ashley englishsmall measures

small measures with ashley: buckminster fuller challenge

by Grace Bonney

[image above via the usps, you can find more bucky stamps here]

I love a good comeback story. Anything of the “phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes” ilk gets me every time. And when the person at the center of the story goes on to not only achieve whatever degree of self-defined success they aspired to but also seeks to improve the world as a whole in their journey out of the ash heap, all the better. For this week’s “Small Measures with Ashley”, I’m specifically thinking of one such individual, Buckminster Fuller, and the profound legacy he left us with.

Born in 1895 in Milton, Massachusettes, Richard Buckminster Fuller (known by many as simply “Bucky”) grew up to become a widely known inventor, architect, designer, and all-around visionary “ideas” man. Not right away, though. After a stint of jobs (including naval service), Bucky found himself bankrupt, without work, and living with his wife in public housing at the age of 32. These factors, coupled with grief and a sense of guilt surrounding his young daughter Alexandra’s death from polio and spinal meningitis, moved Fuller into a dark period of depression and suicidal thoughts. Somehow, however, he managed to grab hold of a thread of hope, aspiring to seek out the ability and reach of one person’s efforts at bettering humanity as a whole.

Fuller’s life would go on to produce a prolific and illustrious body of work, including: 28 patents, 28 books, and 47 honorary degrees. One of his patented designs, the widely recognized geodesic dome, has been produced over 300,000 times around the world. If, as Margaret Mead opined, a small group of thoughtful, committed people truly can change the world, Bucky is proof positive that sometimes all it takes is someone to serve as the catalyst.

While he worked fastidiously in his lifetime on concepts, designs, structures, and resources for bettering the planet and its inhabitants, the Buckminster Fuller Institute picked up where Fuller left off. As detailed in their description, the BFI works in an interdisciplinary manner, coupling the worlds of art, science, design and technology in order to accelerate “the development and deployment of solutions which radically advance human well-being and the health of our planet’s ecosystems. We aim to deeply influence the ascendance of a new generation of design-science pioneers who are leading the creation of an abundant and restorative world economy that benefits all humanity.”

Working towards achieving that goal, the BFI sponsors an annual “challenge”. The international competition seeks to find an idea working towards “the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.” Ideas that are presented for consideration in the challenge are regionally specific, yet global in their application and implementation.The recipient, upon the deliberation of a prize jury, is awarded $100,000 towards the realization of their design goals. The winner of this year’s prize, announced last week at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C, is Operation Hope

CLICK HERE for the rest of ashley’s post, more about operation hope, and thought-provoking video clip after the jump!

A combined project of the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe and the Savory Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Operation Hope is committed to using low-input technologies to reserve desertification. Where fertile, lush grasslands and savannahs once stood, deserts have formed. Through careful land management of herd animals, Operation Hope has successfully reintroduced lush pasture in such locales, complete with ponds and flowing streams, even during periods of significant drought.

What is so visionary and transformative about Operation Hope is the manner in which it flies in the face of widely accepted and deeply held beliefs about animal grazing. Allan Savory, Operation Hope’s founder and the driving force behind both organizations, long ago espoused the idea that an increased, yet directed and managed presence of herd animals on pasture lands can actually replenish and reinvigorate soil. A growing number of land management practitioners, ranchers, farmers, and scientists have implemented his technique, successfully increasing both biodiversity and soil vitality. To date, Operation Hope’s method is being utilized to reverse desertification on 30 million acres around the globe.

The BFI challenge and it’s 2010 recipient have received a great deal of press. You can read more about the organization and Operation Hope in the New York Times, Living on Earth, U.S. Politics Today, Inhabitat, and Seed Magazine.

Allan Savory – Keeping Cattle: cause or cure for climate crisis? from Feasta on Vimeo.

This video clip (above) of Allan Savory lecturing in 2009 on how his method has been implemented in Africa, Australia, and North and South America with highly beneficial results is also highly recommended. You can also read about the four other compelling finalists in the challenge (which include Barefoot College, Brooklyn-based BK Farmyards, Urban Lab, and the Living Building Challenge) here.

My column here on Design Sponge, my blog, and my life as I attempt to live it are all about small yet profound changes we as individuals can make in our lives, the lives of our families, our communities, and our planet as a whole. Thankfully for the rest of us, Buckminster Fuller had the initiative, moxie, and gumption to take his “small measures” to the world stage. Fuller believed so strongly in small measures that his tombstone even alludes to them. As he details it “Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary-the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it has has left you all together. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, call me Trim Tab.” The BFI continues to support, nurture, and cultivate similar small measure, big yield concepts. I don’t know about you, but I, for one, am beyond inspired. -ashley

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  • I am trying not to totally geek out over this post! Bucky is my all-time hero and I love how you tie in how small measures can lead to big strides. Thank you!!!

  • I am so glad I looked in on d*s today. Buckminster Fuller, one of the ultimate visionaries, combining science with design and altruism. Inspiring!

  • Thanks for this wonderful post! I only recently learnt about Buckminster Fuller and his inspiring story from a BBC Radio 4 podcast, and as a Disney geek, I have plenty to thank him for.

  • What a great post. Thanks so much for publishing more about Design than just lovely pictures. I’m going to keep thinking about that trim tab notion too.

  • It’s so heartening to see that other D* readers are R. Buckminster Fuller fans. His life’s work has made huge impact on my outlook on design. I really appreciate that you gave the ‘challenge’ some coverage here. Thank you!

  • This brought back memories. When I was an art student in the 1970’s in the UK, I went to a lecture given by Buckminster Fuller. I didn’t know who he was only he had invented the geodesic dome, he was so interesting and inspirational I have never forgotten that lecture

  • Thanks so much for this post! My dad is on the board of the BFI and I’ve heard a whole lot of really inspiring stories. But I hadn’t heard this trim tab story. I love it, so simple and yet astounding…like most of Bucky’s work. Thanks, again.

  • Bucky is truly my hero. Anyone who is curious to learn more about him should try to see the film Thinking Out Loud. You’ll be blown away and a fan for life!