February 2021

The Monte Carlo Fallacy

Building Resilience In Our Cities Through Imagination

It is one of our great failings as humans to lack the imagination to foresee change. Our cave dwelling brains are pre-wired to understand the world through shorthand; heuristics that keep us safe. Don’t play with the lion, the lion will eat you. These types of shortcuts help to make a complex world more palatable. The business of survival is handled by the assumption that today will be much like yesterday. The Monte Carlo Fallacy tells of a real event in gambling folklore in 1913 when a roulette wheel landed on black 26 times in a row. Gamblers lost millions betting against black waiting for red which never came. 

We all know that 26 blacks in a row is incredibly unlikely (around 1 in 66 million to be exact) but here is the lesson: it is very unlikely but it is not impossible.

Fast forward to 2020 and who could have imagined that we would be confined to our homes, conducting business on the end of video calls, or indeed teaching primary school maths. Who could have imagined indeed? But of course, the answer is that the signs were there for all to see. Pandemics have struck our civilizations with alarming regularity. The movie world portrayed with surprising accuracy the events of 2020 almost half a century ago. We simply lacked the imagination to ask ourselves “what if”? 

So, what can we learn from our collective lack of imagination? As this chapter of our lives draws ever nearer to an end, how might we do things differently to help us adapt when the unlikely but not impossible strikes again?

Here are three lessons that I plan to take forward, in our architecture, in our teams and in our business.

Never let a stupid question stand in the way of a better answer

It feels good to know, be the one in the know, the voice of knowledge, but in the purposeful act of conscious naivety lies real opportunity for change. It is no longer good enough to simply find out how things are done, or even to accept that this is how things have always been done. As we embark on new projects, we can no longer afford to make shorthand assumptions on how things work, how buildings are assembled, how families occupy homes or how the workers of tomorrow will return to offices. We need more stupid questions, more scenarios to consider, more alternative realities to feed better solutions. Construction projects can be tough environments within which to step outside of ourselves and challenge the common wisdom of the team. Often it is simply a fear of showing weakness or appearing foolish. I plan to go forwards ready to ask the stupid questions in the search for better answers. 

When the wind blows, bend

When we speak of resilience and robustness, we immediately think of how we can create systems to resist or deflect. Imagination can help us to see that we cannot predict all the challenges ahead. And even if we could what would a detail, a system or a process look like that could resist everything? The Palace of the Alhambra in Southern Spain is one of the earliest surviving examples of seismic design, long before the use of reinforced concrete frames. Survival in seismic design, of course is key. At the base of each column, engineers inserted a lead sheet, a simple slip joint allowing the palace to wobble at the knees. Earthquakes in Spain of any magnitude are uncommon (but, of course, not impossible) and 800 years on, the palace is still here. For me robustness and resilience going forwards will be built on wobbly knees, adaptable, responsive and light. 

Plan for Plan B (and C)

The industry is talking openly about creating greater flexibility in our buildings and built environment. But in my view these conversations simply do not go far enough to address the potential need for change. In other words, we currently lack the imagination to predict our needs in the future. Truly flexible space is not simply one that can switch from a meeting room to a breakout zone. Truly flexible space must be office, house, shop, shelter and hospital all in one. And a truly adaptable space must be able to change quickly and importantly, without waste. Alongside imagining how we can up-cycle and retrofit our existing spaces, we need to make sure that new buildings are conceived with many uses in mind. Designing for change requires us to accept on day one that change is coming.  

Currently the conversation in our industry is stuck in a loop. We are wrestling with the short-term question of what things will be like when we finally return to some form of normality; when our children return to school, and our teams can meet in person again. It is likely that the answer is simple. It is likely that tomorrow things will be much like they were yesterday and our new normal, will simply be the old normal, interspersed perhaps with more video calls. It seems clear to me, however that we lack the imagination to see our future again, when we turn our collective minds to climate change and the devastating impact that just a few degrees will have on our global weather systems and chain of events that will unfold across our civilization should this come to pass. It sounds like the trailer for a Hollywood blockbuster, too big for our cave brains to take on board, and yet all the signs are there, and we lack the imagination to act. Seriously, what’s the worst that could happen?