Arch + Eng, Art, Design, Education, Sci + Tech, Social Impact

Michael Ben-Eli Interviewed by Michael Wayne



Michael Ben-Eli is the Founder of The Sustainability Laboratory. He formed the Lab in 2008, in order to help address urgent sustainability issues facing the planet. The mission of The Sustainability Laboratory is, as they write on their website, “To act as a catalyst for accelerating the transition of world’s society and its economy to a sustainable basis by researching, developing, demonstrating and facilitating adoption of breakthrough sustainability practices, thereby expanding prospects, and producing positive, life-affirming impacts on people and ecosystems in all parts of the world.”


Michael Ben-Eli started his professional career thinking he was going to become an architect, and left his native Israel to attend the Architectural Association in London. But then a chance encounter with the legendary designer, futurist and visionary Buckminster Fuller changed the course of his life.


He attended a talk Fuller gave to the British Association of Architectural Students, and was captivated by Fuller’s ideas, especially his vision of a World Design Science. Michael had the good fortune to be invited to go to breakfast with Fuller the next morning, and although in awe of this visionary genius, he and Buckminster Fuller connected and Michael Ben-Eli started working with Fuller and his team on World Design Science – basically, designing a better world.


No longer was Michael going to be an architect designing buildings and furniture, now he was after bigger game. After graduating college, he moved to Illinois, where he joined Fuller’s team at the University of Southern Illinois. He also continued his schooling by commuting back and forth to London, where he pursued a Ph.D. in cybernetics, which is the field of understanding and managing complexity – in essence, it is the field of understanding how the world truly operates.


After finishing his formal schooling, he finished up working with Buckminster Fuller and became a management consultant, using his knowledge of both cybernetics and world design science to help companies and organizations better design the way they operated and functioned. He started working on issues of sustainability, mostly with multilateral development agencies on projects in many parts of the world.

Yet, he saw the limitations of these approaches and projects, and ultimately he decided to take a sabbatical from his consulting work to focus on designing something new, something innovative, something that could tackle the world’s sustainability issues without being hamstrung by bureaucracy. After two years of incubating and developing his idea, Michael Ben-Eli’s vision was born: The Sustainability Laboratory.


His new organization would take a holistic perspective and feature cross-sector and cross-disciplinary collaboration. He called it a Lab because he knew that addressing the sustainability challenge required going beyond mere adjustments in existing patterns of doing things to fundamentally changing the way people manage human affairs.


He also knew that the unprecedented nature of the required change meant that there was no tried-and-true operating manual, and that the capacity for thinking in new paradigms and pursuing creative experimentation was essential. Hence the concept of a laboratory, with connotations of exploration, radical innovation, going beyond the familiar, and breaking new ground.

Just as the great defense laboratories assembled extraordinary talent to develop destructive technologies, The Sustainability Laboratory’s aim was to harness worldwide talent to advance a planetary sustainability agenda, helping humanity secure the promise of its next evolutionary step.


He started to assemble collaborators, and now has implemented the vision. The first project to get off the ground was Project Wadi Attir, a model desert sustainable community.  Project Wadi Attir is situated on 100 acres in the Negev Desert in Israel, on what was once barren land. It is a groundbreaking initiative of a Bedouin community in the Negev desert, demonstrating an approach to sustainable desert agriculture, replicable locally as well as in other arid regions around the world. Using The Lab’s sustainability principles as a guide, the project is designed to leverage Bedouin traditional values, know-how and experience with modern-day science and cutting edge technologies.


In a short time, Project Wadi Attir has brought a barren desert back to life, creating a lush and diverse ecosystem.


Since launching this project, Michael has turned his sights to other regions of the world, to show that successful ecosystems can be created anywhere. The goal is to create ecozones in varied geographical locations. They have already successfully launched an ecozone in a Humid and Dry Tropics region in Costa Rica, and now have their sites on creating ecozones in an Alpine region in Bhutan, in an island region in the Galapagos, and in an urban region in New York City.