Living in an environment of fragility, which shows continuous failures, means knowing how to live with uncertainty and insecurity, as unpredictability becomes a constant.
We cannot deny that there has always been uncertainty and complexity in the world and, in one way or another, we individuals have been building different systems that have allowed us to discover and adapt to these changing environments.
Using our capacities, we have created institutions, generated laws or regulations, built cultural, political and religious models, and even developed economic and business strategies that have helped us to understand and tame change in order to make it more understandable and keep it under control.
At the beginning of our century a concept emerged whose acronym was called “VUCA”, which sought to define and frame the kind of world that had emerged as a consequence of an increasingly interconnected and heavily digital environment. By the turn of the century, volatility (V), uncertainty (U), complexity (C) and ambiguity (A) had become commonplace among individuals.
However, as we approach the first quarter of the century, declaring a situation or environment to be volatile, complex or ambiguous is insufficient to understand what is happening. In fact, we are living in situations where conditions are not unstable, but can be described as chaotic. The results of our actions are not complex to assess, but are actually impossible to foresee. And we live in a world where the things that happen are not ambiguous, but have become incomprehensible.
Some of the changes taking place in politics, the environment, society and technology may seem familiar or similar to those we have already experienced. But many of the transformations that are taking place, and especially the speed with which they are occurring, are truly astonishing, unlike anything we have ever seen before, and they generate a great deal of disorientation.
In this context, I would like to talk about fragility. When something is fragile, it implies the possibility of breaking at any given moment. Things that are fragile often look strong, they may even be really strong, but they have a breaking point and then they fall apart.
According to physics, brittleness is the ability of a material to fracture because it has little or no capacity for permanent deformation. Fragile systems may in many cases appear to be solid, until they are not. We could say that brittleness shows a kind of illusory strength. Things that are fragile are not resilient, nor are they malleable or ductile.
Our world currently exhibits this characteristic. A system can continually show that it is robust, that it is good, that it can provide continuity over time, even when it is showing signs of collapse.
And associating this concept of fragility with our world is important, because fragile systems do not crumble slowly, they break at once, they collapse and fragment into a thousand pieces. Fragility is often the fruit of wanting to maximise profitability and efficiency in order to get the most value out of something. We find it in intensive monocultures that may provide very high productivity, but in the absence of diversification, a single type of insect can wipe out the entire crop. The same is true for a country that focuses its economy on the exploitation of natural resources as the only source of wealth, since a technological change that rules out the use of these resources can collapse its growth model.
Fragility is not new; the world has always been subject to catastrophic situations, but most of them were regionally limited. However, in a world as globally interconnected as ours, and dependent on such a confrontational geopolitical framework of blocs, a collapse or failure can generate a domino effect across the planet with major consequences.
Evidence of this fragility can be seen in recent times through the effects of the pandemic, the supply crisis generated by a collapse of shipping lanes, the climate crisis, or the breakdown of the geopolitical status quo between democratic and dictatorial blocs. These are just a small sample of how fragile our fundamental systems, on which human survival and the idea of well-being depend, can be.
This fragility clearly affects all individuals, their behaviour and the way they read life and plan for the future. Living in an environment of fragility, which shows continuous failures, means knowing how to live with uncertainty and insecurity, as unpredictability becomes a constant. The lack of linearity between causes and effects or, in other words, the disconnection between what we do and what we expect to happen, blocks us when we start planning.
It seems that as civilisation progresses and scientific advances multiply, we are more likely to move towards a safer world with a higher level of well-being. However, reality shows us the opposite: the more intelligent and advanced human beings become, the more fragile their existence becomes.
This is creating great anxiety and will continue to widen the gap between generations. The youngest have already been born into an environment of uncertainty and transience, and their way of thinking already includes these variables when planning their lives, their jobs, their free time, and so on. We often talk about digital natives; we should also talk about natives in fragility. We are facing a new way of interpreting the world and interrelating with each other and, of course, it will be necessary to continue deepening, even more if possible, the intergenerational dialogue.
Some thinkers call this new situation, which adds continuous change to a situation of fragility, chaos. We all know that chaos is difficult to control, but what is in our hands is to be able to improve our levels of resilience, to better manage the stress and anguish caused by unpredictability, and to learn to live life valuing more what we are and less what we have.
For more on this topic, see “Facing the Age of Chaos” Jamais Cascio, Distinguished Fellow, Institute for the Future at the following link.