Design, Education, Sci + Tech

An Experiment in Individual Initiative

What does a method of slowing aircraft overrunning a runway have to do with the pioneering work of designer and futurist Buckminster Fuller? 

For decades, eco-entrepreneur Andrew Ungerleider has drawn inspiration from the life and work of the late R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983). An American original, Fuller considered himself an “emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist, and evolutionary strategist.” 

Fuller championed a way of thinking and design that he called Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science. Each word connects to a larger meaning. 

Comprehensive invites us to start with the whole and work toward the more specific—to practice systems thinking.
Anticipatory means to understand trends shaping our future, and to envision the best possible future.
Design is the process of imagining and planning systems and artifacts—an act of invention.
Science implies the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding. 

Many of Fuller’s inventions—Geodesic Dome, Dymaxion House, Dymaxion Car, Synergetic Geometry—resulted in US patents, 28 in all. Ungerleider, a recipient of 10 patents, was recently granted one for an invention to slow aircraft that overrun an airport’s runway, the result of mechanical failure or pilot error. 

Ungerleider’s waste glass research and development company, Earthstone International (Sante Fe, NM), invented the airport runway arrester system over a 15-year period. As part of this work, Earthstone discovered a method to create foamed glass, a lightweight, anti-flammable ceramic material. 

This glass compound is embedded in the ground—imagine a racetrack gravel pit—in two-foot deep beds approximately 500-700 feet in length. The Earthstone system is aimed at airports that lack a minimum 1,000-foot clearance beyond the runway. 

“Our system does no harm to passengers and no damage to the aircraft,” Ungerleider said. “We bring the plane to a safe stop within 600 feet for a 757 jet going 90 miles per hour.” Ultimately, this saves lives—32% of all air accidents occur after the aircraft hits the runway. 

While the patent focuses on airport runways, Ungerleider envisions the environmentally-friendly foamed glass product applied to the highway or racetrack pullouts, bridges, and other places to stop vehicles. 

The invention required Ungerleider and his co-inventor Gene Ramsey to think about the optimal design for a whole cycle of innovation—from materials to manufacturing to application. Buckminster Fuller was an early advocate of recirculating industrial materials in closed loops. This approach, which we now call a circular economy, is based on the principles of designing out waste and keeping materials in use. Fuller summed it up: “Recirculation is regenerative.” 

In his early work with Earthstone, Ungerleider examined society’s “garbage stream.” He asked, “What is a low-cost raw material that lends itself to recirculation?” As it turned out, glass was an under-utilized waste material. Each year, American’s discard 28 billion pounds of glass, with less than 10% being recycled. 

Ungerleider’s vision is to take billions of tons of waste glass and find new applications, such as an ultra-lightweight aggregate for building materials (concrete and cement), insulation, drainage, and inventions such as the arrester bed for airports. Earthstone demonstrates one of Buckminster Fuller’s core design principles: “Doing more with less.” 

It is fitting that the epitaph on Fuller’s gravesite in Cambridge, Massachusetts reads “Call me trimtab.” A trimtab is a small mini-rudder attached to the trailing edge of the larger rudder of a ship. When the captain steers the ship in a new direction, the very first thing to move is the trimtab, which exerts enough pressure to move the larger rudder, which then moves the whole ship. 

Buckminster Fuller saw the trimtab as a metaphor for effective individual initiative, where small and strategically placed interventions can produce large-scale changes. “Like Fuller, I view my life as an experiment in individual initiative,” says Ungerleider. “May we all serve as trimtabs at this critical moment of human history.”