Antifragile and Skills

Reading a recent issue of New Scientist, I came across an interview with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, mostly about his antifragile concept. In essence, Taleb believes that the opposite to fragile is not robust, but antifragile – something that gains from disorder. Nature builds things that are antifragile – things that go wrong help to make the system as a whole stronger, e.g. evolution is based on taking advantage of bad copies of DNA.

Taleb believes that to make any complex system antifragile, you need to avoid centralisation and foster risk takers who are willing to fail many times. If this sounds crazy, that is the way evolution got from a single cell to homo sapiens. It has echoes of Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” concept, but Taleb thinks that was driven by romance, and his concept is driven by science. Some fragilities are associated with size and volatility. As an example, if the UK were powered by one large super efficient electricity generating station, it only needs one failure to take out the whole of the UK’s electricity; if there were thousands of generators lots can be lost without any significant overall impact. The internet is a prime example of this. In the developed world there are many different routes between nodes, but a couple of years ago a ship cut the single cable that connected Western Asia and Europe – that caused major problems.

How does this relate to skills? Skills development is always seen as one of the drivers of economic sustainability. More and more, the skills sector is being controlled nationally, both through funding and accreditation. The correct decisions, as viewed from London, may not be relevant to Hull or to Fife. Even at local level, there is a belief that skills needs must be forecast so that provision can be put in place correctly, This takes years to achieve. We believe that a Taleb approach, with less emphasis on accreditation and process and more emphasis on reacting to today’s needs will make the skills sector less fragile (in this example less prone to be training people in the skills for yesterday’s economy). Undoubtedly, this approach will cause problems, but if Taleb is correct, we need stress and disaster to grow.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand, was published in November 2012.


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