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Risk and reward

Words:
Eleanor Young

Embrace the knocks – they’ll make you stronger. It’s a compelling theory

Too many organisations practise risk avoidance, without taking advantage of the way that dealing with small risks strengthens an organism. Risk is planned for. But you can’t plan contingencies for all the crazy things – banking crisis, global warming, inter­national epidemics, volcanic ash cloud, molasses, flood – that could happen to your business or your project, however robust your risk register might appear. There are things that ‘gain from disorder’ – ‘antifragile’ in the thinking of risk philosopher and author of Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Jane Jacobs’ ideas of neighbourhood gain from disorder. Robert Moses’ urban renewal one-liners are contrastingly fragile

Analysis

So why are modest-sized shocks a good thing? Shocks, knocks or stressors are all information; reacting to them means you are learning. So a practice used to stress might be one doing a school project here and an office ­refurb there, used to switching and getting to know sectors and clients. The opposite is a firm subsumed by designing large hospitals which, when a government programme is suddenly shut down, struggles to turn staff into entrepreneurs to find work elsewhere.

So the popular refrain of problems being ‘character building’ could hold more than a grain of truth. In urbanism the thinking that gains from disorder is that of Jane Jacobs on the importance of neighbourhood, set against the fragile one-liners of New York’s Robert Moses on urban renewal and Le Corbusier’s tabula rasa. There might be lessons for government too. Taleb gives the example of Switzerland, which by encouraging arguments and occasional bloodletting at local Canton level stops these issues being  contested at state level. Try applying the same thought process to neighbourhood planning where, in theory, many local debates might defuse the national hot potato of planning mass housebuilding.

Options

To make the best of disorder, maybe even to become one of the antifragile, the prescription is ‘Less is more and usually more effective’, writes Taleb paraphrasing Mies. It’s a personal philosophy that is relaxed about how to live in a world we don’t understand – in which we are not afraid to work with things that we ­patently don’t comprehend. 

Read the original: AntiFragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Penguin, £8.99


MORE RISKY READING

Risk: an Introduction: the concepts of risk, danger and chance, Bernardus Ale, Routledge, £19.99

Managing Project Risk: Best Practices for Architects and Related Professionals James B Atkins and Grant A Simpson, Wiley, £50


 

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