Specialized in Generality
Buckminster Fuller is best known for the invention of the Geodesic Dome. The structure’s remarkable properties allow it to be built to any size, while maximizing the ratio of internal volume to external surface area. Thousands of domes have been built providing relief to disaster victims, strength to military compounds, awe to audiences in concert halls, and prestige to the U.S. Pavilion of the Montreal 1967 Expo. Its innovative structural principles have become deeply embedded in architectural design. Yet, despite having influenced the discipline of architecture so profoundly, many practitioners and academics do not consider Bucky an architect. Instead he has been said to be an engineer, which many engineers deny as well. This same dynamic took place in the fields of mathematics, poetry and philosophy.
Bucky was the quintessential eccentric of influence, having received no formal training in any of the aforementioned disciplines while revolutionizing all of them nonetheless. His lectures have been reputed to change people forever as well, making them aware of all of the previously unseen possibilities that surround them. An extraordinary man by all standards, his aptitude to continuously reshape the world around him stemmed from his own peculiar way of seeing the world.
According to Bucky, his incisive powers of observation were ironically catalyzed by congenital poor vision. His early development as a child was less dependent on visual cues, allowing his abstract thinking processes and conceptual comprehension to strengthen. After receiving his corrective lenses at age four, his newly found clear vision was combined with his unique cognitive development, yielding an incredibly inquisitive and powerfully analytical mind. In addition, his education at Milton Academy, his short-lived stint at Harvard University and his officer training with the U.S. Navy, fed his insatiable thirst for knowledge of any and all kinds. His exploration helped him weave an unbelievable cross-disciplinary learning journey, connecting properties of geometry, mechanics, literature and history, just to name a few. His understanding of the world continuously grew, opening new lines of inquiry that delivered him at the shores of new learning.
The astonishing Dymaxion Chronofile – his lifelong collection of notes and files containing observations, experiments and notes– demonstrates his constant and seemingly unpredictable self-education. With each new finding, Bucky uncovered new perspectives that redefined reality as was understood. So novel was his idiosyncrasy that he uncovered a previously unknown universal coordinate system based on whole numbers. His methods were so exact and meticulous, that his mathematical accounting of the world’s natural resources and predictions of future global populations were later confirmed by computer calculations. He even redesigned the map of the world to minimize landmass distortions. Finally, his investigation and insights resulted in an unprecedented realization of incalculable significance. Buckminster Fuller comprehended that just as technology changed his life for the better by improving his vision, it had arrived to the point where it could make the world work for 100% of humanity. He understood how we got to where we are, and what we are capable of, so he took a bold stance regarding the direction in which humanity should go.
Buckminster Fuller dedicated his life to developing the necessary tools that would enable an improved life for all of humanity. Having observed that the planet is a network of systems embedded in other systems, he developed a unique and novel approach to manage this complexity. He expressed that in order for humanity to achieve its full potential, as a “resounding success,” the future must be fashioned by employing “comprehensive anticipatory design science” (CADS). This meant combining the self-initiated discipline and methods of science, and combining them with the creative problem solving skills of designers.
Bucky observed the trend of humans toward increasing specialization as a significant threat to our success. He compared this behavior to biological extinctions, explaining that a species whose genes overspecialized to certain conditions would inevitably fail to adapt to changing environments and therefore eventually disappear. Cautioning against this trend, which emerged unchallenged and has been even perceived as logical and desirable by society, Bucky invited individuals to embrace their agency in the world rather than bestowing responsibility for thought and action to “specialists.” Underlying this view is the conclusion that designing the future of the world is our collective responsibility.
Rather than specializing, Bucky championed comprehensiveness or generalizing. He challenged the use of the nomenclature by reminding us that in literature a generalization is a statement that is too wide to entail something specific and therefore carries a negative connotation, while in science a generalization is an observation applicable to every case and therefore a universal truth. Following from this finding, he established that only a comprehensive approach is apt to effectively manage the hugely interconnected complexity of both local and global systems. In addition to universal understanding, anticipatory calculation was also to be employed in order to preempt future conflict and limitations and achieve sustainable livingry. This conclusion therefore became the core of the CADS discipline, which he maintained to be necessary for the world to work for 100% of humanity.
In today’s world, the trend towards specialization continues to strengthen, and comprehensive cross-disciplinary methods are few and far between. Planned obsolescence is unfortunately an established practice in product design and resource conservation continues to struggle to find acceptance in global society. Its as if the decades old lessons that Bucky pioneered have been omitted from our collective learning. Whether we realize it or not, humanity’s way of life is degrading the long-term sustainability of life on earth, and it will be up to us to reverse this trend. Buckminster Fuller captured the essence of what needs to happen best when he said: “quite clearly our task is metaphysical –for it is: how to get humanity to educate itself swiftly enough to generate spontaneous social behavior which will avoid extinction.”