“To make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.” This is the ethos that drove the work of Buckminster Fuller, an influential 20th century designer, engineer, and inventor. Every year since 2008, the Buckminster Fuller Insititute has awarded a $100,000 prize to an especially-promising organization or individual embodying Fuller’s systems thinking and “comprehensive, anticipatory design science.” So far, the award has provided ten projects — including landscape architect Kate Orff’s Living Breakwaters — with the extra push in both publicity and funds to advance in scale, complexity, and ambition.
Past winners were prompted by moderators such as Andrew Revkin, senior reporter at ProPublica, and Susan Szenazy, publisher and editor-in-chief of Metropolis magazine, to reflect on the evolution of their winning projects and discussed systemic approaches to the challenges of our time.
The 2107 winner is Bhungroo, from the Gujarat state of India (see video above). Bhungroo, which means “straw” or “hollow pipe” in Gujarati, is a simple, inexpensive system that enables farmers to capture and store water during peak monsoon season and then retrieve the water during the dry season. The invention allows female farmers below the poverty line to be self-sufficient year round, breaking free from cycles of debt and repression.
The organization also fosters a model of collective ownership over the stored water among the farmers. The co-founder Biplab Ketan Paul described the selflessness and “golden hearts” of the women farmers he works with as what inspires and sustains the project. When asked about the experience of winning the prize, he beamed and said, “We’re still in a dream.”
The idea for ecological design pioneer John Todd’s project, which won in 2008, came from close contact with ecological and economic crisis. He had been hired by a foundation to study ecological impacts of mountaintop removal and valley-fill mining in Appalachia, but, he said, “my colleagues and I became so horribly depressed at the scale of the devastation that we actually couldn’t function.” He changed course to find a regenerative, solutions-oriented approach, and his winning project — The Challenge of Appalachia — was born.
Todd’s solution — which aims to help Appalachian communities, boost the economy, and support the ecosystem — is a model for long-range biodiversity and socio-economic stability tailored to the region. When asked what an urban application of the same principles might look like, Todd said the surfaces of buildings have enormous potential as substrate for “all kinds of living systems that purify air, treat sewage, and generate foods.”
The 2013 winner, Ecovative, a bio-materials company, manifests the Fuller maxim, “to change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Ecovative’s goal is to end the use of plastic and styrofoam packaging materials made from fossil fuels, replacing them with materials made from fungus that are fire retardant, self-healing, and decompose after use. Ecovative grows these materials in their facilities in New York state. The mycelia lifecycle depends on a local supply chain — the materials are derived from metabolizing agricultural waste such as cornstalks or straw, which would have otherwise been discarded.
With the funds from the prize, the company focused on democratizing the technology with grow-it-yourself kits. Gavin McIntyre, co-founder and chief scientist, quickly learned the company must appeal to more than just a customer’s ethical impulses. “I really wish people would buy things just because they are green and good for the planet, but, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. We must be able to provide additional cost savings and value.” Their pursuit seems to be going well, as, in just one year, the company was able to displace 1.6 million pounds of plastic from the supply chain.
Paying homage to Fuller’s emphasis on holistic approaches, the final panel of the day looked at the social implications of the work the winners do.
“Global inequality was not an accident, it was created by design.” said Greg Watson, director of policy and systems design at the Schumacher Center for New Economics. “We have been trained to think this is the real world. But the real world is what we create.”
The winners are a “beacon of hope and powerful counterpoint to the intellectual bankruptcy that threatens humanity’s continuous voyage aboard spaceship Earth. Gaia will survive our insults, and it’s really up to us to ensure that we continue to ride.”
This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, landscape designer at SWA/Balsley in New York City.