July 23 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Environment Year: General Rating: 10 Hot
By Garry Golden
Bucky Fuller (1895-1983) is widely recognized as one of the world’s great modern visionaries of the 20th century. He was a natural Futurist, not because of his intellect, but his wisdom to challenge widely held assumptions from the world around him.
He blended his skills as a writer, thinker, and engineer into a concept he called “Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science.” Bucky believed that the essence of human life on the planet is to solve problems and continue expanding our awareness and views of what is possible.
New York’s Whitney Museum has re-opened the question of Bucky’s outlook towards the world with its latest exhibition Buckminster Fuller Starting with the Universe running through September 21, 2008.
Our best strategy for addressing problems of the 21st century might be to revisit the core principles of his philosophy related to design, shape and energy. If the Whitney curators, are correct, Bucky Fuller might turn out to be one of the most influential thinkers of not one, but two centuries.
Bucky Fuller was best known for his design of the geodesic dome, and pushing forward the notion that the Earth was a ‘spaceship’ passing through a much more vast universe that could challenge and inspire us as we addressed global problems.
He was an early advocate for renewable energy, developed the highly efficient three-wheeled Dymaxion car, and also the ‘World Game’ which allowed individuals to test strategies for global solutions. He would surely love Second Life and the ability to simulate real world situations virtually!
Why is Bucky relevant to the 21st Century?
The Whitney Museum exhibit revisits a few of Bucky’s most inspiring principles that supported his central philosophy of planetary abundance through elegant engineering:
Design matters more than politics
Bucky believed in the power and influence of design. In fact, he believed it could be more influential in changing society than politics. He argued that politics was driven by scarcity which was resolved by compromise and sacrifice. Yet, if politics forced us to work within limits, design could set us free. Fuller turned to the world of knowledge-based economics and materials science to enable a philosophy of getting ‘more from less.’ This would be the first step towards a worldview of abundance, over scarcity.
Shape matters more than substance – Dreaming of Domes or Nanotubes?
Bucky was an engineer’s engineer- blending deep scientific thought with constant experimentation and applications of design principles that pushed the limits of what was possible. He was most famous for his Geodesic Dome (circa 1954) but today we realize that Bucky Fuller had conceptualized something much deeper that proceeded the nanoscale age of scientific knowledge.
In fact, he was imagining the strongest geometric form in the universe – flat, interlocked carbon molecules.
Nearly fifty years after his geodesic dome, researchers in Japan and the US uncovered carbon nanotubes consisting of single layer latticed networks of carbon.
In the early 1990s researchers are Rice University synthesized fullerenes, a class of nanotubes with rounded edges that made a tube. They called them fullerenes or ‘Buckyballs’ in tribute to Bucky. One of the researchers, Rick Smalley (d. 2005) consistently argued that carbon nanotubes were the strongest chemical bond that can be formed out of all known materials in the universe. No other element in nature could match carbon’s natural strength and performance properties.
Today, we know that these ‘Buckyballs’ hold the potential to strengthen other materials. And we can easily imagine nanotube composite plastic homes or cars that have superior performance to steel at a fraction of the cost.
Energy is everything in the modern age
Bucky understood one of the biggest ideas to emerge in the 20th century – that energy was the foundation of modern life. And that all energy strategies must be globally oriented, and move beyond the limitations of a ‘scarcity’ mindset of extracting fossil fuels. Bucky wrote extensively on energy and developed a ‘Grand Strategy’ and an Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth to explore the challenges of energy in the decades ahead.
Fuller believed that a new mental model of energy was emerging –based on abundance. Just as we have shifted our economic mental models towards abundance of human knowledge over physical labor, and now today digital versus physical material transfer, a similar paradigm exists for energy production.
For Bucky, the key to abundance was based on new production systems and distribution channels. He explored ideas for a global power grid that moved beyond a simple one-way model of energy flow. He advocated moving beyond the combustion of hydrocarbons, like coal and oil, towards more electron oriented form of energy around wind, solar, biology and hydrogen.
Bucky’s principles have not been lost, as much as they have never been fully realized. Yet today, he remains a charismatic visionary through YouTube videos and contests held in his name.
Who knows how the Whitney Museum exhibit might spark new conversations built upon Bucky’s approach to constantly questioning our assumptions about the future remain.
But if it does catch fire, Bucky Fuller could once again become a central figure in popular culture especially around the areas of design, energy and global development! Are the principles of this 20th century visionary ready to return?
[Image Credit: Richard Winchell, FlickrCC]