cockroaches enters the scene and proves more capable of sticking around. This same dynamic is at play when antibiotics are over used and staph infections run wild across the recovery wing of a hospital. It is also the reason our bodies become stronger when we exercise. Strain added to the system increases its performance.

The very mechanism of biological evolution – adaptive fitness – can be thought of as the “toughening” of future progeny who outlasted those that were unable to make the cut. Our genetic ancestry is filled with organisms that rolled with the punches and found a way to reproduce in a wide variety of strained environments.

So what does it mean for a system to be unable to grow stronger in the midst of disruption? Taleb offers us a three-pronged framework, the Triad of Fragility, Robustness, and Antifragility.

Those systems that are unable to persevere in the face of harm are fragile. Think of the delicate nature of fine China in your kitchen cabinets as an earthquake bears down. Or consider a global economic system built on “efficiency” and “just-in-time” manufacturing – any disturbance that knocks it out of sync can cascade across the entire globe, as we saw with the mortgage crisis of 2008 and the unanticipated far-reaching impacts of an Icelandic volcano that shut down air traffic over Europe in 2010.

Robustness is the quality of a system that preserves its core functionality when a disturbance strikes. Disruptions roll by with nary a harm, but no benefits ensue either. Robust systems are like the Phoenix that rises up from its own ashes. They may be difficult to get rid of, but are not equipped to surprise us with something innovative or new. An example of a robust system is the established realm of expertise at the core of scientific inquiry. The fundamentals of energy transfer and chemical bonding are well established and unlikely to change. But they won’t resolve those pesky issues that reside on the periphery. Nor will they build unresolvable tensions that lead to new paradigms. F = ma is not going to unveil the secrets of Dark Matter in the universe.

And so we can learn to look for innovation in those systems whose performance improves when put under stress. These include the athlete who competes against better rivals to push her boundaries and increase her skill; the music scene that produces a controversial genre that draws attention and therefore builds its fan base; the city that tolerates the strange and perverse to aggregate talent and unleash new engines for economic development; and the radical social movements that raise their profile when scandals erupt around their unorthodox leaders.

Those of us who seek to cultivate social change in the world can learn from these antifragile systems. We can practice the art and science of stepping into the emerging niches of creative design — where failures help us grow and mistakes improve our ability to make an impact – and thus become antifragile systems ourselves.

This is what it means to be an entrepreneur who “changes the game” by living within different rules. It is what enables us to step out into those realms where supports don’t yet exist and still nurture new forms into being. And it is the approach known as rapid prototyping that enables us to fail early and often so that we quickly innovate toward successes beyond measure (because the metrics were forged to study past success and are inadequate for measuring outcomes in an unknowable future).

So I invite you to join me in the study of systemic response to strain, where fixed knowledge may be absent, but the core action of creativity is ever to be found. Only when we consider what happens when we shock a system will we know what its true nature is.

And this level of authentically in-the-world knowledge is essential for succeeding when the path we must blaze is untrodden and unknown. The great challenges of our age – from climate destabilization to scarcity of vital resources and chronic poverty – will all require antifragile systems to ride out the turbulence of global change surrounding us. So we must become students of real-world dynamic systems if we want to ride the wave and arrive safely upon a new shore.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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