In the late months of 1927, a desperate man stood at the shores of Lake Michigan contemplating ending his own life. Despite a privileged upbringing and honorable service to his country as a Navy officer, at age 32 he found himself defeated; grief stricken by the passing of his young daughter due to illness, and yearning for his wife and newborn away from him in New York City. The modular construction company he had created with his father-in-law was failing, forcing him out of his job and leaving him unemployed and in debt. This man was none other than the famous American designer and theorist R. Buckminster Fuller, who would step back from the edge that day, and embark on a quest to “see what a penniless, unknown human individual with a dependent wife and newborn child might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity.”
Fuller’s epiphany that fateful day translated into an unshakable belief in humanity as a “resounding success,” and the pursuit of making “the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” At the center of this personal mission statement is also the first modern expression of “sustainability,” decades before the Brundtland Commission would define the term.
Bucky, as he was affectionately referred to, sought to relieve human suffering and provide adequate standards of living worldwide, recognizing that technology had reached the point at which his vision could be realistically achieved. After observing governments dedicate resources to develop weaponry instead of tools for “livingry,” and philanthropy fall short of its promises, he pursued change through private enterprise. He approached the world’s systemic failure for the provision of a basic quality of life as a design problem, unknowingly becoming one of the earliest and most influential social entrepreneurs in history.
Like many of today’s most effective leaders and agents of social change, he believed that “you never change things by fighting the existing reality.” Instead, he inspired others by suggesting that in order to achieve impactful innovation we must “build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” In fact, Fuller’s social entrepreneur DNA is easily observable in all of his undertakings.
A prime example of this can be found in his iconic Geodesic Dome, which earned him international recognition and prestige as an architect, designer and engineer. The design of the structure originated in Bucky’s deep study of the structure of nature, coupled with his passionate desire to solve the problem of insufficient and inadequate shelter in the world. Inspired by natural systems, aircraft, and maritime technology, he surprised the world with an innovation unlike anything seen before. A standardized and easily transported structure that can be deployed anywhere and be built to any size, while maintaining its optimal structural strength!
Over 300,000 domes have been built worldwide, providing relief to disaster victims, resilience to greenhouses, protection to scientific observatories and awe to audiences in concert halls and art exhibits. To achieve this, Bucky collaborated and partnered with specialists in every field, and despite the prolific distribution of the domes, his objective was never financial. Instead he measured his success in terms of impact on human lives. He posited, “make money or make sense;” using the adage figuratively to challenge profit as the single fundamental motivation for action in the world. With this statement, he articulated decades ago, the social value proposition that is essential in today’s social enterprises. More importantly, he pursued an alternative to business-as-usual, which in turn, has become the distinguishing characteristic of the social markets today.
As social entrepreneurs look for viable alternatives to conventional models, Buckminster Fuller’s approach to problem solving can provide a powerful framework to incubate innovation. This requires a departure from many assumptions we have about the world. Central to the process is the rejection of a Malthusian view of the world, which states that we are unavoidably locked in a cycle in which constantly increasing numbers of people compete for scarce resources. To this end, Bucky pointed out how thousands of tons of underwater steel communication cables where replaced by one hundred pound orbiting satellites only decades after being laid, demonstrating how human ingenuity and the “accelerating acceleration” of technology continuously allows us to “do more with less.”
Built upon this awareness of humanity’s ability to succeed, is Fuller’s unique systems-based problem solving approach. He called the method ‘Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science’ (CADS), which is a holistic, future oriented design approach that utilizes nature’s underlying processes and scientific rigor. Bucky envisioned CADS to empower anyone to be a designer, and by the same token, a social entrepreneur. Moreover, by encouraging people to be multi-faceted combinations of scientists, activists, entrepreneurs and designers, we steer away from over-specialization, which Fuller warned would decrease humanity’s adaptability, and lead individuals to yield responsibility for social action to others.
Over the last decades, social entrepreneurs have followed the tradition forged by Fuller, and demonstrated their incredible ability to innovate new operating models and redefine businesses and the way we understand social impact. Despite being considered an emerging field, inspiring figures like R. Buckminster Fuller remind us that social entrepreneurship has a rich history. Furthermore, the tools, ideas and experiences that Bucky pioneered, continue to have immense potential to empower a new generation of agents of change, which will continue writing his legacy.