The Buckminster Fuller Challenge Has
Prepared Us For Humanity’s Greatest Challenge
By Greg Watson
Buckminster Fuller 10th Anniversary Awards Ceremony
November 10-11, 2017
Brooklyn, New York
At the London School of Economics in 2008, Queen Elizabeth questioned: “Why did no one foresee the timing, extent and severity of the Global Financial Crisis?” The British Academy answered a year later: “A psychology of denial gripped the financial and corporate world... [it was] the failure of the collective imagination of many bright people... to understand the risks to the system as a whole.
“Disaster Alley: Climate Change Conflict and Risk“
That same failure of imagination prevents much of the world to fully comprehend the nature of the existential threats facing humanity today and our options for addressing them.
For the past ten years, the Buckminster Fuller Challenge has served as a beacon of hope and a powerful counterpoint to the intellectual bankruptcy that threatens humanity’s continued voyage aboard Spaceship Earth. It has tapped the collective wisdom of practical visionaries from around the world who “dare to be naïve” and doggedly pursue solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.
In each of the past ten years, the Buckminster Fuller Challenge has encouraged and supported some of the best and brightest design scientists on the planet. As important as that is I’m convinced that is really just one of many things it has accomplished – and, I would argue, perhaps not even the most important. Arguably, the greatest accomplishment of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge is helping us all discover what is possible and how we can expand our capacities for action and expression.
Back in 1980, I was the director of education at the New Alchemy Institute (NAI) on Cape Cod along with Nancy and John Todd. New Alchemy was an amazing ecological design incubator that was in large part inspired by Bucky. At the time Mel King taught a course in urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also ran MIT’s Community Fellows Program for mid-career people of color looking to become more engaged in their respective communities’ struggles. He would later become Boston’s first black candidate for mayor in the city’s racially charged history.
In each of the three years I was there, Mel would pile his Fellows into a van and drive the 75 miles from Cambridge to visit New Alchemy. I can’t adequately describe the looks on the Fellows’ faces as they wandered through the 12-acre site filled with organic gardens, sailwing windmills, solar algae ponds stocked with fish, compost piles, a structure we called the Ark (a passive solar greenhouse that hosted one the first generation aquaponics systems) – and two geodesic domes. I admit I was a bit puzzled why Mel chose New Alchemy as the first place to bring his mostly black and Latino students – who all hailed from the inner city. When I finally asked him why, he replied:
“I want them to see what’s possible – Including things they haven’t even imagined.”
So this weekend we have gathered to celebrate the exceptional efforts of Bhungroo, this year’s winner, and to acknowledge the previous nine winners – all of whom are represented here today. I suggest we also pay tribute to all those who accepted the Challenge and contributed their ideas along with those who thought about a pressing problem they would like to solve. For all of you – for us – The Buckminster Fuller Challenge has provided an opportunity to wrap our minds around what the 21st century Design Science Revolution will look like. To visualize what is possible.
That ability has never been more important. The greatest challenge BEYOND THE CHALLENGE comes down to making a choice.
There really is only one real choice facing us as Bucky noted in the prescient title of his 1969 book: Utopia or Oblivion.
Utopia is defined as an imaginary ideal society based on egalitarian principles of equality in economics, government and justice – A SOCIETY FREE OF POVERTY AND SUFFERING.
Oblivion, on the other hand, describes THE STATE OF BEING UNAWARE OR UNCONSCIOUS OF WHAT IS HAPPENING – (OR WHAT OUR REAL OPTIONS ARE).
Once we understand that a society free of poverty and suffering IS possible its realization becomes impossible to ignore and it is clear that its realization requires a Design Science Revolution.
Over the past ten years, The Buckminster Fuller Challenge has indeed catalyzed the vanguard of that revolution.
"To make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through the spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."
Global Inequality Is not an accident. It was created and is perpetuated by design with tools of weaponry on the backs of oppressed peoples whose land and resources were stolen from them along with their freedom.
So why does it sound so outrageous to suggest that we can DESIGN A WORLD THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE?
We may be closer than you think. We are certainly closer than what any reasonable individual would conclude if the mainstream media were their only source of “information.”
There are indications that Bucky’s prediction of spontaneous cooperation on behalf of a better world is taking hold – even if often unconsciously and below the radar screen.
In a recent interview on NPR’S “Living on Earth,” renowned biologist E.O. Wilson, who has been named one of the century’s leading environmentalists by both Time and Audubon Magazine, argued for “doing more with less” or ephemeralization as a way to preserve biodiversity. His argument for doing more with less to preserve planetary ecological integrity was one of Bucky’s most persistent themes.
"[The] nature of economic evolution, [is] that people want and they will select if they have any choice, instruments and material goods that are smaller, consume less energy and material, need to be fixed less frequently and all of that means that the ecological footprint is destined to shrink. If we can now keep our hands off of the natural areas in the world, if we can devise entertainment and fulfillment making use of all of the accouterments and monuments of digital age and develop a conservation ethic, I envision a possible paradise for humanity by the 22nd century."
In 2016, the World Economic Forum published a eye-opening report, “Shaping the Future of Construction: A Breakthrough in Mindset and Technology.” The authors note:
The world is changing faster than ever before. Consider just one of the global megatrends shaking up the construction industry: the population of the world’s urban areas is increasing by 200,000 people per day, all of whom need affordable housing as well as social, transportation and utility infrastructure.
In the face of such challenges, the industry is almost under a moral obligation to transform. Its transformation will have transformative effects elsewhere:
On the wider society, by reducing construction costs; on the environment, by improving the use of scarce materials or by making buildings more eco-efficient over time;
And on the economy, by narrowing the global infrastructure gap and boosting economic development in general.
Echoing Bucky’s call for performance-based buildings harkening back (as early as 1928) to what motivated him to pursue the designs of the Geodesic Dome Dymaxion House and his challenge to the world’s architectural community to prioritize function over form. In fact, Bucky grasped the very essence of design -- the intimate and inseparable dance between form and function -- better than anyone else.
The authors of the WEC report lament that the Engineering and Construction (E&C) sector has been slower to adopt and adapt to new technologies than other global sectors. While innovation has occurred to some extent on the enterprise or company level, overall productivity in the sector has remained nearly at for the last 50 years. As Bucky wrote:
My half-century experience also discovered the natural unacceleratable lags existing between inventions and industrial uses in various technical categories which occur as follows: in electronics -- two years; aerodynamics -- five years; automobiles -- ten years; railroading -- fifteen years; big-city buildings -- twenty-five years; single-family dwellings -- fifty years. Clearly these lags have consistently characterized the lengths of gestation periods in the different arts with which I was concerned.
Bucky saw the total infrastructural Gestalt that underlies every technical performance or design actualization. He knew the alchemy of interstreaming numbers – financial, chemical, industrial, physical – just as certain materials scientists are said intuitively to “feel” the interaction of molecules. His understanding of the nature and importance of information led to the first call for an “anticipatory” design practice.” (Sanford Kwinter | ANY17).
I do not know any one person today who possesses that ability. However, the Buckminster Fuller Challenge review process comes as close as anything to recreating that Gestalt via the collective perspectives/input of the reviewers who have been so thoughtfully selected and giving of their time over the years.
For one final example here is Bucky’s reminiscing about his idea of a world-around electric grid from his book, Critical Path:
In the early years of (Pierre) Trudeau's premiership of Canada when he was about to make his first visit to Russia, I gave him my world energy network grid plan – [connecting renewable energy sources in countries around the globe], which he presented to Brezhnev, who turned it over to his experts. On his return to Canada Trudeau reported to me that the experts had come back to Brezhnev with: "feasible . . . desirable."
On November 2nd of this year, a symposium, with the theme of "Building Global Energy Interconnection, Promoting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development," was co-hosted by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and the Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO).
The aim of the system described at the conference is to make sustainable energy accessible to everyone, eradicate poverty and hunger, reduce regional gap, facilitate South-South and North-South cooperation, so as to usher in a new global development landscape marked by green and low carbon development, peace and harmony, and common prosperity.
The November 1938 issue of Fortune Magazine featured an article with a very long title, “9,000 Billion Horsepower of Solar Energy falls upon the U.S. (if it’s a nice day). We don’t know how to use it.”
Bucky showed us how ALL THAT ENERGY IS BEST PUT TO USE; HOW it HAS to be used in order to realize its synergetic economic value. A globally-connected energy based economy that is exponentially greater than the sum of its nation-state parts.
Finally, there are the direct impacts of the work of all those who have accepted the Challenge and dare to test the limits of conventional wisdom as they tackle seemingly intractable problems related to ecological restoration, biodiversity preservation, deforestation, hunger and famine, urban transportation, social and environmental justice, community land ownership, terrestrial and aquatic food production and sustainable economic development.
However, to realize the full transformative powers of these kinds of efforts the general public must be informed of its broader historic context, i.e. Bucky’s Design Science Revolution.
That is the ongoing Challenge we must accept.
The world is constantly and rapidly evolving. As the context changes so to does the effectiveness of any particular trimtab. We will always have twelve degrees of freedom to exercise, but they can become more difficult the longer we procrastinate.
The only perfect time to act is NOW.
You see, we already have the necessary tools in our collective toolkit.
Are we willing to accept the challenge that the Challenge has prepared us for?
Dare to be naïve.