Ask Alto: What is BANI and should people care?

September 27, 2022
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“For so many around the world, things are too strange, too out of control, too immense, and too fragile to even begin to imagine appropriate responses.”

So says futurist Jamais Cascio, writing in 2020 about his BANI concept. The acronym, which stands for Brittle, Anxious, Non-Linear, and Incomprehensible, is a tool to understand the “age of chaos” in which we live and is Cascio’s suggested successor to a previous acronym touted as a way of looking at the world (and at business): VUCA

What was VUCA?

The term (which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) was born in the work of the US Army War College in the late 1980s. It then spread through military leadership in the 1990s. Tech writer Stefan Mitzkus says VUCA was the “prime explanatory framework for the challenges in our daily lives”. The concept had become common among people working in strategy and planning by the start of the 21st century, Cascio says. Tools like futures thinking and scenarios were used to allow people and businesses to think and work within a VUCA environment.

So why doesn’t VUCA work anymore?

Cascio says VUCA became a depiction of our default condition and was telling us nothing new. But, he says, things have changed: “we’re no longer happily bubbling along, the boiling has begun”. The BANI framework seeks to illustrate the scale of the disruptions under way, and to enable consideration of what kinds of responses would be useful.

Enter BANI

In situations in which conditions are chaotic, these four parameters come into play:

Brittle – when something is brittle, it looks strong but is susceptible to sudden and catastrophic failure. Cascio says that brittleness often arises from efforts to maximize efficiency, to wring value (money, power, food, work) from a system, and from an unwillingness or inability to leave any excess capacity in the system. And (as has been demonstrated by the Covid-19 pandemic) when core systems are interconnected, the failure of one important component can lead to a cascade of failures.

Anxious – a sense of helplessness. In an anxious world, every choice appears to be potentially disastrous. This is tied closely to depression, fear, passivity and despair.

Nonlinear - in a nonlinear world, results of actions taken, or not taken, can end up being wildly out of balance. Small decisions end up with massive consequences, good or bad. An example is climate disruption. “We see around us… real-world examples of the impacts of global warming-induced climate change… and we’re barely up one degree Celsius over pre-industrial levels,” Cascio writes.

Incomprehensible - events and decisions seem illogical or senseless, whether because the origins are too long ago, or too unspeakable, or just too absurd. Yet, additional information is no guarantee of improved understanding. More data can merely overwhelm our ability to understand the world, making it hard to distinguish noise from signal.

How to cope?

Cascio says the components of the acronym might hint at opportunities for responses:

  • brittleness could be met by resilience and slack;
  • anxiety can be eased by empathy and mindfulness;
  • nonlinearity would need context and flexibility;
  • incomprehensibility asks for transparency and intuition.

Mitzkus breaks these down into yet another acronym - RAAT:

Resilience against brittleness - resilience describes the ability to return to the original state quickly and without permanent damage.

Attention against anxiety - if we pay close attention to what we listen to and what we spread, we can meet anxiety with clarity and self-awareness.

Adaptation against non-linearity - flexibility allows you to adapt no matter what the outcome will finally look like.

Transparency against the incomprehensible - transparency is an effective remedy against incomprehensible behaviour, especially in structures in which knowledge is used as a status instrument.

Or just get philosophical

Jeroen Kraaijenbrink argues that BANI’s ultimate usefulness lies in correcting four illusions which humanity holds about the world . Instead of being strong, under our control, predictable and knowable, reality is in fact brittle, anxiety-provoking, non-linear and incomprehensible. “BANI is one great reminder for all of us. We’re living in a world that’s delicate, uncontrollable, unpredictable and impossible to comprehend. Let’s celebrate, accept and wonder,” he writes.