It is no longer news that the world has undergone major changes, not necessarily disruptions, but certainly accelerations. Ongoing processes have been enhanced, and decades have passed in months. Among these processes, deterritorialization and dematerialization have direct impacts on cities and places.
If, on the one hand, we saw work transform, leaving offices and occupying homes, the same happened with cities with its empty streets. Our homes became an office, and the internet became our city. Our utilitarian relationship with cities has been transformed. It stops being a scenario, to become a protagonist in post normal times. Technology provides us with almost everything we need, including social interaction, and until then something of the domain of cities. If cities are essentially the place of interaction and opportunity and that interaction no longer takes place in the physical world, what is ‘the city’ now?
Although many of these questions still do not have objective answers, what is clear is the need for cities to adapt to this, and to new realities that will certainly emerge. Just before that, comes the idea of an antifragile city. In fact, the idea started to take shape in mid-2018, before all this madness. The hermetic character of many cities and the difficulty in dealing with the perspectives of the future in a way that was not weakly predictive were already emerging as key indicators in the work of Placemakers.
The idea of antifragility, much discussed during the pandemic, was created by the author Nassim Taleb, in his bestseller “Antifragile”. As opposed to fragility and as a kind of evolution for resilience, antifragility, does not extinguish after a traumatic event as would fragility, nor does it return to its original form such as resilience. It learns from crises and evolves. Although it may seem unattainable at first, this concept is already used in some industries, the most notorious being commercial aviation. After an accident, the only certainty we have is that the next day it will be safer to fly.
But what is an antifragile city?
Essentially, an antifragile city is a dynamic, plural and adaptive organism. The concept can be defined by a simple equation, founded by Caio Esteves in 2018: Identity + Vocation x Optionality
Identity is certainly the starting point, just like in Place Branding. It is necessary to deeply understand the place in question, its culture and the behavior of the people who use it, both resident and non-resident. The vocation in turn understands what the place produces and can offer today, in a tangible and intangible way. Even more importantly, it works to understand what it will be able to offer in the future based on its unique identity.
Optionality is the “new” concept here. We write in quotation marks because the term is relatively new, but the idea is ancestral. We can say that optionality, another Talibian term, is nothing more than not putting all your eggs in one basket, the advice of a grandma anywhere in the world. From this perspective, always looking at its identity and vocation, places should develop a considerable number of sectors of economic development instead of a single one as we see happens too frequently, however absurd it may seem. At the time of COVID-19, the lack of optionality had dramatic consequences for several destinations. 100% (or close to) tourism-dependent cities have gone through very delicate moments due to the lack of visitors during lockdown, both domestically and abroad.
In addition to the original equation
It was evident that the three elements of the original equation would not be able to deal with the complexity of the proposed approach. It became necessary to create a new layer of elements within each of the original concepts.
Through this evolution, we are able to include elements essential to antifragile thinking. Although all are essential, in this text we would like to highlight three of them, who have proved evident in the face of recent events: Community Participation, Community Vitality and Supraterritoriality.
As a city is made by people, for people, we will start there. If, on the one hand, the pandemic isolated us inside our homes and meetings turned into video conferences, our need for a sense of community, whether physical or virtual, has never been stronger. It was this sense of life and community that made us go through our ups and downs in terms of mental and physical health throughout this past year. Even more than that, the composition of the world as a huge global village was equally apparent, as McLuhan would say more than fifty years ago.
At the same time, we are experiencing a paradox, while globalization presents itself as unstoppable, we have seen the birth of a new kind of localism. This takes shape not only at the micro-local political level, shedding light on the importance of local knowledge of one’s own home (country, region and city) as well as their understanding of the importance of local trade and production. These aspects of localism contribute to the survival of communities across the globe. The bottom line is that regardless of scale, it has been quite some time since we, as people, have been so aware of our dependency on the local community.
In light of these recent events, it is essential for cities to create friendly micro decision spheres capable of engaging the community in decisions about their future. Across the globe, we have seen plenty of examples of the importance of community, its engagement and its vitality. Local governments had a better understanding, and in certain cases, better performance in combatting the pandemic than national governments. At the local level, organizations are closer to the problem and therefore the people. The greater the degree of involvement and understanding, the greater the efforts to combat the problem at hand, thus creating efficient support systems at a level people can relate to.
Beyond the territory
Finally, we need to talk about something we call supraterritoriality, which is essentially the idea that a place is much more than its territory. This is another point unexplored by places around the world with very rare and brilliant exceptions. If technology has become the new city, or at least the internet, it is imperative to think of cities and places as going beyond their physical borders and dimensions. This is not an esoteric approach; it is pure evidence of a behavior accelerated by the pandemic. We are going beyond the development of applications, and need to manage communities that are not necessarily within the same territory. We need to understand once and for all what our cities mean, and what is their identity and vocation in order to be known beyond its territory.
At the end of the day, even with modern technology, the antifragile city is all about people.
Antifragile Cities by Caio Esteves is available for purchase here.