Can We Design Better Communities?

(DRAFT 2. A Work-In-Progress)

The Problem: Our Communities are Failing

I’ve been thinking about community lately. There is a great need for a new and better model for communities in the world today.

Our present communites are not working and most are breaking down or stagnating. Cities are experiencing urbanization and a host of ensuing  social and economic challenges. Meanwhile the movement towards cities has drained the people — particularly young professionals — away from rural communities, causing them to stagnate and decline.

Local economies have been challenged by national and global economic integratio — from outsourcing of jobs away to other places, to giant retail chains such as Walmart swooping in and driving out local businesses.

From giant megacities and multi-city urban sprawls, to inner city neighborhoods, to suburban bedroom communities, and rural towns and villages, the pain is being felt everywhere and at all levels.

Our current models for community don’t scale, they don’t work anymore, and they don’t fit the kind of world we are living in today. And why should they? After all, they were designed a long time ago for a very different world.

At the same time there are increasing numbers of singles or couples without children, and even families and neighborhoods that are breaking down as cities get larger.

The need for community is growing not declining — especially as existing communities fail and no other alternatives take their place. Loneliness, social isolation, and social fragmentation are huge and growing problems — they lead to crime, suicide, mental illness, lack of productivity, moral decay, civil unrest, and just about every other social and economic problem there is.

The need for an updated and redesigned model for community is increasingly important to all of us.

Intentional Communities

In particular, I am thinking about intentional communities — communities in which people live geographically near one another, and participate in community together, by choice. They may live together or not, dine together or not, work together or not, worship together or not — but at least they need to live within some limit of proximity to one another and participate in community together. These are the minimum requirements.

But is there a model that works? Or is it time to design a new model that fits the time and place in which we live better?

Is this simply a design problem that we can solve by adopting the right model, or is there something about human nature that makes it impossible to succeed no matter what model we apply?

I am an optimist and I don’t think human nature prevents healthy communities from forming and being sustainable. I think it’s a design problem. I think this problem can (and must) be solved with a set of design principles that work better than the ones we’ve come up with so far. This would be a great problem to solve. It could even potentially improve the lives of billions of people.

Models of Intentional Community

Community is extremely valuable and important. We are social beings. And communities enable levels of support and collaboration, economic growth, resiliance, and perhaps personal growth, that individuals or families cannot achieve on their own.

However, do intentional communities work? What examples can we look at and what can we glean from them about what worked and what didn’t?

All of the cities and towns in the world started as intentional communities but today many seem to have lost their way as they got larger or were absorbed into larger communities.

As for smaller intentional communities — recent decades are littered with all kinds of spectacular failures.

The communes and experiemental communities of the 1960’s and 1970’s have mostly fallen apart.

Spiritual communities seem to either tend towards becoming personality cults that are highly prone to tyrranny and corruption, or they too seem to fall apart eventually as well.

There have been so many communities around various gurus, philosophers, or cult-figures, but they have almost all universally become cults or have broken apart.

Human nature is hard to wrangle without strong leadership, yet strong leadership and the power it entails leads inevitably to ego and corruption.

At least some ashrams in India seem to be working well, although their internal dynamics are usually centered around a single guru or leadership group — and while there may be a strong social agreement within these communities, this is not a model of community that will work for everyone. And in fact, only in extremely rare cases, are there any gurus who are actually selfless enough to hold that position without abusing it.

Other kinds of religious communities are equally prone to problems — however perhaps at least some, such as the Quakers, Shakers, and Amish may have solved this — I am not sure however. If they were so successful, why are there so few of them?

Temporary communities are another type of intentional community, for example, Burning Man, seem to work quite well, but only for temporary periods of time — they would have the same problems of all other communities if they became institutionalized or tried to not be temporary.

Educational communities, such as university towns and campuses, do appear to work in many cases. They combine both an ongoing community (tenured faculty, staff and townspeople) and temporary communities (seasonal student and faculty residents).

Economic communes — such as the communes in Soviet-era Russia were prone to corruption, and failed as economic experiments. In Soviet Russia “some were more equal than others” and that ultimately led to corruption and tyranny.

Political-economic communities such as the neighborhood groups in Maoist China only worked because they were firmly, even brutally, controlled from the central government. They were not exactly voluntary intentional communities.

I don’t know enough about the Israeli Kibbutzim experiments, but they at least seem to be continuing, although I am not sure how well they function — I admit my ignorance on that topic.

One type of intentional community that does seem to work are caregiving communities such as assisting living communities, nursing homes, halfway houses, etc — but perhaps they seem to work only because their members don’t remain very long.

Why Aren’t There More Intentional Communities?

So here is my question: Do intentional communities work? And if they work so well, why aren’t there more of them? Or are they flourishing and multiplying under the radar?

Is there a model (or are there models) for intentional community that have proven long-term success? Where are the examples?

Is the fact that there are not more intentional communities emerging and thriving, evidence that intentional communities just don’t work or have stopped replicating or evolving? Or is it evidence that the communities we already live in work well enough, even though they are no longer intentional for most of us?

I don’t think our present-day communities work well enough, nor are they very healthy or rewarding to their participants. I do believe there is the possibility, and even the opportunity, to come up with a better model — one which works so well that it attracts people, grows and self-replicates around the world rapidly. But I don’t yet know what that new model is.

Design Principles

To design the next-evolution of intentional community, perhaps we can start with a set of design principles gleaned from what we have learned from existing communities?

This set of design principles should be selected to be practical for the world we live in today — a world of rapid transit, economic and social mobility, urban sprawls, cultural and ethnic diversity, cheap air travel, declining birth rates, the 24-7 work week, the Internet, and the globally interdependent economy.

In thinking about this further there are a few key “design principles” which seem to be necessary to make a successful, sustainable, healthy community.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it is what we have thought of so far:

Shared intention.
There has to be a common reason for the group of people to be together. The participants each have to share a common intention to form and participate in a community around common themes and purposes together.

Shared contribution . The participants have to each contribute in various ways to the community as part of their membership.

Shared governance.
The participants each have a role to play in the process of decision making, policy formation, dispute resolution, and operations of the community.

Shared boundaries. There are shared, mutually agreed upon and mutually enforced rules.

Freedom to leave. Anyone can leave the community at any time without pressure to remain.

Freedom of choice.
While in the community people are free to make choices about their roles and participation in the community, within the communities boundaries and governance process. This freedom of choice also includes the freedom to opt out of any role or rule, but that might have the consequence of voluntarily recusing oneself from further participation in the community.

Freedom of expression. The ability for community members to freely and fearlessly express their opinions within the community is an essential element of healthy communities. Systems need to be designed to support and channel this activity. If it is restrained it seeks out other channels anyway (subversion, revolution, etc.). By not restraining expression, but instead desiging a community process that authentically engages members in conversation with one another, the
community can be more self-aware and creativity and innovation can flow more freely.

Representative democratic leadership. The leadership is either by consensus and includes everyone equally, or there is a democratic representative process of electing leaders and making decisions.

Community mobility. This is an interesting topic. In the world today, each person may have different sets of interests and purposes, and they are not all compatible. It may be necessary or desirable to be a member of different communities in different places, times of the year, or periods of one’s life. It
should be possible to be able to be in more than one community, or to rotate through communities, or to change communities as one’s interests, goals, needs and priorities shift over time — so long as one participates in each community fully while they are there. The concept of timesharing in various communities, or what one friend calls “colonies,” is interesting. One might be a member of different colonies — one for their religious interests, one for social kinship, one for a hobby, one for recreation and vacation, etc. These might be in different places and have different members and their role and level of participation might be different in each one. Rather than living in only one particular community, perhaps we need a model where there is more mobility.

Size limitations. One thing I would suggest is that communities work better when they are smaller. The reason for this is that once communities reach a size where each member no longer can maintain a personal relationship with each other member, they stop working and begin to fragment into subgroups. So perhaps limiting the size of a community is a good idea. Or alternatively, when a community reaches a certain size it spawns a new separate community where further growth can happen and all new members go there. In fact, you could even see two communities spawning a new “child” community together to absorb their growth.

Proximity. Communities don’t require that people live near each other — they can function non-locally, for example online. However, the kind of intentional communities I am interested in here are ones where people do live together or near one another, at least part of the time. For this kind of community people need to live and/or dine and/or work together on a periodic, if not frequent basis. An eating co-op in a metropolitan area is an example — at least if everyone has to live within a certain distance and eat together a few times a week, and work a few hours in
the co-op per month. A food co-op, such as co-op grocery store is another example.

Shared Economic Participation. For communities to function there needs to be a form of common currency (either created by the community or from a larger economy the community is situated within), and there should be a form of equitable sharing of collective costs and profits among the community members. There are different ways to distribute the wealth — everyone can be equal no matter what, or reward can be proportional to role, or reward can be proportional to level of contribution, etc. What economic works best in the long-term, for both creating sustainability and growth, for maintaining social order and social justice, and for preventing corruption?

Agility. Communities must be designed to change in order to adapt to new environmental, economic and social realities. Communities that are too rigid in structure or process, or even location, are like species of animals that are unable to continue evolving — and that usually leads to extinction. Part of being agile is being open to new ideas and opportunities. Agility is not just the ability to recognize and react to emerging threats, it is the ability to recognize and react to emerging opportunities as well.

Resiliance. Communities must be designed to be resiliant — Challenges and even damages and setbacks are inevitable. They can be minimized and mitigated, but they will still happen to various degrees. Therefore the design should not assume they can be prevented entirely, but rather should plan for the ability to heal and eventually restore the community as effectively as possible when they do.

Diversity. There are many types of diversity: diversity of opinion, ethnic diversity, age group diversity, religious diversity. Not all communities need to support all kinds of diversity, however it is probably safe to say that for a community to be healthy it must at least support diversity of beliefs and opinions among the membership. No matter what selection criteria is used, there must still be freedom
of thought and belief, and expression, within that group. Communities must be designed to support this diversity, and even encourage it. They also must be designed to manage and process the conversations, conflicts, and changes that diversity brings about. Diversity is a key ingredient that powers growth, agility, and resiliance. In biology diversity is essential to species-survival — mutations are key to evolution. Communities must be designed to mutate, and to intelligently filter in or out those mutations that help or harm the community. Processes that encourange and process diversity are essential for this to happen.

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