Systems Change

Bucky Fuller’s insights on systems and change can enable us to be more effective. For example, his ideas about trimtabs have enabled many changemakers to adjust system direction.

This work is rooted in his concept of livingry: how might we create success for all? We can use generalized principles and design science to create more effective physical artifacts. And we can also improve how systems operate.

Fuller emphasized that everything is a system, and all systems are coupled to other systems.  How can we use the principles of systems to build better artifacts and a better world?

To begin, we need to recall the properties of systems. 

  • Systems are composed of relations. 
  • The relations determine how the system responds and behaves.
  • To change a system, we need to modify its relations
  • Some of the relations are external – the interconnections between systems. 
  • We often sense systems by their behavior – they resist changes, or maintain a goal. 

With those in mind, we can explore how to change systems and their interactions.

  • To adjust the goal or direction of an existing system, we can use a trimtab (a rudder on the rudder)
  • In other cases we need to change how systems interact to achieve our goals. 
  • Sometimes a system can’t be adjusted, and a new model should be created to replace its function. “Don’t fight the existing system, create a new model” RBF


A trimtab is a small rudder on the bigger rudder of a ship or airplane. Huge rudder is very difficult to move! However when the trimtab is moved, the rudder follows along. This allows a small amount of force to adjust a much larger system.

The trimtab metaphor is very powerful, as we can see how an individual can affect a larger system such as an organization. Regenerative and sustainable designers are using trimtabs when they teach others, and also when they design ways for users to adjust system operation.

When the best approach is to adjust the behavior of an existing system, we can use a trimtab.

One way to be a trimtab is to influence other people. If we can’t change the course of the Queen Mary by ourselves, then we can influence the pilot, the navigator, and the ones who set the destinations. This is the way Bucky worked: by giving us better models, we all become trimtabs.

Trimtabs can also be seen in stories that connect us and others into a larger whole. These stories connect both the storyteller and the listener to universal truths.

A trimtab can also be seen as a valve, adjusting flows and relations. Donella Meadow’s suggestions in Places to Intervene In A System can be seen as trimtabs.

“Call me trimtab” is on Bucky’s gravestone. #

Systems Interaction

A second approach is to work on systems interaction. An example of interaction is pollination: when the bee contacts the flower to get sustenance, it picks up pollen. You might say that this action is unintentional, as the bee didn’t intend to do this. When the bee contacts another flower, some pollen is transferred and that flower gets pollinated.

This is a very common strategy, and an example of species evolving together or co-evolving. As more flowers are pollinated, more plants grow and there is more food for the pollinators. Nature does this everywhere, and is a significant part of systems resilience. We can think about symbiosis and other biological phenomena as systems interaction.

Bucky emphasized that actions and their reactions don’t cancel out. There is always some extra left over or needed to balance the interaction. This extra is the cause of systems interactions, and can be used to our benefit. Universe can be seen as a multitude of events, and every event is a combination of action, reaction, and resultant:

  326.13 Humans, like the honeybee, are born ignorant, preprogrammed with hunger, thirst, and respiratory drives to take in chemical elements in crystalline, liquid, and gaseous increments, as well as with procreativeness and parental-protectiveness drives. With their directly programmed drives humans inadvertently produce (what are to them) side effects, which results in their doing the right cosmic regenerative tasks for all the wrong reasons__or without any reason at all. This preliminary phase of preconditioned human reflexing, while lasting millions of years, is a gestative-phase behavior that becomes obsolete as humans’ metaphysical mind discovers the principles of precession and discovers__only through vast, cumulative trial and error__the pattern experience of both terrestrial and cosmic ecology; whereafter humans will progressively recommit their endeavors in support of the recycling and orbitally regenerative effects, precessionally interproduced by all independently orbiting cosmic systems.” RBF

In other words, the major effect of systems on one another is how they couple together. ‘Side effects are the major effects’. He often described this as precession. 

“We find that precession is completely regenerative – one brings out the other. So I gave you the dropping the stone in the water, and the wave went out that way. And this way beget that way. And that way beget that way. And that’s why your circular wave emanates. Once you begin to get into “precession” you find yourself understanding phenomena that you’ve seen a stone falling in the water all of your life, and have never really known why the wave does just what it does.” RBF

For example, the waste products of livestock can be used as fertilizer to improve the soil. Organizations working together can both gain.

Creating A New Model

In other cases, the current system can’t be adjusted to accomplish what is needed, and a new system should be designed. “Don’t fight the existing system, create a new model” was another of Bucky’s sayings.

If the available housing is bad for people and the planet, create an alternate housing system. This could be something that anyone can build, like a dome or yurt. Bucky extended this idea to a housing industry that created self-sufficient, efficient, healthy, and recyclable housing. After he created a bathroom which was independent of plumbing, he also created a company to sell them. His work is full of new models: the dome, car and map were new ways to solve existing challenges. 

Today there are many new models in the area of local food. Community supported agriculture, organizations to support farmers, and regenerative agriculture are all examples. If your local food offerings are low quality, create a network with local producers. Or start a community garden. These approaches benefit all parties. 

When resources are scarce, a new way to share may be the answer.

In each case the new model is a way for people to get together and exchange in a fair and equitable manner. Fair trade, commons rules, micro-credit, universal basic income, open source, wikis, and the sharing economy are all new models that empower individuals. And each is enabled by a new network.


Design is the last tool we will discuss. As Bucky described it, design is the intentional arrangement of energy, material, or information to form a stable structure. This structure might only last a short time though!

We design by using generalized principles to make sure that our efforts are in line with universal forces and are efficient.

That is a lot of stuff! The good news is that everything is sensible, practical, and can be practiced by anyone.