What determines strength? Between a green, supple shoot and a thick brown one, which would you perceive as the stronger? Probably the thick brown one. But let’s put them to the test: take the two of them one by one and try to bend each. Which would be the most likely to bend? The green, supple one, without a doubt. The brown one, though thick and strong, would most certainly snap. And this is what we call the paradox of strength.
Our perceptions of strength focus on raw power, when in truth the robust and immovable often prove easier to break than the lithe, the supple and the pliable. And that’s all because of one little word: flexibility. In the world of natural science as well as physical science, flexibility is a much valued property; it allows things to withstand change without being destroyed by it, to assume different shapes, often being moulded into something greater than the original. We’ve just considered the example of plants. The same thing applies to the elements as they occur in nature—particularly metals. The more malleable and ductile a metal, the more easily it can be beaten, drawn, shaped into myriad new forms, produce sensational creations from the original parent and increase its worth manifold.
In modern building design, flexibility is of utmost importance. A flexible foundation strengthens the building against seismic activity and is a must in high-risk zones. But that’s not all. Buildings are now being equipped from top to toe with not just elasticity but also adaptability. The blog The Way We Live lists the various kinds: at a micro level, buildings might have inner structures or partitions that are repositionable or changeable per user or occupant; or they could have open-floor plans or “typology free design.” Alternately, the entire building could be “transformable—characterised by modular design (capable of adding or removing units” or equipped with structures that can “change form or change colour”. Examples of such buildings are being created in mega cities all over the world, with Dubai being the pioneer. The city is all set to finish its first rotating skyscraper by 2020, which will allow all apartments within the skyscraper to have the same level of light and differing view at different times of the day.
But there’s an even more astonishing level of design flexibility, defined as ‘responsiveness’, which turns a building into the clichéd “smart structure” by making it responsive to stimuli, such as energy, environment, or even usage and occupation—practically providing it with artificial intelligence.
Enter the world of economics and flexibility assumes a whole new meaning. The book Nimble gives an interesting distinction between flexibility and adaptability: The Darwinian concept of adapting for survival, it reasons, essentially denotes a one-way, irreversible change. Once the organism evolves into something more complex, there is no moving back. And that’s where flexibility gets one-up; it is bi-directional, alternating between forward and backward movements as per need. If you’re flexible, you ought to be willing to renovate, innovate, evolve—and yet, be ready to step backward and create space that side. But then there is also the question of speed and time: how quickly can you turn yourself into a lithe, supple green branch? That’s where agility comes in—swift flexibility; clever and timely movement.
The bottomline is, too often we focus on determination and unbending commitment to a goal or a philosophy. But timely bending isn’t a show of weakness; it’s an understanding of the fact that steely resolve needs agile approach. You needn’t dither in your goals—there just might be a different angle to stretch out and reach them.