Think of Buckminster Fuller, the 20th-century innovator, and you might picture a geodesic dome or his flying car designs from the 1930s. Maybe you picture a crackpot inventor, churning out ideas that seem, at first glance, like quaintly futuristic visions. But that's missing the point, argues a new book on Fuller titled You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future.
Fuller's underlying way of thinking—not the physical designs themselves—is what we should focus on instead, writes author and "experimental philosopher" Jonathon Keats. And it might be exactly what's needed to help tackle some of the world's most challenging issues today.
"The problems he identified—the global problems ranging from worldwide conflict to climate change—have become more pervasive as time has gone on," says Keats. "At the same time, the solutions that he was envisioning . . . have become more feasible and technology has developed. And yet, he seems to me to have ended up somewhat of a cartoon character, whose ideas have been turned into retro-futurist exercises in design, rather than having the incredible power that they did when he was first envisioning them."
Fuller was a proponent of what he called "comprehensive anticipatory design science," a method of design rooted in ethics. As he put it, it's a way "to make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone." It was a truly global perspective—something that Keats believes many projects claiming to save the world today lack.
"While there is a lot of lip service given to interdisciplinary approaches, it still tends not to be as deep as what Fuller was coming from," he says. "Fuller was an autodidact. He was somebody who taught himself everything that he possibly could, and worked from that premise."
Keats thinks we need more people thinking about the world's problems as generalists, rather than specialists. And along with a modern-day group of Fuller-like thinkers, he believes that everyone would benefit from taking a design science mindset. "As a way of reflecting on the decisions we make—whether in the voting booth, whether in terms of what we purchase, how we live our lives," he says.
The book talks through a handful of Fuller's inventions, pulling out principles that could be of use now. Fuller's aerodynamic, three-wheeled Dymaxion car, for example, used biomimicry to pull features from fish and birds. But Keats thinks it's more interesting to look at how Fuller used biomimicry to look at systems. The flying cars were meant to be part of a self-organizing society with temporary housing that could move at a moment's notice, inspired by natural habitat.
Fuller designed a house that could be delivered by air, anywhere in the world—working off the grid by using energy made from human waste and ultra-efficient showers. If your neighborhood had a problem with crime, say, you could pick up your house and fly it somewhere else; the idea of owning real estate would be as meaningless as owning a patch of the ocean. The house wasn't property to be owned, but something to use.
Keats plays with ideas of how nature might also inspire redesigns of societal systems like voting or global distribution of wealth. He also talks through how Fuller's visions are reflected in what's happening today—from the 3-D-printed, open-source WikiHouse to online classes like MOOCs (a pale imitation of Fuller's vision of lifelong education for everyone through "two-way televisions.")
If Fuller is better known for objects than ideas, that's partly because of the complexity of how he thought. "His ideas were not really 'sound biteable' in any meaningful way," says Keats. Fuller was known for his "thinking out loud" sessions, which could last for several hours, where he simply explored thoughts—and modeled a way of thinking for his audience. "The moment that you try to extract something from that and make it a headline, or make it a quip, then you end up losing what is most important about it, which is this reflectiveness."
It's a reflectiveness that's present in the book, which is a fascinating read.