Mar 17, 2020

To beat COVID, we need to think Antifragile

The COVID spread is a Black Swan event, an unpredictable (and unlikely) event with major effect. That term was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who went on to apply what he called Antifragile theory successfully as an investor, and it’s also been one of the underlying theories used by technology companies.

Antifragile theory basically says that rather than trying to predict and control in volatile situations, it’s more effective to focus on spotting what will be fragile and break as volatility increases. In doing so, you can become Antifragile, meaning improving with volatility. (This is not just resilient, which is withstanding volatility.) For example, a restaurant is risky, and fragile, but a street full or restaurants is anti-fragile. If one restaurant fails, the rest benefit from the learning and improve. Airline safety is anti-fragile. Airplanes do fail, but each failure improves the safety of all others by improving the standards.

What we are observing now is a number of COVID respirator projects emerging, but many of the largest are experiencing delays due to centralised, corporate management approach. This management style is what we’ve learned works in non-volatile environments. You may notice this when you sign up to volunteer, and get no response, or channeled through some bureaucracy. [1]

Centralised responses get overwhelmed and slow down under increased scale and volatility [2]. They are fragile. Distributed responses and openness among them are anti-fragile. If one slows down, for example asking volunteers to sign up but then not being able to respond, others can pick up on their volunteer list and pick out the help they need today.

If you are unable to join an existing project, it’s better you start working yourself.

Share your start and your progress in the open where other projects can see easily. That way, you can make some useful progress today, and though you may fail, that failure still benefits other projects with the same goal.**

There is increasing volatility now.

Communications are being disrupted. There are small panics, and likely more as deaths get closer to home. Centralised responses, trying to close up and control things more, will end up being slowed down even more by all this.

To make this collective anti-fragile, we all need to work in the open so that our successes and failures are shared to the others.

We are doing this in two ways.

There’s an open list of volunteers for respirator projects and designs to choose from

Please sign yourself up, or look through the list if you need some help with your project.

We are also assembling a library of different respirator designs and who’s working on them.

You can find these and get involved at**


[1] Of course, the exception are hierarchical units that have been pre-formed to deal with quickly changing situations, like the military. But even they use something called “command intent” where units are given goals and the freedom to make their own decisions on the ground.

[2] I volunteered to a few respirator projects last week, but saw that they were so overwhelmed, they couldn’t even respond to applications for people who were ready to help them with their bottlenecks. They kept delaying their plans and closing themselves off, while social media spread about them causing even more applicants and people, causing them to again slow down to deal with the load. When I offered one to help by suggesting they opened their list of volunteers so the new volunteers could connect directly, they responded by saying I was not “a VIP” so shouldn’t ask for that. It’s what Taleb playfully calls the Oxford-Soviet attitude.

What am I up to these days?

I’m a new parent, and prioritising my attention on our new rhythms as a family. I’m also having fun with slow creative pursuits: making a few apps, writing, etc.

Work-wise, I’m trekking along at a cozy pace, with a few non-exec, advisory roles for cryptography and microchip manufacturing programs.

In the past, I've designed peer-learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures, The Royal Academy Of Engineering, and Kernel, careering from startups to humanitech and engineering. I also played a role in starting the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.

Contact me

Books & collected practices

  • Peer Learning Is - a broad look at peer learning around the world, and how to design peer learning to outperform traditional education
  • Mentor Impact - researched the practices used by the startup mentors that really make a difference
  • DAOistry - practices and mindsets that work in blockchain communities
  • Decision Hacks - early-stage startup decisions distilled
  • Source Institute - skunkworks I founded with open peer learning formats and ops guides, and our internal guide on decentralised teams