Antifragility in Local Government, We Can Rebuild It: Better, Stronger, Faster

By focusing on antifragility, local governments can emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic stronger than ever before.

ARTICLE | Jul 14, 2020
by Center for Urban Innovation, 
Arizona State University

COVID-19 confronts local governments with a public health and economic crisis without precedent in modern history. Economists in Forbes estimate the cost to the US economy in the range of $8 trillion dollars. Positive COVID-19 case counts continue to soar across America against a backdrop of limited and piecemeal guidance from the federal government to support state and local governments. The virus has revealed deep sources of fragility in both our governance structures and our society more generally.

Specifically, COVID-19 and the responses to it have underscored and heightened problems around food insecurity, affordable housing, income insecurity, and income inequality. The virus did not create these problems, but it has added substantial stressors to an already strained social and civic fabric in local communities, making these fractures more apparent.

“Fragility” emerges as governments or citizens fail to meet their public commitments to their communities. With each instance of failure, another small tear appears in the social fabric. As these tears accumulate, our communities become less able to recover from internal and external shocks when they arise, such as natural disasters or economic crises.

“Resiliency” is a goal of adaptable systems and combats the effects of fragility. Resiliency is generally understood to be the capacity to withstand, prevent, or resist these shocks. For local governments, resiliency has been treated as a goal to help return the organization and its community to “normal” as quickly as possible following one of these shocks.[1] For years, scholars[2] and practitioners alike have encouraged local governments to pursue resiliency as an important organizational goal.

But if COVID-19 has taught us anything about our fragility and resilience, it is that getting back to normal is simply not good enough. Local governments need to come back even better.

Many times, athletes suffer injuries, receive treatment, go through rehabilitation, and come out better and stronger than before the injury. Local governments are in a similar position. And we can come back better. We call this “antifragility.”[3]

To this end, Alliance for Innovation (AFI) is encouraging local governments not only to adopt cultures of innovation to improve their organizations, but to move past resilience and adopt those practices that yield antifragility. Antifragile local governments focus on outcomes rather than outputs, build their budgets around long-term fiscal sustainability, run on real data in real-time, build trust and accountability within their communities, and remain flexible to achieve outcomes through collaboration and partnerships.

How can scholars and practitioners work towards helping innovative leaders in government apply these principles to emerge even stronger? AFI, the innovative managers on Board, and their partners at Arizona State University’s Center for Urban Innovation are developing an array of tools and training programs designed to help local governments move past being resilient and pursue antifragility goals. These tools include useful assessments and action steps to help understand the current context and position of an organization in terms of its ability to achieve these goals. 

Eventually, we will bring COVID-19 under some form of control. Local governments will begin the recovery process. How local governments decide to do so will determine their organization and communities’ likelihood of coming out of this period stronger and better able to weather the coming shocks the future will inevitably bring.

Center for Urban Innovation
Arizona State University

Allegra Fullerton
David Selby
Regan Jepson
David Swindell (david.swindell@asu.edu)


[1] Masterson, et al. (2014). Planning for Community Resilience: A Handbook for Reducing Vulnerability to Disasters (3rd ed.). Washington DC: Island Press.

[2] Dzigbede, K.D., Gehl, S.B. and Willoughby, K. (2020), Disaster Resiliency of U.S. Local Governments: Insights to Strengthen Local Response and Recovery from the COVID ‐19 Pandemic. Public Admin Rev, 80: 634-643. doi:10.1111/puar.13249

[3] Taleb, N. (2012). “Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.” Random House Publishing Group. New York.

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