Smart and Antifragile Cities: The Antidote to Covid-19 Crisis

By Nicos G. Sykas*

Around 80% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050. A holistic, integrated urban strategy is needed to tackle today’s multiple challenges: governance and participation, critical infrastructures, vulnerable population, environment and cultural heritage, climate change, abandoned property (land and buildings), pandemics, immigration, terrorism and other asymmetric threats.

Beyond resilient, robust and adaptable, a smart and antifragile city is an innovation that involves the optimal configuration of elements, features and distinctive capabilities from the four basic types of innovation: product innovation, process innovation, organizational innovation and communication innovation. In the above context, the key attributes of a smart and antifragile city can be taxonomized as follows: 

1. Product Innovation: Standards; Smart City Technologies: IoT, Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence; Sensors for better Planning, Predictive Analytics; Fault Prediction (Buildings, Photovoltaic Systems).

2. Process Innovation: Governance, Operational Efficiency; Collective Intelligence; Networks; Mobility Integration.

3. Organizational Innovation: Culture of co-creation; Engagement of all stakeholders; Collaborative Partnerships; Collaborative Economy.                                                                    

4. Communication Innovation: Sharing of Information; City Branding; Attract Industry and Talent.

Every innovation is different. In each case the critical attributes from the four basic innovation types should be identified and combined creatively. A smart and antifragile city should be capable of reconfiguring quickly and responding efficiently to black swans and perfect storms. In Urban Crisis Management, the critical factors that should be combined to synergistically maximize strategic preparedness can be categorized as follows:

1. Product Innovation: Risk Assessment; Impact; Critical infrastructure Security and Resilience; Shelter in place; Workforce.                                         

2. Process Innovation: Preparedness and response operations – Capacity, Intelligence; Coordination, Integration, Act in time; Training – Education – Exercises – Testing; Access to crucial supplies and commodities. Big Data.                                             

3. Organizational Innovation: The different audiences should be identified so that the available resources for outreach and awareness are used efficiently, and reflect the role of each audience in improving infrastructure security and resilience.                                                                                            

4. Communication Innovation: Risk Communication and Community Engagement.

According to Miller, building capabilities out of asymmetries involves that the organization is capable of doing three things well:

a) Discover the asymmetries and discern the potential between them; identify the asymmetric resources embedded within the institutional, technological, and market contexts.

b) Turn asymmetries into capabilities by strategically embedding them within an organizational design configuration that exploits them and sustains their development.

c) Match asymmetry-derived capabilities to market opportunities by developing asymmetric innovation strategies.

We live in a rapidly changing world, a highly nonlinear world characterized by fluidity, turmoil, disorder, uncertainty, randomness, variability, complexity, chaos, volatility, interdependencies, asymmetric threats, explosive crises, catastrophic risks, fierce competition and winner-takes-all effects. We have more nonlinearities –asymmetries, convexities– in today’s world. Both the public and private sector cannot innovate effectively and tackle the multiple challenges across multiple domains by using the static tools developed for the linear environments of the past.

The continuing linear, global response to the nonlinearities posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, constitutes the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. Coronavirus has been on non-linear mode from the outset (since December 2019). On the contrary, the world is still on linear mode. This great asymmetry has created extremely fragile communities. What if an effective vaccine against Covid-19 is not available in the first half of 2021?     

We need: a) Connectivity and clusters to harness scale and specialization, b) a multidimensional, multidisciplinary, multiscale approach to tackle grand challenges, c) creative techniques to combine data analytics with consumer insights and d) dynamic, cross-cutting tools to harness antifragility and foster more breakthrough innovation.

After many years of research, I developed a new, dynamic Innovation Model that allows organizations to modify their exposure accordingly so as to exploit positive asymmetries (convexities) and avoid negative asymmetries.

The architectural design of an innovation should be antifragile-by-design, capable of gaining from volatility, variability, randomness, uncertainty and time by minimizing exposure and harm from negative (unfavorable) asymmetries and maximizing exposure and benefit from positive (favorable) asymmetries (more upside than downside from volatility and randomness). The first step is the detection and removal of any fragilities (vulnerabilities) and the elimination of the risk of ruin. Positive Black Swans (opportunities) also have a necessary first step: you need to be exposed to them.

The new Innovation Paradigm is presented analytically in a 220-page practical Guide I have prepared. Among other, this pioneering Innovation Toolkit describes in detail 54 asymmetric innovation strategies, cross-cutting tools and creativity techniques which can help build smart and antifragile cities capable of:

a) Modifying their exposure accordingly in order to discover valuable asymmetries (opportunities) and avoid negative asymmetries (threats).

b) Tackling the Covid-19 crisis effectively.

c) Innovating under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

d) Developing local innovations with global outlook.

e) Maximizing the impact –scientific, social, economic– of innovation.

f) Accelerating economic recovery from the coronavirus induced recession.

This flexible tool can be characterized as the ‘Swiss Army Knife of Innovation’. It can be applied in all domains and at all levels, scales and sizes: Public Services, Local Government Organizations, Businesses (Startups and Large Corporations), Academia, NGOs, Circular Economy, Blue Economy, Standardization, Quality Management, Financial Resilience, Health Services and Products, Nation Branding, National Security Strategy, Political Marketing etc.

According to Nassim Taleb, antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shock and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance… even our own existence as a species on this planet.

In his book ‘Antifragile, Things That Gain From Disorder’ Taleb describes the barbell  (or bimodal) strategy as a way to achieve antifragility: “An option is what makes you antifragile and allows you to benefit from the positive side of uncertainty, without a corresponding serious harm from the negative side […] Let us call trial and error tinkering when it presents small errors and large gains […] The antifragile needs to select what’s best – the best option […] Trial and error… is not really random, rather, thanks to optionality, it requires some rationality. One needs to be intelligent in recognizing the favorable outcome and knowing what to disregard […] We can, from the trial that fails to deliver, figure out progressively where to go […] Innovation is precisely something that gains from uncertainty: and some people sit around waiting for uncertainty and using it as raw material, just like our ancestral hunters”.

Resilient and robust systems are those that are able to withstand shocks and bounce back quickly after them. Adaptive systems are those that are able to respond effectively in the wake of shocks. Antifragile systems, however, don’t just bounce back or even bounce back better, they thrive and improve because of, not in spite of, volatility and uncertainty. The present article outlines my contribution to the dialogue initiated by the Cyprus Forum, an annual conference that will be held for the first time in Nicosia on Saturday October 3, 2020. Congratulations to the Organizers and Partners of this important international gathering that aspires to become a lever and catalyst for change, by applying a holistic, multi-stakeholder, evidence-based policy making. The basic aim of the Cyprus Forum is to promote shared prosperity and a more sustainable future for Cyprus and the wider Eastern Mediterranean region.

*Nicos G. Sykas is Strategy, Communication and Innovation Consultant.