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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Resilience vs. Anticipation

I really enjoyed this Virginia Postrel column from awhile back via Instapundit and Ed Driscoll:

Boston's winter is a natural disaster, but its predictability changes everything. As Hutchinson suggests, New Englanders know winter is coming. Bad weather is annoying but easy to plan for: You build snow days into the school year, buy a car with four-wheel drive, get used to scraping ice and shoveling snow. You make sure you have a coat, hat, and gloves. Snow, says Hutchinson, is no big deal: "You just put on boots." Life has a regular rhythm.

Good weather plus earthquakes creates an utterly different environment. On a day-to-day basis, you can concentrate on your goals, with no need for contingency plans. Your softball game, your picnic, your wedding won't be rained out. But everything could change in an instant. You can't anticipate earthquakes, can't plan for them, can't even predict when and where they'll strike. Instead of providing the certainty of seasons, nature promises a future of random shocks. All you can do is develop general coping skills and resources. There is nothing familiar about the aftermath of an earthquake, and no one survives it alone.

IN HIS 1988 BOOK, SEARCHING FOR SAFETY, the late UC-Berkeley political scientist Aaron Wildavsky laid out two alternatives for dealing with risk: anticipation, the static planning that aspires to perfect foresight, and resilience, the dynamic response that relies on having many margins of adjustment: "Anticipation is a mode of control by a central mind; efforts are made to predict and prevent potential dangers before damage is done. Forbidding the sale of certain medical drugs is an anticipatory measure. Resilience is the capacity to cope with unanticipated dangers after they have become manifest, learning to bounce back. An innovative biomedical industry that creates new drugs for new diseases is a resilient device. . . . Anticipation seeks to preserve stability: the less fluctuation, the better. Resilience accommodates variability; one may not do so well in good times but learn to persist in the bad."

Here, then, is the basic difference between the valley and the Hub: Viewing the world as predictable and itself as the center of the universe, Boston has encouraged strategies of anticipation. People try to imagine everything that might go wrong and fix it in advance. But in Silicon Valley, there are no certainties. The future is open and subject to upheaval. Resilience is the strategy of choice. People do the best they can at the moment, deal with problems as they arise, and develop networks to help them out.

But anticipation doesn't work when the world changes rapidly, and in unexpected ways. It encourages two types of error: hubristic central planning and overcaution.

Resilience, however, is less a guarantee of corporate success than it is a way of reducing the risk for individual careers and the regional economy. A strategy of resilience means not that companies won't fail but that resources--including human resources--are more likely to move to better uses more quickly, with less trauma. Indeed, the willingness to abandon losing projects is fundamental. The idea is to adjust quickly, on a small scale, rather than all at once: to be like grass bending before the wind, then springing back, rather than a solid oak that comes crashing down in a storm. In a resilient economy, employees have choices, and they move around.

"On the East Coast," says Mundy, "it's the building of the thing that's most important. And on the West Coast, the sharing of it is relatively more important. Getting things out to the light of day seems more important there."

Once they hit the light, no one can anticipate just where innovations will lead--or whether they will in fact succeed. It is by trusting the search, permitting experiments whose results no one can know, that we allow advances to occur. In a 1979 paper, Wildavsky prefigured his discussion of anticipation and resilience with a meditation on the sources of progress. It depends, he suggested, on spontaneity and serendipity, on discoveries no one can predict or foresee: "Incessant search by many minds...produces more (and more valuable) knowledge than the attempt to program the paths to discovery by a single one....Not only markets rely on spontaneity; science and democracy do as well....Looking back over past performance, adherents of free science, politics, and markets argue that on average their results are better than alternatives, but they cannot say what these will be....The strength of spontaneity, its ability to seek out serendipity, is also its shortcoming--exactly what it will do, as well as precisely how it will do it, cannot be specified in advance."

Nowadays it seems that every place wants to be like Silicon Valley--to discover its secrets and copy them. Here, then, is a secret that can be copied, even in places with lousy weather and stable ground: Don't ask for answers in advance. Don't try to create a life without surprises. Trust serendipity.

Read it all, it's worth it. What would you expect from Virginia Postrel?


Bret said...

Ol' Ginny P. usually does have an interesting way of looking at the world, but this excerpt doesn't exactly hold together for me (though it is still entertaining).

To me, something isn't a disaster unless there's significant destruction. As much as I dislike the Boston winter (I lived in Boston before San Diego), to call it a natural disaster pushes well beyond the concept of disaster. I guess I could call San Diego's winter a natural disaster too - occasionally I have to put a jacket on and make sure my tires have some tread left! But I suspect I'd be laughed at.

The idea that you can't plan for earthquakes is wrong as well. The building codes in California do exactly that. That's why 7+ magnitude earthquakes in LA cause some damage but relatively little death or injury, but that level of earthquake in the developing world kills thousands (perhaps even tens of thousands as in the 1988 Armenian earthquake).

Indeed, it seems to me that "Anticipation" is required to maximize "Resilience". So I don't think the word "versus" should necessarily separate them. Los Angeles is resilient to earthquakes because it anticipated the possibility. It might not do so well if a freak blizzard hit the city. A lot of people would likely die in that case.

Lastly, it's less than clear to me how resilience versus anticipation really relate to rigid planning versus flexibility or spontaneity. The analogy just doesn't seem very strong to me.

I'm probably being over-critical here, I'll admit. I'm in a critical mood.

erp said...

I've never been a fan of advanced planning except in a fairly limited way. Let's meet for lunch at noon tomorrow -- works. Let's plan our schedule so we can meet every other Thursday -- can't work and what might have been fun, now becomes another chore.

This is also the reason so few, if any, urban renewal or planned communities work. They are patently contrived and things that are too staged don't please our psyche nor do things too perfectly symmetrical please our eye. We are programmed to look at things that emerge organically and perhaps a bit awkwardly and call it beautiful.

In business and life in general, the same thing applies although at a far more complicated level. Decisions can only be made with the information at hand and trying to tie up every string makes decision making too cumbersome. You lose some and you win some, but the worst thing is to never risk some.

That said, it never hurts to have a Plan B.