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Rethinking The ‘Robust Design’ Trend

Rethinking The ‘Robust Design’ Trend

| On 22, Apr 2018

Darrell Mann

It’s not often these days that we get to add a new stage to one of the Trends Of Evolution. It’s even rarer that we find ourselves in the position of needing to re-name one of the Trends. Both of those things happen this month. The trend in question being the one we’ve known as ‘Robust Design’ since it found its way into the first edition of the Hands-On Systematic Innovation technical edition. It tends to be one of the less frequently used Trends, but that shouldn’t take away anything from its overall importance in the greater scheme of things. It’s probably the only Trend, in fact, that is likely going to merit a whole book to itself. If we ever get the chance to write it. Simple as the Robust Design Trend might appear, the deeper we dig, the more it has to tell us about understanding and solving reliability related problems as well as helping designers to design more ‘robust’ systems.

Except, we know see the language has changed when it comes to what we mean by ‘robust’. When we first identified the Trend – back in the 1990s in the aerospace industry – creating a solution that was ‘robust’ was seen as the epitome of design. Now the way the world understands the term ‘robust’, we know it means that the solution is able to withstand considerable trauma before it fails, but, when the level of trauma exceeds a given threshold, the system tends to fail catastrophically. Far better, the robust-design community learned, was to design a system to be ‘resilient’. Which means a solution that is able to adapt to trauma without failing.

Then along came Nassim Nicholas Taleb to give the world the word ‘AntiFragile’. AntiFragile being yet another step beyond ‘resilient’ in that a system that is AntiFragile is not only able to adapt to trauma, but actually becomes stronger as a result. The more stress an AntiFragile system is put under, the stronger it becomes. Like a mythical Hydra. Cut off one of the serpent’s heads and it grows two more. It was the image Taleb used continuously in the book to offer up an illustrative example of what AntiFragile was about.

There’s no doubt the Hydra analogy helped the book. It also helps us to hypothesize a new stage at the end of the Robust Design Trend. The only problem then is does the hypothesis translate into reality?

It would have been easy to simply add the new stage onto the end of the Trend and simply wait for the world to catch up. We nearly did exactly that. If nothing else it would’ve sent out a message to the TRIZ/SI and broader ‘research’ community that the Trends aren’t just about enabling different industries to catch-up with one another (i.e. a known Trend jump from one industry, stimulates a similar jump in other industries that haven’t made that jump yet), but could also be used to point everyone to future jumps that none of them have yet made.

As it happens, though, we decided to wait. The wait duration was ultimately determined by the need for a number of ‘real’ case studies from technology, business and the natural world.

The latter of which proved the easiest to find. ‘AntiFragile’ solutions exist in many parts of nature. The whole field of what is now known as hormetics is all about a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial effect (improved health, stress tolerance, growth or longevity) results from exposure to low doses of an agent that is otherwise toxic or lethal when given at higher doses. We can also see the effect in another way when we look at (one of Taleb’s main forms of exercise if the story in the book is true) weightlifting: ‘over-stressing’ muscles and then allowing them to recover before over-stressing them again is a very good way to build bigger, stronger muscles. Nature understands AntiFragile.

In the world of business, it’s probably fairest to say that the large majority of enterprises on the planet are not AntiFragile. Most aren’t even very Robust, thanks to years of ‘continuous improvement’. It’s difficult to find examples of human-built entities that have been designed to be AntiFragile. Finding them tends to require zooming-out and looking at bigger pictures. Like Switzerland.

Switzerland is often described as ‘the most boring country on Earth’. Boring is usually a signal of unappealing, but one suspects that there are many on the planet who would very definitely prefer Switzerland’s boring-ness rather than the turmoil and crisis we see everywhere else. Switzerland is a model of stability. This stability comes in no small part because, unlike most other countries, it doesn’t have a big central bank or national government. What it has instead are dozens of sovereign mini-states that squabble and fight with one another constantly. The country’s AntiFragility, in other words, comes because all of this micro-scale turmoil helps make the country as a whole stronger because it enables all of the small problems to be revealed and resolved before they’re able to metastasize into something bigger. Like, say, the sort of kicking-the-can-down-the-road, quantitative-easing fiscal cliff that the US, EU and UK have all inadvertently climbed.

So much for the zoomed-out search for ‘business’ examples of AntiFragile. We can also see evidence of some of it if we look at some of the less traditional areas of business. Music or literature make for two such areas. In the world of literature, the book Fifty Shades of Grey has to be one of the shoddiest, badly written series of books ever written. The critics hated it, and still hate it. The problem (for the critics at least) is that the more they espouse their hatred, the more the public go out and bought the books. We see the same critic-backlash AntiFragile effect with many popular artists in the music industry. Many of the biggest bands on the planet in the 60s and 70s rose to prominence precisely because the critics told everyone they were rubbish (Bay City Rollers, Duran Duran, Osmonds, Grateful Dead, Kiss, Motley Crüe, the list goes on). Fifty Shades Of Grey and The Osmonds are AntiFragile, in the same way that this year’s Brexit referendum is also starting to look AntiFragile – the more the ‘experts’ told everyone the UK was better off in the EU, the more powerful the out campaign became. The more solid the argument for remaining was, the more it has become ammunition to rubbish the ‘experts’.

Finally, switching to the world of technology, earlier this year saw the publication of a manifesto for ‘AntiFragile’ software:

The disruptive nature of the antifragile approach for open and complex systems is of greatest importance and needs to be systematized, especially for software systems. In fact, antifragile software design is becoming a research issue in the software engineering community… We propose a similar approach to Antifragility, namely we would like to define the principles ruling the building up of software systems which exploit faults and errors to become better and stronger. This Manifesto does not want to be a fixed and complete set of principles. It is an open contribution to the discussion which needs to be improved and re-elaborated. All rights related to the Manifesto are free, open and belong to the community. This work represents our suggestions urging the community to start elaborating antifragile principles to lead their implementation in real organizations.

Some software companies, it has to be said, are already ahead of the game. They’ve seen the coming contradictions and have decided to do it anyway. When software writes, updates and evolves ‘itself’, why do we need humans to code it? The problem with software is that it only needs to be programmed once. After that, it is able to self-replicate an unlimited number of times. Maybe to the point where the control systems used to control all the things in and around our lives, learn how to make the physical stuff AntiFragile too.

Okay, so that last part is still a way off, but that shouldn’t stop us from saying that the ‘AntiFragile’ Trend stage well and truly exists today in many forms. Here’s what we think our Robust Design Trend now looks like as a result:

And, given that ‘Robust’ feels like a no-longer relevant anomaly, we’ve decided to re-name the Trend as ‘Design Capability’… now we just need to write the book… we’re thinking ‘AntiFragile’ is the last missing piece in the jigsaw, so who knows, we’ll see what 2017 brings.