How Complexity is linked to Fragility and What it Means for the World

There is a definite trend in the literature to link complexity with fragility. Examples of books that revolve around this issue include “Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder” the new book by Nicholas Taleb, or more technical books on risk management in complexity such as “A new Theory of Risk and Rating” by Jacek Marczyk (that one is only recommended to risk geeks).

Fragile items just break suddenly and fully
Fragile items just break suddenly and fully

The concept is that in a complex world, in particular when systems reach very high complexity, at the limit of what is bearable by the system, things can change abruptly. Instead of being ductile, the world then shows very fragile, brittle characteristics. The previous state is suddenly broken and is replaced by a very different condition.

Fragility is thus linked with complexity.

We would prefer to live in a world where change happens progressively, which would give us some chances to intervene. This is what engineers are always seeking when they specify that engineered materials should remain as ductile as possible across a wide range of conditions – this is to avoid the sudden, unpredictable rupture without prior deformation.

As complexity increases in a given system, it becomes more and more fragile – until it breaks suddenly, unpredictably, and is replaced by a new system that is more tolerant to complexity.

This theoretical observation has wide-ranging consequences. Our world today becomes more and more complex, interconnected. Our societies need to change before they reach the limit of complexity they can bear. Or, changes will inevitably be sudden, with lots of damages. Because, if our societies and institutions don’t change, their fragility will increase. Until they reach the breaking point.