Resilient Communities

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John Robb:

"This conceptual model creates a set of new services that allow the smallest viable subset of social systems, the community (however you define it), to enjoy the fruits of globalization without being completely vulnerable to its excesses. These services are configured to provide the ability to survive an extended disconnection from the global grid in the following areas (an incomplete list):

   * Energy.
   * Food.
   * Security (both active and passive).
   * Communications.
   * Transportation. 

The resilient community has broad applicability beyond just improving the ability of those of us in developed economies to preserve wealth and a quality of life despite severe system shocks. It can also be applied to the problems of counter-insurgency in semi-modern urban environment (to radically update a process that was built for the last century) and provide the potential for organic development in underdeveloped areas of the world. The key is that we need to support the open source efforts currently underway to expand this capability underway such as the transition towns movement to MIT's low tech solutions effort." (


Resilience comes in two main parts: food production andindustry, supported by two underlying infrastructural elements: smart local information networks and local money systems.

Agricultural and food resilience

As the first solution for farming, John Robb proposes subscription farming:

“In addition to entrepreneurial mini-farms, local farming can also be supported through subscriptions (aka Community Supported Agriculture). These subscriptions entitle the buyer to weekly deliveries/pick-ups of fresh produce. Subscription farming grew from 50 farms in 1990 to over 2000 today.

What makes this interesting to our exploration of community resilience is:

  • Subscription farming (like mini-farming on small plots) spreads the risks (if you know farming, then you know that it is a VERY risky business) among participants and smoothes cash flows.
  • It’s a model that communities can implement on arable public land, where the rent for the land is provided as a share of the crop to the community.
  • If you combine both models (subscription and mini-farms), you can develop hybrid models where individuals rent/manage small plots on a larger parcel and purchase services (from weed/pest control to tilling) from the land’s manager.”


The second solution is SPIN, Small Plot Intensive Farming for the cities and suburbs.

John Robb:

“The a return to local agriculture within suburban and urban environments won’t be a redux of amateur gardening nor will it be done on local traditional farms (mostly, long since paved over). Instead it will feature high tech, intense, and energy efficient efforts on clusters of small plots. In short, it will buffer families from the risk of soft and hard disruptions as well as provide an opportunity for income generation. In fact, we are already seeing signs of resilience entrepreneurs in this space. One example is SPIN (small plot intensive) farming, a company that has optimized/packaged techniques for suburban/urban farmers.

Elements include:

  • The aggregation of plots near demand. SPIN farmers cut deals with the owners of suburban yards and/or unused spaces to put together viable acreage for farming. Local landowners are paid in kind (produce).
  • Intensive utilization of plots. Optimization of plots to generate the highest possible yields depending climate, sun, and rainfall. Low energy methods are preferable since they maximize profitability. There is also an ability to leverage local utilities for water and electricity without any infrastructure expense.
  • High value products. A focus on products that cost the most and are the most valuable to local buyers (restaurants and farmers markets). Freshness premiums and fuel cost ratios are important variables.”

Does a SPIN-like approach work?

Early indications are that it works. An interesting study done by Urban Partners for the city of Philadelphia indicates that a fully ramped up effort can generate upwards of $120,000 a year in sales and $60,000 in net income.

How it Will Accelerate

Factors that will accelerate local farming include (in addition to the acceleration of effort due to negative pressure, like those listed above):

  • Open source tinkering networks. Everything from the optimization of crop layouts to low cost DIY farming equipment.
  • Clustering. Shared equipment, insight, etc. While some of this can be achieved via online connections, local physical connections improve productivity.
  • Community support and demand. Relaxation of zoning/community regulations against yard conversions, support for a farmer’s market, etc.”


Local industrial fabrication networks

For industry, what is needed is the creation of fabrication networks:

“John Robb:

“Already, the fabrication equipment necessary to build complex objects/products costs only $20-50 thousand (some systems are in the hundred dollar range) and the costs are plunging. Given the technological trends, it will be possible in the next decade or so to produce nearly any product locally through these local fabricators in a cost competitive way — some at home and the rest at a local shop. The system like the one I built above would make it possible to take designs you purchase or acquire on a Web site, modify them as you see fit, and then send them to a local fabrication company (or your desktop) nearby for production.

So What Does This Mean?

The shift towards local fabrication and fabrication networks, added to local food/energy/security/etc. completes the transition of barren bedroom communities into resilient communities. It’s a 90% solution for communities, where only the most complex and difficult items are globally sourced.

It also enables:

  • A torrent of crowd-sourced improvements. Rather than a small design team deciding when/how a product is improved, products can be improved by vast global tinkering networks. Further, you can modify it yourself, if you are so inclined. In the not so distant future, buying a mass produced or unmodified product will be seen as a buying a broken/used/antiquated item.
  • Self-supply. 21st Century military units (like Marines in the field), with a trailer full of fabrication equipment, will be able to produce nearly anything they need — from parts to DIY weapons. It takes “make do” to a new level. Capturing and sharing (in real-time) the innovation produced here is going to be a challenge.
  • Comparative/competitive advantage. Communities that shift to self-production early will benefit from an ability to not only deal with shocks/disruptions better than global competitors, they will be able to generate wealth faster through cost reduction and commercial exploitation of innovations.”


Smart Local Information Networks

All this need to be tied together through smart local information networks, you can’t just rely on the international infrastructure, he insists:

“Most of the local loops (from telco fiber to cable company coaxial) currently in place and/or being installed in the US are dumb (I suspect it is the same globally). They simply route data from local customers to regionally clustered corporate server farms and then outwards/back. This means that any disconnection (physical or logical fault) between local customers and these remote systems will result in a complete cessation of service.”

They have 3 characteristics:

“* A high availability local network for emergencies. A local emergency network that connects all homes and business in the area by accessing the local aggregation nodes of cable/telco operators (which is actually a relatively trivial/inexpensive network exercise). It should become the default network if access to the greater Internet fails. Optimally, the network should sit astride both cable and telco services to provide a seamless community “footprint.”

  • High availability servers (computers that host Web sites) in the local loop. Servers that are on the community network and located within the communities environs. Back-up power should be provided to ensure that these servers maintain high up time.
  • Community coordination software to sit on these servers. Easy to use and edit social software: blogs, wikis, etc. If the market is large enough, there will be software packages (hopefully open source) that replicate the functionality of a fully functional emergency response system (i.e. locally cached Google maps, etc.). In terms of operating this software, most communities could ask schools/boy scouts/etc. to maintain the software, even during an emergency (young people are much more likely to have the skill sets to do this w/o specific training).”


Local monetary systems

Finally, control of local money may be very important:

John Robb:

“despite spotty record so far, scrip is an extremely powerful means of accelerating local economic activity when nothing else seems possible (in economic extremis).

Past experience with depression era scrip Abschein_vornelike Austria’s Worgl indicate that the following will accelerate scrip adoption, velocity, and robustness:

  • Allow community members to use it to pay all or part of their tax liabilities to local governments. This instantly establishes a market for the currency. Also, pay local government employees a portion of their wages in scrip.
  • Deflate the value of the scrip (optimally, one percent per month) to promote immediate use rather than hoarding.
  • To the extent possible, connect scrip to local production rather than retail. Locally produced food (farmer’s markets), energy (via local microgrids), products (personal fabs), and labor/services. Further, work with local banks to establish checking accounts for scrip and to enable conversions hard currencies (at a slight discount).”

There is one element of the above explanations that strikes a doubtful chord, i.e. the jump from present 3D printing of simple molds, to complex personal fabrication networks, in just a decade. I may return on that topic after consultation with our own network." (


State failure as rationale for resilient communities

What is John Robb's rationale for resilient communities. Answer: the coming state failure.

He writes:

"As you watch the global financial system continue to unravel this fall, think hard what it will take to prevent rampant state failure in a chaotic global market system that has already weakened (privatized, hollowed out, and bankrupted) nation-states across the entire landscape." (

Given the depth of the crisis, they are nearly inevitable, he argues:

"* Local is the only choice. The ability of the global system to dampen instability and prevent failure is nearing zero. We have neither the organizational frameworks necessary for global governance nor the precise tools of global policy required (even IF we were smart enough to manage something this complex). Any chance of real global change must start at the ground level by correcting the true sources of the problem and spread virally. Resilient communities eliminate nearly all of the drivers towards global instability and mitigate the effects of instability already in the system. It's self-reinforcing.

  • RCs guard against systemic decay and catastrophic failure. Survivalism assumes isolation, hoarding, and subsistence means to preserve only the bare essentials of life (the Jeremiah Johnson scenario). It's an approach that guarantees only long term privation and nearly inevitable failure. In contrast, resilient communities replace increasingly unreliable and expensive global sourcing of energy, food, etc. with locally efficient (and offer higher quality) alternatives. It also provides the ultimate level of protection against superempowered threats and hollow states. As a result, it preserves an existing quality of life (or lays the foundations for the creation of one where it didn't exist before).

  • RCs offer a path to accelerating returns. In contrast to the isolation of survivalism, the RC is community driven -- both within the community's physical environs and across similar efforts (via data connectivity). As such, it will benefit (we are already seeing this) from rapid rates of innovation available through open source development -- across the entire range of activities from energy to food to product fabrication. Relatively quickly, the solutions generated from these efforts will convert a community that was once a black hole of economic productivity into its exact opposite: a fount of accelerating wealth and life improvement that is orders of magnitude more efficient in its use of mass, energy, space, time, and information."


Resilient communities are a result of superempowerment, he explains:

"Most important to our analysis is how this change superempowers small groups, allowing them to accomplish activities normally reserved for large corporations or governments. The keys to this supermepowerment are:

  • Better tools. Moore's law, Carlson curves, and personal fabrication (DIY everything, the start of an exponential rate of improvement for matter/products). Shift from centralized production to 'grow' your own computer/chemicals etc. Local energy.
  • Rapidly expanding network resources. How to's on everything. Basic education via open courseware (from the best Universities in the world). Sensor networks. Spimes.
  • New social connectivity. Expert networks. Tinkering via open source development. Telecommuting. Wisdom of crowds and crowd-sourcing.

Unfortunately, this supempowerment makes it possible for small groups to do incredible damage to global society. Fortunately, it also making it possible for resilient communities to efficiently and productively emulate global production/services locally. As a result, the resilient community isn't a step backwards to 19th Century approaches (survivalism, scarcity, and low productivity), but rather a move in a direction that makes it possible to generate rapid and sustained (as opposed to the relative stasis and irregular progress of the current system) improvements how we live. (


Jeff Vail:

"I think that John Robb takes the most implementable and realistic approach to improving decentralized resiliency by placing the locus of self-sufficiency at the community level. However, I think that the ideal approach is to view the drive to replace hierarchal and centralized processes with a scale-free or fractal approach to self-sufficiency. In a dystopian view of the future resilient communities become indistinguishable from networks of feudal fiefs and manors. The key, in my opinion, to maintaining the participatory, egalitarian, and advancing mode of community is that it must be composed of individuals and sub-community groups that are equally self-sufficient and resilient. A community made up of people who depend on the good governance of community leaders is a recipe for localized totalitarianism, and even communities that begin in egalitarian, representative fashion will trend toward localized centralization, localized autocracy unless the components cut the same ties of dependency on and control by the community support structure that Resilient Communities seek to cut from the global system. Additionally, while some forms of self-sufficient production may be most appropriate at the community, or even bio-regional level, others may prove most efficient at a much lower level: water collection, storage, and purification; energy for home heating and cooling; substantial food production; etc. While it may be most realistic to target the Resilient Community theory at community organizers, this theory should at least encourage those organizers to actively facilitate the creation of scale-free self-sufficiency within their communities." (email, september 2008)