Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How to be Smarter than Turkeys about Community Resilience

I first learned of Nassim Nicholas Taleb from non-urbanist circles.  His philosophy about the course of human history, and its lack of predictability, intrigued me, so I began reading “The Black Swan”, the book and concept for which Taleb is most renowned.

It was only after I was well into the book that I realized that our friends at StrongTowns had listed “The Black Swan” among their suggested reading materials.  The connection perplexed me at first, but the connection that StrongTowns had seen became clearer as I progressed in my reading.

Taleb argues that human affairs are far more random than we understand and that the unpredictability includes completely unexpected events, his “black swans”, that change the course of history.

The black swan reference is to a type of swan found in Australia.  He notes that Englishmen, being familiar only with the white swans of England, considered whiteness an essential component of being a swan.  If asked to estimate the odds of a swan being black, an Englishman, up until the settling of Australia, would have justifiably found the question ridiculous and answered that there was no chance of a black swan.

And then they arrived in Australia where black swans abound.

Taleb similarly argues that much of the course of human history is the result of events that were completely unforeseen and unimagined.  Among recent examples, he notes the development of birth control, the explosion of the AIDS virus, and the events of 9/11.

Nor are our personal histories any more predictable, with few of us having met our spouses as we might have planned or had our careers progress as we might have outlined.

The problem is that we rebel against the thought that we’re not in control of our lives, but instead are bottles tossed about the surface of the ocean by waves approaching from all directions.

Taleb tells the story of talking with local media while promoting his book and being asked to predict the black swans that were likely to occur in the near future.  It was a question that showed a fundamental misunderstanding of his theory.

In our personal lives, our best response to the sea of uncertainty is personal resilience: a good education, cash in the bank, a strong network of personal and professional acquaintances, the emotional maturity to deal with change.

And that’s where we connect back to urbanism.  The land-use equivalent of a resilient individual is a city or town with systems that can quickly react to changed conditions and can be readily restored if knocked off-line.

Think back to Hurricane Sandy and New York City.  On the night of the storm, the most dramatic photos were of flooding and widespread utility failures in Manhattan.  But a month later, the parking basements had been pumped out, the mud-covered walls washed, the failed transformers replaced, and city life restored.  But more than two years later, we still see photos of far-flung suburbs where cleanup is still pending.

If Taleb is correct about his “black swans”, and there is much reason to think that he is, then urbanism is the best response.

(Some may argue that survivalist encampments would have the same resilience.  It’s an interesting point, although I suspect that the authoritarian structure of most survivalist camps eventually undermines their resiliency.  And even if they can overcome the governance issue, life within the walls would be stilted and unsatisfying for many.  For those who prefer a more unfettered form of freedom, resilient towns remain the best response to Taleb’s theory.)

I’m still working my way through “The Black Swan”.   (As much as I appreciate Taleb’s thinking, I find his writing style digressive, so the reading can be wearying.)  I’ll be reporting on insights yet to come.

But before closing, I’ll share one of Taleb’s favorite stories about consultants and how anybody, consultants included, who relies on limited data will have a cloudy crystal ball.

The story has become so popular that there are a great many versions scattered about the internet.  Given the dispersion, I’ll write the story in my own words, adding one more version to the universe of alternatives already in circulation.

It seems that was a flock of turkeys on a prosperous turkey farm.  The turkeys were content.  Food was plentiful.  Medical care was good.  The poultry lot was well-groomed.  The farmer seemed a fine man.  And the turkeys were maturing nicely, adding bulk in all the right places.

But the turkeys were uneasy.  There were vague rumors that all hadn’t gone well for earlier flocks.  So the turkeys hired a consultant whose scope was to evaluate the long-term outlook for the turkey community.

The consultant took his task seriously.  He reviewed all the medical records back to when the turkeys had been hatched months earlier, analyzed the grain, observed the nightly cleanup of the turkey runs, and watched the farmer as he tended his flock.

After weeks of work, the consultant submitted his findings to the turkeys.  He reported that all looked well, that the farmer had their best interests at heart, and that there were no foreboding clouds anywhere on the horizon.  The grateful turkeys paid the consultant his fee and the consultant headed home.  That was in the first week of November.

And that’s what happens when you trust consultants and other specialists and don’t have an overarching plan for resiliency with lots of contingency options.

Next time, weather permitting, I’ll begin my search for great streets in the North Bay with a look at Petaluma and Cotati.  But if I don’t get a break in the storms, I’ll put up my feet and watch another episode of “The Planners”.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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