04/08/2013 04:13 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2013

Anti-Fragile Design Thinking

Business traditionally sees certainty and control as desirable characteristics of any endeavor. Consequently, huge efforts are invested in reducing ambiguity, increasing predictability and staying in command of circumstances.

What if this inherent line of thinking is a fallacy and is actually detrimental to the sustainable progress of corporations? Could unpredictable, sporadic jolts of various magnitudes be needed to surprise and build the flexibility necessary to ensure an organization's long-term survival?

While no one can predict "Black Swans," such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, Apartheid in South Africa or the Arab Spring, these events arrive more frequently than we think and are more potent than we could imagine. How about sub prime mortgages, Napster and Gangnam Style? Maybe the inherent fragility of the "too big to fail" syndrome can be prevented by exposing organizations to continued inoculations -- as in "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Could design help vaccinate against rigidity?

What is the opposite of fragile? Most would say robust, however this perception has been dangerously misleading. Fragile is when an object is hypersensitive to random input, such as a delicate teacup where random input causes the object to shatter. Robust is when an object can withstand variation in input, only deteriorating when exposed to extensive long-term exposure, such as the sea eventually wearing away a rock.

The opposite of fragile is actually "anti-fragile," as introduced by Nassim Taleb in his book by the same name. To a certain point, anti-fragile objects increase in strength and grow when exposed to random variations in input. Taleb's trilogy, consisting of: Fragility, Robust and Anti-fragile, could provide a useful perspective for designing organizations as well as new products and services.

There are excellent examples of anti-fragile products already out there. Wikipedia grows in topics and enhances its usefulness and quality with each random contribution from multiple authors, though collective fact contribution and checking. Open source software is another example where a random collection of programmers contributes code, which is continuously improved and modified for overall performance.

Startups are, individually extremely fragile, however, as collective industry formations, they have historically proven surprisingly anti-fragile. Half of the companies on Forbes 500 were not on the list 15 years ago and only 170 companies have stayed among Forbes' 500 for more than 35 years. This meager record of a few large firms, sewing up large sums of capital in immense self-serving machines is, in itself, an exercise in fragility.

Nature itself knows the power of anti-fragility with each individual being unique and fragile yet our ecosystem has survived collisions with meteors. While unforeseen events such as these may not kill our ecosystem, they could very well eliminate us, if we were to remain inflexible to change.

Design could contribute greatly to discovering anti-fragile opportunities and creating matching solutions by being included in the process from the beginning. Imagine design engaging in open, crowd sourced opportunities and including multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary stakeholders who co-create meaningful human experiences through their design. What else is possible?