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I’ve been thinking on Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s proposition of “antifragility” a ton lately, and how it applies to design and the design professions.

If you haven’t seen/read any of Taleb’s work, prepare to open your minds wide and really think about logic, perception, and high-level logic. It’s definitely worth the time.

As a short defintion, antifragility is (surprisingly) the opposite of fragility. Robust is not the opposite of fragility. Something fragile is weakened by unforeseen circumstances, e.g. an earthquake. A robust thing could probably withstand the earthquake, or be less damaged by it. A true exhibit of antifragility is a thing that is made stronger by the earthquake – that thrives on chaos and uncertainty.

We could say that designed objects (buildings, landscapes, highways, etc) are somewhere between fragile and robust, depending on their execution. Can they be antifragile?

One could argue that untouched wilderness (see The Fallacy of “Nature”) is antifragile, but over a long period of time. Disruption causes evolution; necessity is the mother of invention.

Designed landscapes and buildings lack this quality because they are monocultural. We use the same repetition of materials for every building and every landscape (getting into the notion of “nice” versus “good”, but that will be a separate post). Stone, concrete, steel, glass. Lindheimer Muhly, Rosemary, Lantana, Loripetalum, flagstone, decomposed granite, mulch. Next.

Architecture would be more difficult, but landscape architecture has an easier path to antifragility because it is an inherently four-dimensional process. We can use seed and plant mixes of species that respond to different climatic conditions. Drought = no problem, a buffalo/blue grama mix will come up and the water-thirsty specimens will wait until there’s adequate rain. A shift in maintenance (because the crew were federal employees) only means that the grasses will grow to their optimal height, produce beautiful seedheads, and come in thicker next year.

We must find ways to make our designs (and this includes planners) antifragile. But, we must also make our practices (you remember, that way you earn money) more so.

Diversify your project load, as practically as you can. If one sector is extremely lucrative for the moment, dedicate time to it and pile away some cash, but don’t forget the other sectors, at least in a relationship sense. You don’t need the massive office in the Class A downtown building. Or the Tesla, unless you pay cash. Think about what can go wrong, and make sure that if it does, you will still be OK.

These are probably far-off things for a lot of people to think about, and I’m in the same boat. Trying to build a practice with no clients, no network, and no money is not an easy thing to do. But, if in doing so, you can find ways to make your designs (product) and your business (yourself) more antifragile, you’ll be far better off in the long run. At the very worst, you’ll be right back where you are, except you’ll have been there before.

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