The Buckminster Fuller Challenge inspires innovative thinking about sustainable cities.
By John Elkington
Life is rarely easy for a judge. I should know: I have judged, although never, mercifully, in contexts where I have had to wear a robe and send people to prison. Instead, for exactly 30 years now, I have been called upon to judge a growing list of environmental, sustainability and technology award schemes. And I was reminded a few days ago just how difficult the process can be when reviewing entries for the $100,000 Buckminster Fuller Challenge.
The Buckminster Fuller Challenge
The process was made more challenging still because I wanted to judge in the spirit of the extraordinary man who designed the geodesic dome and is memorialized in the naming of the C60 molecule, Buckminsterfullerene.
That said, the task was made a bit easier by the fact that I had had breakfast with Fuller in 1977, in Reykjavik (he died in 1983). I was inspired by his ambitious goal: “to make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.”
Like many who bought his books, which seemed to be written in code, I had struggled to understand his meaning. His use of complex words like “ephemeralization” (by which he meant doing radically more with radically less) could make his thinking difficult to penetrate.
Yet, at the same time, he would conjure the most stunning imagery. He told me, for example, that the average depth of the world ocean was equivalent to the layer of condensation you would leave if you breathed on a 6-foot diameter stainless steel ball.
A True Systems Thinker
At a time when growing numbers of people speak of the need for system change, it is worth noting that Fuller was a true systems thinker. He also designed products like the Dymaxion Car, intended to be mass-produced by factories that were struggling to convert from making World War II weaponry to producing what he dubbed ‘livingry’. In the end, disappointingly, his ideas failed to engage the mainstream and, instead, were embraced by the counter-culture.
Fuller’s ability to think big was spotlighted by his 1960 plan to enclose midtown Manhattan in a giant dome. He argued that this would ease cooling in summer and heating in winter, with the savings in terms of clearing snow paying for the dome in 10 years. Completely impracticable, of course, although it is interesting to imagine what would happen if, today, you were to slap a giant Fuller dome over an intensely polluted city like Beijing.
Buckminster Fuller Challenge Short List
So, channelling the Fuller spirit, I turned to the short-listed entries for the Challenge. Several struck me as being very much in tune, including a school building that collects water in drought-stricken areas, and an initiative designed to train the next generation of scientists and engineers in green chemistry. Then there was a geodesic dome that featured in an entry spotlighting a proposed solution to the urgent need to evolve new, more sustainable forms of shrimp farming.
There were no designs for a Fuller-style city, a significant gap given that perhaps 70 percent of global population will live in cities later this century. But, happily, others are actively working into this space. For example, on the same day I did the initial Fuller judging, I also took part in a roundtable on the same day with the new Lord Mayor of the City of London, Fiona Woolf.
City of London Embraces Sustainability
Even many Londoners don’t know that the city has an overall mayor (currently the flamboyant Boris Johnson) and another for the City, the financial center, often referred to as the “Square Mile.” And one interesting thing about the City’s incoming mayor is that she is embracing sustainability as a key priority. Among other things, she has pledged to address the “Carbon Bubble,” working to moderate the fiscal impacts as investors divest from high carbon assets—and begin to shift to low carbon assets.
London is still emerging from the financial crisis, with many structural issues still to be dealt with. Because of the continuing processes of globalization, it also now faces growing competition from Asian, African and Latin American economies. In this context, the challenge is not to build more iconic skyscrapers—or even to pop a giant geodesic dome over the Square Mile—but to prepare the City for the competitive challenges of the future.
Among the organizations around the new Lord Mayor’s table was Tomorrow’s Company, which is evolving a Tomorrow’s City campaign to help spur the necessary investment in the Square Mile’s sustainability-oriented infrastructures, hard and soft. Another organization represented was Bechtel, which is playing a key role in one of London’s most ambitious new infrastructure projects, Crossrail. The level of sustainability thinking and activity in and around this megatransport project is extraordinary.
The Tomorrow’s City campaign, however, aims to strengthen London’s soft infrastructures—the range of legal, tax and cultural contexts that shape behaviors in financial markets. Specifically, the spotlight will be on barriers to long-term value creation—and on ways in which the City can “assist its clients to optimise financial, economic, societal and environmental outcomes.”
Strikingly, the term “sustainability” was not used in the main roundtable document, although the Lord Mayor did kick off with two terms I had coined ages ago, the triple bottom line and People, Planet & Profit. 2014, as it happens, marks the twentieth anniversary of the first of these, but coining new language will be much less important than building the low carbon, resource-efficient and great-to-live-in cities of the future.
And the design, construction and operation of tomorrow’s cities to achieve radically more with radically less will make judges of us all, whether or not we can channel the thinking of the late, great Buckminster Fuller.