Design for a New World: The Bucky Fuller Convergence

Posted by: Sara on Monday, June 7, 2010.



Last week I had the privilege of attending the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI), “Design Science Revolution Convergence,” in Washington DC. “Bucky,” the affectionate term by which Fuller is known, was a pioneering systems thinker, visionary, inventor, and an inspiration to many. I’d heard the rough outline of his life’s epiphany and found it described as follows on the web:

"In 1927, at the age of 32, Buckminster Fuller stood on the shores of Lake Michigan, prepared to throw himself into the freezing waters. His first child had died. He was bankrupt, discredited and jobless, and he had a wife and new-born daughter. On the verge of suicide, it suddenly struck him that his life belonged, not to himself, but to the universe. He chose at that moment to embark on what he called “an experiment to discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity.” Over the next fifty-four years, he proved, time and again, that his most controversial ideas were practical and workable." (




Some of these insights and inventions included the Geodesic dome, the Dymaxion map. the term, “Spaceship Earth.” We are all in this together. He knew that we could power the world on renewable energy; there was, “No energy crisis, just an ignorance crisis.”

So in Bucky’s honor and to model what is possible, BFI put out a challenge prize for a $100,000 for breakthrough ideas and experiments that will, “Make the world work for 100% of humanity." Some 200 projects entered the competition, now in its third year, each with a revolutionary, evolutionary systemic design approach to simultaneously address social, ecological and economic sustainability in service of all.







The winner: “Operation Hope: permanent water and food security for African’s impoverished millions” is an initiative of the Savory Institute based in Zimbabwe that uses “holistic management and decision making” to reverse desertification and create thriving grasslands and communities. And they’ve done it – before/after pictures as proof. Lands that have gone from desolation to fertility and abundance. But the amazing thing was how they did it: livestock. That’s right, livestock. I know, Livestock are one of the villains in Global Climate Change and desolation of land. But it turns out that Livestock aren’t the problem, the destruction is a function of the time of their exposure to a certain plot of land. Keep them all in the same square of land and through, “Tragedy of the commons” dynamics, they will destroy that habitat taking the communities livelihood with them. Let them graze over distances and the excrement and urine they leave behind will render fertile lands. Ironically, as Zimbabwean team member Zakhe Mpofu explained to me, these were the traditional methods of farming used by indigenous Africans. It was when European white folks dominated the landscape insisting that African farmers contain themselves to randomly outlined squares of land, that the land was devastated.

The Design Convergence jury chose Operation Hope, I think, not only because of their stellar results literally on the ground, their whole systems decision-making process, the positive economic impact on the region, their inclusion of indigenous voices in the mix. But also because the idea at the heart of the solution is so counter-intuitive. Livestock as the key to restoration?? What other breakthrough ideas are right in front of our eyes that we’ve dismissed out of habit or prejudice?

Other finalists this year included the barefoot solar women engineers of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and the Watergy (bionic) Greenhouse to name just two. Last year’s winner was Ryan Chin, from the MIT media lab, inventor of a foldable electric car and a green bike that goes 20 miles on 2 cents of gasoline. All breakthrough ideas, all inspiring and inspired teams.


I’m calling these kinds of stories, “The antidote to the suicide factor.” We have thousands of barrels of oil spewing into the Gulf at this writing, global temperatures on an exponential rise threatening all life we know, species dying off by the minute – there is so much bad news. I’ve experienced this and witnessed so many others go into despair. We’re F%&$^#ed. There’s nothing to be done. It’s over. Now witness the Bucky Fuller design challenge examples. BFI has posted these at Check this out the next time you’ve got the world destruction blues. As it says on the BFI site, the index “currently contains over 500 innovative solutions addressing the world's most pressing problems. It represents a growing pool of knowledge about how to tackle some of the most inexorable problems facing our global society - ready to be picked up and put into action by investors, philanthropists, designers, artists, policymakers, and anyone who wants to change the world.”


Now I’m back at last week's blog, Goldilocks 2. Imagine a mind-expanding experience of the cosmos, as David McConville shows us with his Bucky-inspired GeoDome. Then listen to the indigenous wisdom traditions and see how cutting edge science corroborates ancient cosmology. Now articulate the handful of living systems principles for supporting life on planet earth that emerge at this confluence of physics and metaphysics . Next witness the real-life breakthrough “ideaindex” examples -- from the deserts of African to the halls of MIT -- to inspire your own creative visions. And then we create community, supporting each other with ideas, resources, networks, and a good dose of cheerleading when the times get rough, to make those visions – our visions real on the ground. As my friend Paul, whose Global AIDS Alliance work has saved millions of lives, says "With people-centered, evidence-based, replicable results.”

It’s a big vision, but as Bucky said, “If success or failure of this planet of human beings depended on how I am and what I do . . . how would I be? What would I do?” I’d do something like this. Let’s do it together.

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