Lessons from Buckminster Fuller

"My ideas have undergone a process of emergence by emergency.  When they are needed badly enough, they are accepted."  
- Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller was an inimitable polymath, many decades ahead of his time

A leading systems thinker in the mid 20th century, Fuller believed it was entirely possible for humanity to meet all of its needs within the limitations of the biosphere, and that the way to transition to the new model was via a design science revolution.  

Buckminster Fuller Essentials:

Who was Buckminster Fuller?

  • Difficult to describe, he was many things — futurist, architect, poet, author, performance artist, and true polymath

He blended three things think all of us should be doing right now:

  • Technologist: rather than taking a blind techno-utopia view, he asked what are all technologies we have now and how can we upgrade their use
  • Humanitarian: he sought to make the world work for 100% of humanity. Along adages of Buddhism, be believed that no one will be truly happy until no one is suffering
  • Ecologist: he looked to nature as inspiration and considered nature technology itself

He is also known as the inventor of the geodesic dome.

Fuller's Key Ideas:

We have the means for all humans to live at a standard that meets basic needs (and more) within the confines of the planet

“There is no energy crisis, food crisis, or environmental crisis.  There is a crisis of ignorance.
“It is now highly feasible to take care of everybody on earth at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary. War is obsolete.  It is a matter of converting our high technology from weaponry to livingry.

The way to transition from the current state to Bucky’s vision for the world was via a design science revolution

Bucky referred to design science as:

“the effective application of the principles of science to the conscious design of our total environment, in order to help make the Earth's finite resources meet the needs of all humanity without disrupting the ecological processes of the planet.”

At the Buckminster Fuller Institute, they refer to the four characteristics of design science — Comprehensive, Anticipatory, Design, and Science:

  • Comprehensive: Start with the whole. Take a whole-systems perspective to explore connections within an integrated, complex world
  • Anticipatory: Think ahead. Identify, research, and interpret significant trends to gain a deeper understanding of possible futures
  • Design: Create intentionally. Seek and apply the elegant patterns and principles guiding the evolutionary strategies of nature
  • Science: Discover through experience. Generate hypotheses, iterate experiments, and rigorously verify through empirical observations

One of his most famous quotes is a guiding principle for Denizen’s theory of systemic change:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Synergy / Synergetics is an important concept that Fuller brought to the fore, to help understand the complexity of systems in order to institute an effective design process:

“Synergetics is the only word in our language that means behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the separately observed behaviors of any of the system’s separate parts or any subassembly of the system’s parts.”

Comprehensiveness over specialization

Bucky hated that the world had become so specialized; he believed it inhibited humanity’s ability to address its greatest challenges, and that it was necessary for us to think comprehensively instead

“Our failures are a consequence of many factors, but possibly one of the most important is the fact that society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking. This means that the potentially integratable techno-economic advantages accruing to society from the myriad specializations are not comprehended integratively and therefore not realized.”

Wealth in terms of physical energy is neither created or destroyed, wealth metaphysically (knowledge) is always increasing

“Because our wealth is continually multiplying in vast degree unbeknownst and unacknowledged formally by human society, our economic accounting systems are unrealistically identifying wealth as only matter and are entering know-how on the books only as salary liabilities” - p101 Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth
“It is utterly clear to me that the highest priority need of world society at the present moment is a realistic economic accounting system.” - p.112 Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

Future role of computers and “life fellowships” which tie to current thinking about guaranteed income

Man is going to be displaced altogether as a specialist by the computer.  Man himself is being forced to reestablish, employ, and enjoy his innate “comprehensivity”.” p.53 Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth
“To take advantage of the fabulous magnitudes of real wealth awaiting to be employed intelligently by humans and unblock automation’s postponement by organized labor we must give each human who is or becomes unemployed a life fellowship in research and development, or just in simple thinking. Man must be able to dare to think truthfully and to act accordingly without fear of losing his franchise to live. The use of mind fellowships will permit humans comprehensively to expand and accelerate scientific exploration and experimental prototype development. For every 100k employed in research and development, or just plain thinking, one probably will make a breakthrough that will more than pay for the other 99,999 fellowships” - p.125 Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

Dissolution of nation-states

“The synergistic effectiveness of a world-around integrated industrial process is inherently vastly greater than the confined synergistic effect of sovereignly operating separate systems.  Ergo, only complete world desovereignization can permit the realization of an all humanity high standard support.” - p. 104 Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

"Spaceship Earth" metaphor

The Spaceship Earth metaphor helps humanity understand its relationship with itself and the planet. It was popularized by Fuller, but its origins are with Henry George.

“It is a well-provisioned ship, this on which we sail through space. “ - Henry George, Progress and Poverty, 1879
“The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.“ - George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937
“We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft.” - Adlai Stevenson, in a speech to the UN, 1965
“... we can make all of humanity successful through science's world-engulfing industrial evolution provided that we are not so foolish as to continue to exhaust in a split second of astronomical history the orderly energy savings of billions of years' energy conservation aboard our Spaceship Earth. These energy savings have been put into our Spaceship's life-regeneration-guaranteeing bank account for use only in self-starter functions.” - Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1969

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