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

Announcing the 2017 Fuller Challenge Semifinalists

August 17th, 2017, New York City: The Buckminster Fuller Challenge is delighted to announce the Semifinalists for the 2017 Fuller Challenge. A record number of entries were submitted in this 10th anniversary cycle of the program. Seventeen proposals were selected as Semifinalists from more than 460 entries.

The Buckminster Fuller Challenge program has been highlighting and celebrating exceptional examples of “whole systems” design across many sectors for the past 10 years. Launched in 2007, the program has been widely regarded as “socially-responsible design’s highest award” (first recognized by Metropolis Magazine in 2010). The 2017 Fuller Challenge Semifinalists are exemplars of innovative, multi-pronged approaches to addressing critical problems in agriculture, architecture, climate change, community planning, education, ecology, economic development, energy, human health, materials, sanitation, environmental and social justice, and other domains.

The seventeen Semifinalists have undergone rigorous evaluation for adherence to the Fuller Challenge criteria over a period of 4 months by members of the Challenge Review Committee, which includes more than a dozen long-standing reviewers as well as external advisors and experts.

While the list of Semifinalists below is categorized into problem spaces, the proposed solutions reflect integrated strategies that respond to multiple issues simultaneously as required in the Fuller Challenge Call for Proposals.

These Semifinalists were drawn from a truly exceptional pool of initiatives. We were very gratified – having been at this for ten years now – to see that the quality of the visions, the caliber of the teams, and the commitment to solving complex issues demonstrated in the entry pool were at an all-time high. It seems fitting to conclude and celebrate the first ten-year chapter of this prize program with the knowledge that comprehensive, anticipatory approaches to problem solving are on the rise around the world. On behalf of the entire Fuller Challenge team, we want to extend our congratulations to this year’s Semifinalists!” said Elizabeth Thompson, Fuller Challenge Founding Director.

The 2017 Buckminster Fuller Challenge Semifinalists are:


  • alt textLifeArk presents a physical solution to vulnerable human living conditions caused by climate change, natural disasters, armed conflict, and economic disparity through a pre-fabricated, modular building system that can create self-sustaining aquatic or terrestrial communities. Today, more than 1 billion people around the world dwell in slums, while more than 65 million people have become refugees or have been forcibly displaced . The LifeArk solution is a rapidly deployable structure that is flexible enough to respond to each individual community’s needs through its various configurations. It is fitted for transportation in standard shipping containers, can be mass produced at low cost and rapidly assembled with commonly available tools, and it allows for a variety of structure types, including community centers, health clinics, schools, hydroponic farms, and dwelling units—all of which can have a lifespan of 25-30 years. The units will contain built-in amenities as well as off-grid systems for clean water, energy, and waste management. The globally-adaptable LifeArk design is about to be prototyped on a lake in Texas and then deployed in the pilot community of Santa Rosa, Peru, along the Amazon River.

  • alt textLiter of Light redesigns solar lighting for the more than 1 billion people who suffer from energy poverty across the globe. Rather than depending on imported, patented, and expensive technologies, this grassroots, sustainable lighting movement embodies the principle that anyone can become a solar engineer. The program trains cooperatives of women and seeds their entrepreneurial activities with materials and tools to create micro-solar panels and solar battery kits that can provide energy to lanterns, mobile chargers, and streetlights. Products are manufactured at one-third the market rate, but more importantly, local people gain skills toward their livelihood. Liter of Light also works with children in schools, corporate volunteers, and local governments through workshops in order to build solar lamps for donation. It takes 30 minutes to convert a harmful kerosene lamp into a solar product, or 1 hour to make a streetlight that will provide clean energy for 5 years. The program has trained more than 6,700 adults and children and has impacted over 750,000 homes. Based in the Philippines, Liter of Light has operations in over 30 countries, with larger markets in India, Malaysia, Nepal, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Egypt, Kenya, Senegal, and South Africa.

  • alt textSOLARKIOSK is a social enterprise that distributes E-HUBBs: an energy-connectivity gateway and last-mile distribution network for underserved communities. A single E-HUBB can accommodate 40 kWp solar panels, a battery pack for 24/7 power supply, power monitoring capabilities, a wireless hotspot antenna, phone and computer charging, a printer, an LED TV, a solar fridge, a fan, an alarm, air conditioning, a water purification system, interior lighting as well as flood lights, medical equipment, and a minimum of 20 meters of shelving and storage space. The flexibility of the E-HUBB has been demonstrated by various specialty applications, including: an education center at the Kafa Biosphere Reserve in Ethiopia; a solar school unit for the displaced population at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan; a health clinic supporting the efforts of the Jordan Ministry of Health for displaced populations; a water purification E-HUBB in Kenya; and a banking kiosk that will bring financial tools to off-grid populations in Nigeria. E-HUBBs can be modified to provide spaces for gathering communities, education, health, retail, administration, water purification, and more. This project has grown very rapidly, meeting communities’ needs while empowering local entrepreneurs and boosting livelihoods. Ninety percent of the E-Hubb operators are women.

  • alt textHabitat Indoors’ Villa Corintios offers an exemplary design for transforming an informal settlement in the district of San Juan de Lurigancho in Lima, Peru, into a model of enlightened, “green” urbanism. Villa Corintios will include, when completed, a terraced landscape inspired by ancient Incan techniques, a greenbelt, and productive parks that will contain agricultural allotments and fish farms. Abundant local stone will be used for flooring, and homes will be made of prefabricated concrete as well as other local and recycled materials. In this foggy region of Peru, the air humidity, which can reach up to 90%, will permit water collection through fog-catchers and condensers. Wastewater and greywater will be treated and reused onsite. Organic waste will be transformed into gas energy and fertilizer by micro-enterprises. The community expects to achieve extensive yearly water use, waste, and carbon dioxide emission reductions. The design, which includes health-care infrastructure, the creation of some 500 jobs, and the incubation of 10 local companies, will radically boost the well-being of the inhabitants and provide a model for the transformation of poor, underserved “informal” urban settlements into vibrant, sustainable, healthy communities. After legalizing possession of the territory for the current inhabitants, Habitat Indoors has fully engaged the local community in the planning and construction process.


  • alt text El Ingenio by Germinalia A.C. is an interdisciplinary educational initiative dedicated to nurturing the creativity of young minds and imparting skills that permit poor children to thrive in both the economic marketplace and in their personal fulfilment. Using innovative, immersive, “hands-on” music creation and production, literacy and literature, design, architecture, science, technology arts, and DIY crafts workshops, courses, exhibits, concerts, and lab work, the project has seen great success in its pedagogic goals. Founded in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, as a reaction to an educational system based on rote learning that stifles creativity, El Ingenio developed a strong interdisciplinary focus, an integrated approach to learning, and a core philosophy of engaging full community participation at every level of decision making, from designing, building or retrofitting the learning spaces to designing curricula. With an aim toward eventual self-sufficiency, this nonprofit has spun off Geniart, a for-profit counterpart that closes the gap between creative education and creative production by marketing the high-quality products (furniture, books, CDs, etc.) generated in the learning environments. Germinalia has expanded to other regions of Mexico and has a long-term plan to replicate its innovative model throughought the country and internationally.

  • alt textFideicomiso de la Tierra del Caño Martín Peña (in English, Martín Peña Channel Community Land Trust) has designed the ENLACE project to address a variety of pressing needs in a poor, underserved, historically disenfranchised “informal” community near the center of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The project takes on the environmental restoration of the Caño Martín Peña, a polluted, degraded tidal channel located in the heart of the San Juan Bay estuary with important ecological and economic significance, while simultaneously working to prevent gentrification and provide affordable housing and access to critical infrastructure for the inhabitants. The project’s leaders decided to use a Community Land Trust (CLT) as a vehicle for community empowerment. They secured collective legal tenure of 200 contiguous acres of land in perpetuity, something truly historic and almost unheard of in such urban contexts. By tackling land rights, environmental restoration, and social justice in a multi-pronged approach, they have launched an unprecedented comprehensive development model. The CLT has kickstarted 65 social and economic development initiatives, engaged 1,600 community youth, and successfully relocated over 600 families to allow for suitable infrastructure development. The novel application of the CLT’s collective ownership model to an informal settlement is a truly revolutionary model, already being referenced for replication by communities in Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and South Africa.

  • alt textThe Vertical University Project by KTK-BELT approaches conservation and education in Nepal, the most vertical country in the world, through the design of a “Vertical University” comprising cooperatively owned “Learning Grounds” at various altitudes in distinct ecological areas. Thirty-three such Learning Grounds currently serve as place-based centers for ecological education and skills development. KTK-BELT engages farmers and youth to become stewards of biodiversity and their unique local environments, providing livelihood opportunities through the preservation and cultivation of unique plant and animal species, such as the Himalayan soap nut and the pangolin, as well as the preservation of local indigenous knowledge of the flora and fauna, of local agricultural and wildcrafting techniques, and of herbal medical traditions, such as the cultivation, production and use of 150 unique essential oils found in one particular area. By connecting farmers and youth in the region and developing a collective ownership model for safeguarding land, KTK-BELT is addressing the threats of encroachment by developers as well as the outmigration of youth seeking economic opportunities elsewhere. One hundred-fifty farming families have pledged to retain their land for the next 7 years after coming to understand their region as a haven of biodiversity with long-term value as well as a base of opportunity for ecologically-grounded livelihoods, sustainable agriculture, and ecotourism.


  • alt textMedic Mobile equips community health workers with digital tools that radically boost the capacity of regional medical networks in poor countries to provide effective care and reach far more people, including those in the most isolated communities. With main offices in Nairobi, Kathmandu and San Francisco, Medic Mobile is active in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Central America. Its open-source tools have been used by more than 13,000 health workers caring for eight million people, and they are on track to equip another 200,000 health workers by the end of 2021. Their innovations include the design of a novel “thin-SIM” system for collecting data using very cheap, locally-available phones, a smartphone application for more complex task management, and new web applications for facility-based health staff. Medic Mobile is committed to the innovative use of simple, robust communications technologies to reach the most disadvantaged people to ensure that whole populations get the medical care they need, as well as to using their tools and networks to support effective, data-driven strategies to eliminate malnutrition, monitor disease outbreaks at their earliest stages, and provide such vital services as antenatal care, cervical cancer screening, immunizations, etc., to hitherto disenfranchised populations.

  • alt textOpenAQ fosters a far-flung series of grassroots networks that fight “air inequality” by building and using the only global, real-time and historical, open-air quality data platform in the world, aggregating data from, so far, 47 countries and more than 5,400 ground stations. Through their open-source platform and rapidly growing collaborative community, they promote an ecosystem of air quality information that has enabled previously impossible cross disciplinary and international collaborations, scientific research projects, policy initiatives, and newly empowered, informed activism. Air pollution, responsible for 1 out of every 8 deaths in the world, has enormous impacts on health and the global economy, and very poor communities often suffer the brunt of those adverse impacts. Meaningful access to air quality data can effectively arm citizens across sectors, institutions, and communities to combat dirty air. Many governments, including those in severely polluted places, publish air quality data, but often in forms that make it difficult or impossible to access for most people. No government, international organization, or other group had made these data open and universally formatted prior to OpenAQ’s innovative platform. Beyond its data aggregation and sharing, OpenAQ is committed to on-the-ground convenings and has, so far, held three pilot workshops in Bosnia, India, and Mongolia to bring together journalists, scientists, software developers, artists, policymakers, and others to address air inequality.

  • alt textSanitation and Health Rights India (SHRI) is working to end open defecation in the Bihar and Jharkhand states of northern India. An estimated 110 million of the 135 million people in these states defecate in the open. In India, open defecation causes the spread of diseases that kill an estimated 300,000 children under the age of 5 and result in $38 billion in health-related costs each year. SHRI constructs community toilet facilities that include hand-washing stations and a biogas digester, which uses the human waste to power a generator that produces electricity, which, in turn, powers a small water filtration plant that uses a patented resin filter to remove arsenic, fluoride, iron, and bacterial contaminants from the local groundwater. The resulting potable water is sold for less than half the current market cost, allowing SHRI to offset its operational costs while providing free toilets and cheaper potable water to the community. SHRI currently operates five facilities, each of which provides toilets and potable water for 1,500 people and costs only $30,000 to build—80% cheaper than what it would cost the government to provide toilets without access to clean drinking water, and has plans to expand its model throughout India. This is a great example of a comprehensive, effective, self-sustaining, multi-faceted approach to problem-solving.

  • alt textToilets and Taps is another inspiring initiative seeking to eliminate the need for open defecation in India, where over 600 million people still do not have access to a toilet. Toilets and Taps works in the Visakhapatnam District of Andhra Pradesh state in southern India, primarily in small Dalit villages and all-girl tribal schools. Dalits and tribal peoples have historically found themselves at the lowest rungs of the social pyramid due to India’s ancient but still deeply-rooted caste system. The organization sets up 20 community bio-toilet units per village and 10 units per school, all equipped with a solar-powered water station that converts contaminated groundwater into 1.8 million liters of clean drinking water per year, sold at well below-market rates. The toilets do not require a septic tank or secondary waste treatment, as an inoculum of bacteria completely digests the waste, so no human intervention is required. Local men and women are trained to operate and manage the plant and machinery. With an overall human-centered approach, Toilets and Taps is strongly focused on gender equity and social justice. The comprehensive scope of its work includes a lot of public health education and on-the-ground community organizing. This is another great example of a project that radically boosts health, wellbeing, and awareness in the poorest, most oppressed communities with the use of robust, innovative green technologies and effective social strategies.


  • alt textLaborVoices revolutionizes transparency in global labor markets. Millions of workers in the global apparel sector are vulnerable to life-threatening risks on a daily basis. Despite the uptick in social-compliance monitoring over the past decade, labor abuses are still commonplace. Multinational brands have limited visibility into working conditions at facilities where their goods are produced, relying heavily on traditional social-compliance approaches like audits and hotlines that have been proven to misrepresent true workplace conditions. In response, LaborVoices has designed an unprecedented technology platform (Symphony) that allows workers to report on working conditions free of cost and anonymously through their phones. LaborVoices aggregates this data and makes it easily accessible to factory management and brands in real-time. LaborVoices also educates workers on ethical labor practices and helps them find the best places to work. LaborVoices has launched Symphony successfully in Bangladesh and Turkey, acquiring 30,000 workers as users and more than 300 factories in its database in less than one year. They have identified and resolved labor issues such as unpaid wages, abuse, human trafficking, forced labor, poor sanitary conditions, and unsafe buildings. Now that they have proven that the platform can improve global apparel supply chains, they aim to bring the solution to new markets around the world in need of such transformation.

  • alt textNet-Works , a partnership between Interface, the renowned, groundbreaking, eco-conscious carpet company, and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), is a highly innovative program that interweaves community development, environmental protection, and closed-loop economic production. Interface wanted to source recycled material in a way that would benefit communities and the environment, and ZSL wanted to develop a model of community-based conservation that would be self-funding, empowering, and bring immediate benefits to local people. The result is Net-Works. So far, 24 poor fishing communities in the Philippines and 9 in the Lake Ossa region of Cameroon recover and recycle discarded nylon fishing nets into yarn for use as carpet tiles. A dangerous waste product that harms marine life becomes a valuable raw material. A fair price is paid for the nets and a community-based supply chain is created. Also, innovative local banking initiatives, including community-managed savings and loan groups and a collective Environment Fund that invests in local conservation projects, help break donor dependency and make conservation self-funding. Net-Works is helping to restore marine life through the establishment of marine-protected areas and the replenishment of mangrove forests while strengthening local economies and enhancing community well-being and resiliency. This impressive project is now poised to expand into Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Thailand.

  • alt textProcesos Proambientales Xaquixe (PPX), based in Oaxaca, Mexico, has created a methodology for micro-industrial sustainability using alternative energy technologies adapted to materials from local waste streams. This system fosters a transdisciplinary network of small enterprises or “ecoclusters” of trained local specialists who share knowledge and resources to enrich communities and economies. Small enterprises and artisans are often the most dynamic part of an economy and the most vital to local resilience, but this sector does not receive the attention it merits. PPX supports small enterprises that use heat-treat processes to create artisanal products (e.g. mezcal, glass, ceramics, etc.), helping to co-create alternative technology solutions that lower energy consumption and costs and radically decrease environmental degradation and pollution. Their endeavors include a non-profit laboratory arm that advances green technologies based on local resources, a skills training center and consultancy that supports local entrepreneurs to co-design equipment as well as combustion and waste systems, and a regional platform for support, knowledge sharing, and inspiration to increase cross-sector collaboration and experimentation. Their model of a new “regional operating system” that emphasizes local materials and wisdom and existing waste streams can be applied to other systems and regions, much like the application of Permaculture solutions. And, they have in fact begun collaborating with projects in The Maldives, Virgin Islands, Africa, and Brazil.


  • alt textThe Sustainable Green Initiative Forum has designed Bhungroo, (in Gujarati, “straw” or “hollow pipe”), an innovative technology that can filter, inject, and store stormwater up to a depth of 300 meters in the subsoil. Operating in the Gujarat state of India with consultancy-based projects in Bangladesh, Ghana, Togo, and Vietnam, Bhungroo has 17 technical designs for a variety of soil types and agro-climatic zones and can be customized based on 27 variables. Using only 1 square meter of surface area, Bhungroo allows multiple farmers to collectively preserve and retrieve stored rainwater. In an area where female farmers are often disregarded as contributing members of society, this exemplary social enterprise also has a non-profit component that trains women who are smallholder farmers to collectively own the subsoil water stored by Bhungroo and to provide fee-based services to other smallholder farmers in their village, confronting repressive social structures that have dominated the region for 400 years. Their program will be made available to illiterate farmers through the development of an app that utilizes a pictorial format. Bhungroo can equip smallholder farmers to be able to face drought, monsoon flooding, and unpredictable precipitation patterns related to climate change.

  • alt textIgnitia, the first highly accurate, scalable tropical weather forecasting company, has developed a sophisticated weather model specifically calibrated for the tropics, resulting in hyper-local forecasts that are twice as accurate as other weather forecasting services. Ignitia sends GPS-specific forecasts to farmers via simple SMS so they can make better farming decisions. Nearly 3 billion people live in the tropics, a region where up to 80% of the working-age population make their living from farming, many of them living on less than $2 a day. These farmers struggle to produce enough food because every step in the farming cycle is dependent on weather. Food security is particularly threatened in sub-Saharan Africa where 96% of agriculture is rain-fed, smallholder farmers account for up to 70% of food production, and the crop yields per hectare are the lowest in the world. Currently working in Ghana, Nigeria, and Mali while also sending forecasts to Burkina Faso and Senegal, Ignitia is expanding rapidly. It partners with telcos to send farmers, NGOs, and local organizations daily, monthly, and seasonal predictions. The message is sent in a simple text-lite format, and can be received on any mobile phone (no smartphone required). Farmers subscribe via their mobile operator and pay in micro-installments from their existing mobile credit. It costs just $0.03/message.

  • alt textSistema Biobolsa permits small farms, rural communities, and urban settlements to convert organic waste into renewable energy and organic fertilizer. Based on a biomimetic model that originated in the early 20th century, Sistema Biobolsa has re-designed the common bio-digester to provide a state-of-the-art, robust system with a high-quality membrane comprising modular parts that is compact enough to be distributable via donkeys, motorbikes, or boats. This has allowed to scale to serve farmers in Colombia, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Senegal and is growing virally, with plans for near global reach. The bio-digesters convert waste into fertilizer for agricultural application and produce natural gas used for clean cooking and heating water, thereby reducing indoor air pollution and combatting deforestation. The gas is also used to run small engines for mechanical and electrical needs, providing affordable, renewable, decentralized energy to hitherto electricity-deprived populations. places a heavy focus on the monitoring and evaluation of their technology. Their replication package includes technical and communication tools that allow local representatives to track potential waste streams, calculate energy values, order systems and track and report impacts over time. This highly effective project provides a game-changing approach to boosting the livelihoods and well-being of small farmers (who grow 80% of the world’s food).

  • The Fuller Challenge review process is still underway. Finalists will be announced in September and a winner will be announced in October. A 10th anniversary celebration of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge and the conferring of the grand prize will take place in New York City on the weekend of November 10th-12th. The event will be open to the public, so please save the date. You may contact [email protected] for further information.