Space & Innovation

Retro Inventor's Utopic Vision Sparks Future Tech

A new book revives a mid-Century philosophy to solve modern problems.

R. Buckminster Fuller popularized the geodesic dome. | Bettmann/CORBIS
R. Buckminster Fuller popularized the geodesic dome. | Bettmann/CORBIS

R. Buckminster Fuller, born in 1895, is probably best known for popularizing the geodesic dome, a hemisphere of interlocking triangles that distribute the weight of the structure so efficiently that it gets stronger as it gets larger.

Today, that shape conjures nostalgia for a time in America's past when architects and engineers imagined a future of flying cars and jet-packing executives. But the principal underlying the dome, something Fuller called "comprehensive anticipatory design science," is more relevant than ever, says experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats.

In his forthcoming book You Belong to the Universe, Keats offers a new perspective on the legacy of R. Buckminster Fuller and suggests that his timeless approach to design could affect global change.

Here, we look at some of Fuller's most intriguing inventions, the principals underlying them and how those principals could inspire innovations that solve world problems.

Fuller's Dymaxion Car photographed in 1934. | Bettmann/CORBIS

According to Fuller, comprehensive anticipatory design makes "the world work for one hundred percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

That's a tall order, and the best way to fill, Fuller said, was to do "the most with the least." He looked to nature for inspiration, where waste is not tolerated.d Taking a cue from the aerodynamic form of birds and the maneuverability of fishtails, Fuller conceived of the Dymaxion Car, a three-wheeled, V-8 vehicle that got 30 miles to the gallon. It caused quite a stir at the 1934 Chicago World's Fair. But after a prototype crashed and killed a driver, the idea and the car disappeared into history.

The biomimetic design itself was flawed, Keats points out, and too rigidly tied to the form of fish and fowl, which travel by water or air, not land.

"The grand challenge of biomimesis," Keats writes, "is to conceptually dissect a complex organism, severing useful traits from the living system in which they evolved, and transplanting them to a system that can be engineered."

Single-celled slime mold are able to solve complex problems. | Thinkstock

Using Fuller's design philosophy and taking inspiration from nature, Keats puts forth an idea based on slime mold. This single-celled organism links up with others like it to form a larger, multi-cellular mass. In this mass, cells "communicate" -- via a kind of chemical signaling -- with those cells nearest to them and use a form of consensus to accomplish tasks and solve problems, such as the optimum route to food.

"Slime molds can provide a new model for democracy, a novel method of voting that could prevent political gridlock," writes Keats. "Imagine an Electoral College system in which there were many tiers, such as states, cities, neighborhoods, blocks, households, and individuals. Individual votes would be tallied resulting in a household consensus, households would be tallied resulting in a block consensus, blocks would be tallied resulting in a neighborhood consensus, etcetera."

Because people would be asked to interact with others closest to them in proximity, their decisions would be driven my mutual respect and responsibility.

Octopi have brains in their legs. | Thinkstock

Inspired by Fuller and Keats, I offer an idea based on the octopus's nervous system. Unlike the human brain, which is responsible for all voluntary and involuntary functions, the octopus has a decentralized nervous system. Each of its eight legs contains nerve bundles -- almost mini-brains -- that control the function of that appendage and the brain in its head serves as a central mediator.

What if we could model food distribution on the octopus? Our current system is mainly centralized with meat and crops grown by large agricultural firms that distribute the goods nationwide to grocers located in profit-generating neighborhoods. Where income is low, food deserts abound, and whether in rural or urban communities, poor people lack access to nutritious food.

What if community leaders could decentralize food production and delivery? Incentivize grocery store chains to mobilize trucks into these neighborhoods that carry fresh produce, invite farms to stake out plots in vacant lots, set up roof gardens on warehouses, and grow greens indoor with vertical gardens. Create a multi-legged organism of food growth and distribution, loosely managed by a central mediating group that ensures that any food gaps are filled by other means.

R. Buckminster Fuller photographed with his Dymaxion House concept in 1932. | Bettmann/CORBIS

R. Buckminster Fuller wanted to build the perfect house -- a kind of "machine for living" that would allow people to overcome all of the elements of nature, such as flooding, earthquakes and tornadoes, and at the same time have little impact on it. He wanted an energy-efficient, self-sustaining, automated structure not reliant on municipal sewage and plumbing.

To that end, he conceived of the Dymaxion House, a mass-produced round house suspended on a central strut as its only foundation. It could be owned or leased like a car and could be set up anywhere, giving its owners the freedom to live around the world.

Unfortunately, for various reasons including Fuller's own perfectionism and the inflexibility of the design, the house never reached its full potential.

So-called WikiHouses can be built by downloading free plans from the Internet and then using them to cut out wooden parts on standard woodshop equipment. | WikiHouse

Keats suggests a modern twist on a machine for living. Already technology is infiltrating the construction industry with such innovations as the WikiHouse, an online database of downloadable plans for structures that can be built using standard woodshop equipment.

There are also computer-aided design programs that allow people to design and refine three-dimensional structures on a computer screen and then print those files to a 3-D printer.

The next level, says Keats, it to think about the house as data that can be manipulated and printed on the fly. Think of a giant printer that's able to handle a variety of materials sustainably sourced from the local environment (soil and wood) to create a structure ideally suited to the inhabitants and the location.

"... the printer can also become a new kind of utility chassis at the core of the dwelling machine: an appliance that fabricates the whole house around it and alters the infrastructure over time to keep the home in equilibrium with the residents," writes Keats.

Imagine it. Not more possessions, no more need for closets and basements. If you needed a bowl or a chair, you'd print it and then recycle it when you were done.

Bertoldi Lab/Harvard SEAS

To build on this idea, I offer the 4D-printed house. Like 3D-printed structures, 4D-printed objects can be designed and refined in a computer and then printed on a printer. But they have one more dimension, a fourth dimension, which is movement.

Researchers working in this area, like this team at Harvard, are often inspired by origami techniques that allow large forms to fold down into small spaces. Movement is built into the structures by using materials that respond to heat or light. Imagine shining a light on a tiny square and then watching it expand into a large room.

An entire house built using 4D-printing could be a kind of dynamic, kinetic structure that sits like a living organism on a plot of land. In the peak of summer, it could automatically vent its own roof or track its solar panels with the sun to capture the light. Inside such a house, the space could also contract and expand to adjust to the owner's needs. It could increase the size of the dining room when guests come for dinner or get rid of a bedroom when the kid goes off to college.

R. Buckminster Fuller had a plan to dome the city of Manhattan. | Bettmann/CORBIS

After R. Buckminster Fuller realized the potential of the geodesic dome, he began to think about the many ways it could be used. Why limit it to a single dwelling? Why not dome an entire city? In this way, the inhabitants could control the near environment by sealing in heat in the winter and venting it in the summer. That could also prevent polluted or even lethal air (think: atomic explosion) from poisoning their skies.

Fuller envisioned such a dome over Manhattan, but it was a group of folks from Winooski, Vt, that took an interest. In the late 70s, they applied for research funding to investigate the feasibility of building a dome to enclose the 1.3-square-mile town, where temperatures in the wintertime typically dropped to -20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Objections arose from many of the residents who questioned the idea of shutting out nature -- as well as shutting it in. How would the birds migrate? Eventually, the idea was dropped and never raised again anywhere else.

Mist systems cool the immediate vicinity of park in Australia. | Dale Gillard/Flickr Creative Common

"The notion of doming cities was never really about domes in their own right," says Keats. For Fuller it was about controlling "the most space with least infrastructure." But there are ways to "valve" the environment without putting it under glass.

In hot and humid Taiwan, for example, city developers have found a way to moderate the microclimate of Taichung Gateway Park. Misting systems cool the air and dehumidifiers can drop the "real-feel" temperature by six or seven degrees, writes Keats. In Athens' Flisvos Park, dark asphalt was replaced with paving stones designed to reflect infrared sunlight, which can cool the park three degrees.

A newly developed material called thermochromic tiles change color with the temperature, so that they get lighter when it's hot and darker when it's cold.

Keats thinks that by integrating a combination of these ideas simultaneously, whole cities could be "tuned" to optimize the distribution of heat, dispensing with energy-wasting air conditioning.

"Metroengineering has the potential to make almost every city temperate without burdening the global climate. Making more cities more temperate will make them more attractive to more people, eventually sequestering most of the world population in carbon-neutral cities," he writes.

Valving Traffic | Thinkstock

The concept of "valving" is not limited to city temperatures. We can use Fuller's philosophy to think of other systems that could benefit from valving. How about traffic?

With self-driving cars on the horizon and research underway to make roads smarter, why not rethink how traffic flows in and out of a city?

Currently, roads are built as fixed pathways with fixed directions (two-way or one way) and fixed rules. But as roads and cities get smarter, road could be built to adapt to traffic.

For example, during rush hour certain major boulevards or highways could transform themselves temporarily into non-stop arteries that lead into or out of a city. Traffic lights would remain in non-stop green mode and neighboring third-level roads would adjust so that people traveling locally wouldn't be adversely affected. A self-driving car would know which roads to travel, so that there wouldn't be any confusion.

In this way we could "valve" traffic, reduce idling and pollution and improve commute times.