The ability for a community to survive and thrive in the face of chaos, uncertainty, and change is critical to its long-term success. That’s why understanding the concept of anti-fragility is essential for anyone involved in designing and building new communities. In this essay, I will explore the concept of anti-fragility and how it applies to community design, looking at examples from existing communities such as Gaviotas, Earthships in Taos, and Arcosanti in order to demonstrate how effective community design has enabled them to become resilient and self-reliant despite external chaos. Additionally, this essay will consider the challenges that face community designers when attempting to develop designs for resilient off-grid communities, while exploring the importance of understanding the nonlinear nature of many systems and acknowledging the unpredictability that can be beneficial when harnessed correctly. Finally, this essay will propose a new theory for how to think about infrastructure and community design in order to more effectively build the resilient and anti-fragile communities of tomorrow, while providing specific suggestions on how readers can use this information when creating their own communities. Resilience is essential for successful community design, and it can be achieved through understanding how to anticipate future changes and avoiding assumptions that lead to fragility.
Examples of Successful Community Designs
One famous example of a community designed with resilience at its core is Gaviotas in Colombia—a self-sustaining village founded on principles of ecological sustainability and communalism. Gaviotas was designed with the intention of surviving political chaos; while it was originally founded as an intentional community based on ideals derived from Marxism, it eventually transformed into a highly successful ecovillage which benefits from its surrounding environment rather than relying solely on imported resources or technology. Despite intense political turmoil over its 40+ year existence—including civil wars, coups d’état, economic crises—Gaviotas has managed to remain resilient and self-reliant through its use of renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels, and its innovative water conservation systems, including rainwater catchment and greywater recycling. In addition, the village has been able to leverage its remote location and the diversity of its inhabitants to cultivate relationships with local government authorities and regional stakeholders, thus creating a network of trust and security that has become essential for its survival. As a result of the community’s success, they were able to have a huge impact, planting millions of trees and converting a desert into a rainforest.
Another example of resilient community design is the Earthships in Taos, New Mexico. Developed by environmental architect Michael Reynolds in the late 1970s, Earthships are environmentally conscious buildings designed to be self-reliant off the grid with access to water, electricity, food production, sewage treatment, heating/cooling, waste management—all the necessary elements for a sustainable lifestyle. While Earthships were originally conceived as a radical individualistic solution to infrastructure chaos—allowing people to survive without depending on modern society—they have become increasingly popular over time due to their unique ability to leverage natural resources in order to reduce energy consumption. For example, the Earthships in Taos utilize passive and active solar heating/cooling systems, greywater irrigation systems, and rainwater catchment systems in order to reduce their reliance on traditional infrastructure. In addition, the community has developed groundbreaking new applications for radical water reuse in passive indoor agriculture, leveraging the sun’s energy to grow food year-round while reducing energy consumption.
Arcosanti is another example of a community that was designed to be resilient in the face of external chaos. Founded by architect Paolo Soleri in the 1970s, Arcosanti was designed with a focus on sustainability and environmental conservation. The structures were built with one-foot-thick concrete walls for insulation, allowing them to be passively heated and cooled based on the thermal mass and conductivity of concrete. Unfortunately, due to unanticipated changes in the environment—specifically higher summer temperatures—the structures have become basically uninhabitable in the summer. As a result, Arcosanti has become an example of how making assumptions about the future and betting on certain environmental conditions can lead to fragility, rather than resilience.
Challenges of Community Design
While these examples demonstrate the potential of community design to create resilient off-grid communities, there are several challenges that face designers when attempting to develop designs for such communities. One key challenge is accurately anticipating future changes in climate and ecology which may impact their designs; while it is important to hedge against uncertainty with plenty of margin for the wide array of things that might happen, it is also important to consider all potential changes in order to create designs which are truly resilient. Additionally, there is always the risk of making assumptions that lead to fragility rather than resilience. Furthermore, it can be difficult to measure and evaluate a design’s level of resiliency and antifragility; this requires understanding complex systems and predicting long-term outcomes based on these systems. Furthermore, there are pitfalls that must be avoided when designing resilient off-grid communities—such as overly limiting individualism or not accounting for potential changes in environment—in order to maximize the chances for success.
New Theory for Infrastructure and Community Design
In order for communities to be truly resilient off-grid they must be designed with adaptability at their core—able to respond rapidly and effectively to changing needs or threats from outside sources. This means considering not only what might happen in the short term, but also what might happen in the long term as well—and accounting for both when making decisions about infrastructure design. In addition, using simulation software and probabilistic techniques can help designers make decisions based on predicted long-term outcomes which will maximize resiliency while minimizing cost. Finally, combining various elements such as solar panels, wind turbines, water conservation systems, passive solar heating/cooling systems, greywater irrigation systems etc in order to increase resiliency is essential; this often requires thinking about infrastructure design in a holistic way rather than considering each element as a standalone system.
Skin in the game can also be used to promote greater transparency and accountability in both the public and private sectors, ensuring that those making decisions are held responsible for their actions and that the interests of those affected by them are aligned. Furthermore, personal responsibility is essential both on an individual level and within an organization or society as a whole in order to ensure fair outcomes and long-term sustainability. Ultimately, this means embracing risk-taking and innovation not only as essential components of progress but also as opportunities to absorb some of the downside risk associated with them.
It is clear that resilience is essential for successful community design, and it can be achieved through understanding how to anticipate future changes and avoiding assumptions that lead to fragility instead of resilience. Gaviotas, Earthships in Taos, and Arcosanti offer inspiring examples of how effective community design has enabled them to become resilient and self-reliant despite external chaos. By embracing unpredictability and chaos—drawing on Marxist Crisis Theory—as an opportunity for fundamental change rather than viewing it with fear or apprehension, designers can use their understanding of antifragility, skin in the game, personal responsibility, and various other design elements to create resilient off-grid communities which are better able to respond rapidly to changing needs or threats from outside sources. One example of this kind of radical thinking is imagining a new arcology designed with a vast roof of solar panels and rain catchment combined with gaps interspersed for skylights, balconies, and other shared spaces with a view of the landscape outside; such a design would be far more resilient than traditional designs which make assumptions about future conditions which may no longer hold true due to unexpected changes in climate or ecology. By learning from these examples we can create more resilient communities by understanding how nonlinear systems work; embracing unpredictability; using skin in the game; leveraging personal responsibility; and combining various infrastructure elements to increase resiliency.