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Homo Immunologicus – how to shape the competences of an immune person?

Sektor 3-0 BLOG Homo Immunologicus - jak kształtować kompetencje człowieka odpornego
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The title-Homo Immunologicus appears in the anthropology of Peter Sloterdijk, one of the most important contemporary European thinkers. According to his concept, when considering the condition of contemporary man, we should apply a metaphor of the immune system, which is formed on three levels: biological, social and psychological (symbolic). According to Sloterdijk, the quality of this system is dependent on the uninterrupted life exercises that we must perform at all three levels. (P. Sloterdijk, 2014) Let us, therefore, reflect together on how to develop our resilience and competence in order to become an independent person who can courageously face the future that is difficult to predict.

I want to dedicate this article to perceiving the competences of the future in terms similar to this apt metaphor. The future of all the “times” is the least accessible to us, and the predictions in a world of dynamic digitisation are mistaken. However, we can give up further attempts to anticipate the decades to come by asking questions in our deliberations about competences that strengthen human resilience – no matter what scenario for the future world becomes a reality and what challenges it will pose.


In his brilliant book “Antifragile. Things That Gain from Disorder”, Nassim Taleb gives us a powerful dose of inspiration in the context of shaping the resistance of different systems to the randomness and unpredictability of the world. The author is keen to use comparisons between the functioning of people in a changing world and the functioning of different organisations, so reading his book also provides a lot of guidance on what antifragile may mean in both psychological and social terms.

Antifragile is not simply the opposite of fragile. It is significantly closer to flexibility, adaptability, a kind of balance. A fragile system is one which, when confronted with a sudden, unpredictable event, each time loses its stability bordering on collapse; while an antifragile system not only has a better chance of overcoming the crisis but, above all, it emerges strengthened from that event. The Taleb says that there is no better strategy for shaping antifragile than… exposure to shocks. According to him, the greatest mistake made in many economic and state systems is the desire to artificially create stable conditions for development (most often based on retrospective data, which in itself is a mistake). Exactly the same mistakes are made by an overprotective mother by creating artificially safe conditions for her child, who is “to wrapped in cotton wool” and thus depriving her of the opportunity to learn how to deal with the brutal (changeable) world outside. The exit from that condition usually ends tragically for such a child.

Therefore, the first advice that comes from Taleb is to be open to the experience of randomness. This advice is extremely important, given that progress is very often understood by us to eliminate all risks and hardships, to simplify, to provide the easiest paths to achieve objectives. In order to become immune, the man has to go through their path of immunization. They must have the opportunity to make mistakes, from which they will draw conclusions. The competence of the future becomes, in this context, a kind of courage that comes when we have already experienced many trials and errors, and we are ready to take the risk of another challenge.

With this foundation of readiness to immerse ourselves in an “unpredictable” world, we can take another less obvious and very valuable advice from Nassim Taleb. That is, building optionality. Each system, in order to be adaptable, must build up its base of options. The lack of this base significantly increases our fragility – e.g. susceptibility to failure if the majority of the company’s income comes from one large customer. The base of options always gives us more freedom and increases the likelihood that we will find our own path of survival, even in the event of a major market meltdown. Taleb stresses that the competence to build options must include certain specific strategies. He calls this process “barbell building” because all art is based on combining two extremes – a safe and speculative solution. This extremely important competence can only be developed if the subject of education or upbringing, in addition to learning standards (safe pathways), also has space for taking certain risks; in the chapter entitled “Antifragile (barbell) education” Taleb writes:

To this day, I am still convinced that the real treasure, what you need to know in order to master a profession, must go beyond the curriculum and as far as possible. (N. Taleb, 2013, pp. 326)


Let us be inspired by the innovation cycle

If we want to shape the competencies that will help us to function in a world full of modern technologies, perhaps this dynamic world of constantly competing innovations should become an inspiration for us? The way in which successful technologies are produced perfectly follows Taleb’s thinking. Versatility and flexibility are essential to pave the way for success. Over the past decades, this way of thinking has become established in agile project management methods and determined the optimal course of the project process.

The iterative design process is primarily aimed at confronting us with reality as soon as possible. By this we understand, above all, checking to what extent the product being shaped creates a real value proposition for all project stakeholders.

chart showing arrows in circle: Plan, Do, Check, Act

This structured work of the project teams is maximally oriented towards delivering value by constantly monitoring requirements, collecting feedbacks, updating knowledge about stakeholders and the distribution of market forces. When looking at the work of design teams preparing a product in an agile process, it can be observed that it requires specialists to adopt a specific attitude and specific skills that allow them to go through the successive design stages with cyclical correctness. In the article “Agile Software Development: The People Factor” Alistair Cockburn and Jim Highsmith point out that these competencies have bilateral nodes: the basic one is related to the individual contribution of each team member to the project process, while the second one is related to the cooperation and maintenance of the team. Importantly, research shows that even very talented people, when they work in teams with good communication, can operate at noticeably higher levels than when they only use individual resources. It follows that on an individual level, communicative competence is very important, and on a team level, the ability to develop a common goal, mutual trust and respect, and to work on a rapid decision-making process. Above all, there is the ability to deal with uncertainties, one of the markers of resistance according to Taleb.

At the end of this part, it is worth adding that agile manufacturing should also meet the general conditions for progress towards civilisation and social change (Tech for Good). In this context, let the words of Nassim Taleb be heard again:

Technology is best when it remains invisible. I am convinced that it is most beneficial when it displaces the harmful, unnatural, alienating and above all inherently fragile predecessor (N. Taleb, 2013, pp. 408).

In order to produce such technology, we need to open up our discussion to the ethical dimension – responsibility, understanding the complexity of impact and broadening our understanding of value propositions (exiting economic categories).

Education and competences of the future

Let us now put all these conclusions together with the required ones that we should meet, creating the conditions for the development of future generations. In 2019, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), as part of the project The Future of Education and Skills 2030, published the concept of the framework: Transformative Competencies For 2030. The challenge posed by this project is enormous: How can we prepare students for work that has not yet been created in order to solve social problems that we cannot yet imagine and to use technologies that have not yet been invented? How can we prepare them to develop in a connected world in which they must understand and appreciate different perspectives and worldviews, cooperate with respect for others and take responsible action for sustainable development and collective welfare? (OCED, 2019 a, pp.5) In response to these questions, the OECD Learning Compass 2030 has been developed, which focuses on providing general directions for competence development rather than pointing out very specific development paths. We are talking here about transformational competences that will help students navigate in different areas and experiences.

The OECD identifies three key competencies here:

Creating a new value – introducing innovations to shape a better life: creating new jobs, new activities and services and developing new knowledge, ideas, techniques, strategies and solutions and applying them to solve problems, both old and new. Creating new value questions the status quo and opens up to cooperation with others. (OCED, 2019 b)

Reconciling tensions and dilemmas – taking into account the many interconnections and relations between seemingly conflicting or incompatible ideas and positions. It also means considering the results of actions in both the short and long term. This gives students a deeper understanding of opposing positions, the ability to develop arguments to support their own position and find practical solutions to dilemmas and conflicts. (OCED, 2019 b)

Taking responsibility – related to the ability to reflect and evaluate oneself, one’s own actions in the light of experience and knowledge gained, taking into account personal ethical and social goals. (OCED, 2019 b)

The directions set out above are largely consistent with what we have concluded about competences that strengthen the resilience of the people of the future. There are requirements for strong competences in the area of innovation production, as well as a reflexive attitude and the ability to function in very complex conditions of dynamic technological development (variability).

Choice of direction

The above visions and guidelines seem to be very demanding in relation to the existing education systems and conditions of development in the life cycle in Poland. However, shaping resilience can be guided by a multidimensional approach, and the history of changes in educational conditions largely proves to us that, after periods of stagnation and crisis, the new directions are beginning to supplant old, settled strategies, as can be seen in the figure below.

Source: Translation of a figure from the OECD Learning Compass 2030 Concept Note Series, pp.7; Original inspired figure: “The race between technology and education”, Goldin and Katz

In conclusion, it is worth to highlight one more fact. All the arguments put forward to show that a resilient person is an independent person who is confident of their own abilities in various conditions and who is able to find a thread of understanding with people with different attitudes. Shaping this autonomy is largely our personal responsibility. Therefore, we can already start working on our own resilience today, before the systems around us adapt to the new requirements. Let us act, let us check, let us choose the best solutions and… let us act again.

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