Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Community Resilience and Innovation

I just finished an oldie but goodie, Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies. His main thesis is that societies solve problems in ways that make them more complex. Initially, this complexity can have a high rate of return (assuming that the added complexity solves the problem). However, the marginal rate of return decreases and can become negative. In other words, a society’s resources are eventually consumed in simply supporting the complexities it has created. At that point, any stress causes decline or collapse (It is important to note that his operational definition of decline/collapse is shedding complexity.).  Tainter details a wide variety of case studies to develop his thesis, concentrating on the Roman, Mayan and Chacoan cultures. In subsequent work, he much more strongly ties the cost of complexity to energy (I’m biased, but I really like this approach.).

While Tainter casts his argument in terms of “societies,” it seems uncomfortably fitting for modern communities as well. In response to so many of our problems, communities (and our nation) create new bureaucracies to solve them. These bureaucracies take on a life of their own, and may eventually support their own existence more than they do the vitality of the community. As a result, all too often, they communicate less and less with other bureaucracies (protecting their turf), forming fortresses of influence, their communities becoming balkanized bastions of the status quo.

But a community’s complexities may reside elsewhere as well. Many communities are burdened with an aging and interdependent infrastructure that no longer is anything like optimal for current residential and business patterns. Even if there is the recognition and the will to build somewhere – or something – else better, the costs of doing so (e.g., jumping through regulatory hoops, acquisition of land) may well exceed the community’s capacity.

I’ve read an interesting rebuttal to Tainter’s thesis by Samuel Alexander of the Simplicity Institute (who knew there was such a thing!) at the University of Melbourne. Interesting, but sloppily argued (and overly apocalyptic). He argues that voluntary simplification is the answer, even while acknowledging the improbability of that working in the real world. If it was a fight, I’d give the decision to Tainter on points!

However, I think Tainter is vulnerable to attack from a different direction. To draw an analogy, Tainter’s view is thermodynamic (or ontological for the philosophic). What if the decline/collapse of communities is governed by kinetics (phenomenology)? In other words, what if communities collapse because their rate of response is slower than the rate of decline? Or, as Jack Welch once said, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” The complexities already within the community make the “energy of activation” for developing solutions to new problems so high that eventually they can’t solve their problems fast enough. In other words, the community is not very resilient and goes into decline.

In chemistry, one way to force a chemical reaction that has a high energy of activation is to use a catalyst. In a community setting, innovation can be the catalyst that makes it easier to solve problems more rapidly. This might be repurposing existing bureaucracies (Governor Cuomo’s regional economic development strategy in NY is an example.). Or breaching bureaucratic walls so that information flows more rapidly (The administrative systems in San Diego and Baltimore force city departments to talk across their boundaries in order to achieve goals that may span the domains of several departments.). Or forming public-private partnerships to build new, or replace existing, infrastructure (As the Port Authority of NY/NJ have done to rebuild the Goethals Bridge.). Or using old technology in new ways to support community development (TVA’s use of its power corridors as a way to enable deployment of wide band internet capacity in rural Mississippi – the MEGAPOP initiative.).

Thus, innovation can play an important role in a community’s resilience. It can act as a catalyst to solve “wicked problems.” It can provide the impetus to change the status quo in a positive way. It can shine a new light into a community’s dark corners, and a new broom to sweep away the cobwebs found. Thus, when resilience is needed, communities should look to do the old in a new way, to speak the truth in a new tongue, and to re-invent themselves anew to solve the problems they face.