World Game – first proposed in 1961
When Buckminster Fuller proposed World Game in 1961, the technology did not exist to implement his vision. Only now can a World Game be implemented using geo-aware technologies, internet-supported collaboration, ubiquitous computing, and increasingly sophisticated social networks to support coordinated decision-making, innovation, responsible entrepreneurship, and collaboration across the globe.
Of World Game Buckminster Fuller wrote: “I review planetary resources in terms of today’s gained know-how, to see whether there’s any way we might be able to do much more with much less, to be able to take care of everybody. All political systems and wars based on scarcity would become obsolete. World Gaming is played, not like checkers against an enemy but against ignorance, inertia, and fear. The World Game proves that John Von Neumann’s theory of war gaming, which holds that one side or the other must ultimately die, either by war or starvation, is invalid and offers a heretofore unconsidered alternative way to play the war game in which, as in mountain climbing, the object is to find all the moves by which the whole field of climbers would win as each helped the other so that everyone reached the mountaintop successfully. I think of my World Game as a way to bypass politics, human ignorance, prejudice, and war and put the facts before man and the whole world to try to deal with them coherently. We have never so far made the attempt to take our collective destiny into our own hands, and shape it.”
How did he propose to implement a vision so ambitious? Buckminster Fuller’s 1961 proposal for World Game was a vehicle to stimulate collective brainstorming about how to address global sustainability. In the decades of the 1960s and 1970s large groups met in school gymnasia with butcher paper and colored markers to develop strategies to match world resources to world needs. These sessions raised awareness about the challenges of resource distribution, population growth, and the interconnectedness of global sustainability challenges.
Fuller coined the concepts of Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science (1951), “World Game” (1961) and “Spaceship Earth” (1963). Considered together, these three concepts call for greater emphasis on synthesis (design science), gaming, and ecosystems. Design Science challenges us to bridge C.P. Snow’s two cultures (1959), so that design and science can collaborate to shape environmentally sustainable futures on Spaceship Earth.
Buckminster Fuller’s concept of Design Science focused on the principles of synergetics, and their proof of concept, initially on a small scale. 2011, the fiftieth anniversary of R. Buckminster Fuller’s first publication of the idea of World Game (1961). His ideas were ahead of their time, resisted when first proposed, but are increasingly being accepted as society embraces the urgency of environmental sustainability. While there is much emphasis on developing new, sustainable technologies, insufficient emphasis is placed on the larger challenge of decision support.
Buckminster Fuller carved powerful metaphors to convey foundational ideas. In the following sections I start from five well-known position statements of Buckminster Fuller, each of which introduces a critical principle of collaborative intelligence.
First, in “the origins of specialization” Fuller links specialization to the “divide and conquer” philosophy of the power elite for control and exploitation, putting forward the provocative insight that through specialization we lost our abilities as designers and our power to anticipate the impacts of design decisions on humanity. Design was relegated to a cubbyhole to be yet another specialized profession.
Second, in “I seem to be a verb” Fuller invokes ordinary life experience, with its constant lessons and opportunities for design thinking. He turned himself into “Guinea Pig B” (“B” for Bucky), testing his ideas in the design of his own life. He viewed his own creative life trajectory, and its documentation, as a vehicle to inspire others.
Third, in “We are all astronauts” Fuller invokes the extraordinary human aspiration to send missions to space, choosing as his metaphor Earth as our spaceship, a self-repairing, recycling system of systems.
Fourth, citing Leonardo da Vinci as an outstanding exemplar for future “comprehensive, anticipatory design scientists,” Fuller challenges us to revisit, not only Leonardo’s immense oeuvre, but to imagine what Leonardo’s design process must have been to achieve that level of design innovation.
Finally, through synergetics, the integrated behaviors of nature whereby whole system behaviors cannot be predicted from the behaviors of their component parts, Fuller offers the core concept of design science. Synergetics is the process that leads to synergy. Fuller clearly articulated a process-focused design philosophy, aligned with the dynamics scientists have hypothesized must have occurred in the origin and evolution of life itself. These dynamics provide a foundation for sustainable systems in the future.
The Great Pirates: “origins of specialization”
Buckminster Fuller’s first powerful concept was represented by the metaphor of the Great Pirates, by which he meant not merely storybook characters, but those who lead corporations and governments, who amass, and often misuse, power. He saw specialisation, and lack of cross-fertilization, as weakening, not only every individual, but also the fabric of society.
Buckminster Fuller was a great generalist at a time when being a generalist had grown increasingly unpopular. He believed that the “new, self-employed architect-scientist is the one in all the world who may accelerate realisation of a high standard survival for all,” and that it was technology that would make this vision possible (1963a, p. 82).
Fuller placed historic responsibility for specialisation on the Great Pirates, whose “divide and conquer” strategy fostered increasing specialisation as a means to control and exploit others. Circumscribed knowledge, affording the comforts of being expert in a small domain, made people acquiesce in their subservience, almost without realising. The arts of navigation, grand logistics, and effectively deceptive media for international exchange, made the Top Pirate in “the house” (gambling parlance) repeatedly a Winner Takes All. These cautions, penned by Bucky forty years ago, have uncanny prescience in a world shocked by the Enron scandal, the FEMA fiasco (U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency) ineptly responding to the Hurricane Katrina crisis, haphazard response to earthquakes and other crises around the world, and growing suspicion that too much power to exploit drove United States troops into Iraq and Afghanistan on false pretexts.
In Bucky’s view, although the Great Pirates, as such, became extinct with the advent of technology, their legacy, their methods of controlling, deceiving, and exploiting others, lived on. They created contexts within which their methods could flourish, where their unscrupulous schemes gave them an advantage. Recent research suggests a new breed of Pirates — charming, dark-suited, socially adept psychopaths, who advance themselves at the expense of others through similar methods of dominion. This research recalls Bucky’s insights about the Great Pirates, not as outliers, but as very central shapers of accepted social mores, which survive today. The doctrine of “survival of the fittest” as the exclusive modis operandi of evolution breeds a view that “competition proves who deserves more of less,” a justification for warfare.
To illustrate the correlation between over-specialisation and extinction, Fuller cites the case of a marine bird, which evolved longer and longer beaks to dig in marine marshes for its food, until eventually the beaks of this species were so long and heavy that the birds could no longer fly. Massive fires swept through the area and this species of overspecialised birds, unable to fly, was trapped and perished. Studies of biological species, and of human tribes that became extinct, find evidence for the same cause of extinction in both cases: over-specialisation (1969, p. 41).
Fuller proposed “design science” as an antidote for over-specialisation, a method to recognise or envision a big picture. In the 1980s we tried to develop expert systems, which failed to realise this prediction. It was not yet time for man to be displaced as a specialist by the computer. Buckminster Fuller personally exemplified the design science principles he described. His vision for “comprehensive, anticipatory, design science” (CADS) embraced the potential for emergence of collaborative intelligence, progressing through iterative pattern recognition toward coherence. He conceived the general framework for CADS in a world where the two key elements needed to implement his vision, ubiquitous computing and the internet, did not yet exist.
Now, several decades downstream, Fuller’s prediction has come true with a twist that would probably surprise and delight him. The Internet as society’s global brain can potentially enable us to overcome many of the traps of overspecialisation. Fuller predicted, far ahead of the internet that could realise his prediction, a second antidote: “Suddenly, all unrecognised as such by society, the evolutionary antibody to the extinction of humanity through specialisation appeared in the form of the computer” (1969, p. 44).
Guinea Pig B: “I seem to be a verb.”
Buckminster Fuller’s second powerful concept was to “guinea pig oneself.” Fuller viewed himself as “Guinea Pig B” (B for Bucky), using his own life as the testbed for learning from experience, as many artists do. Fuller describes the early trauma of poverty, when he could barely support his young family. His near suicide at that time triggered an awakening. His life turned around from those depths to become his source of inspiration — he was Guinea Pig B for many of his ideas and saw himself as a prototype for all of humanity. He registered his optimism in the last document he wrote before his death, Guinea Pig B (1983): “my ‘working assumption [is] that humans are present on Spaceship Earth only because they have an ultimately-to-become-operative, critical function to perform in Universe.”
Fuller wrote in his book I seem to be a verb in 1970, “I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe.” Noah Raymond Levey captures the uniqueness of Fuller’s I seem to be a verb as a statement about design: “The pages are divided in half longitudinally by two lines of type, one right side up (the top line), and one upside-down. The rest of the upper half of the page is filled with blurbs, clip art and the like. The bottom half is the same, but upside down. The book can be read to the end and flipped, so that the second half that was upside down can be read. Also, you can stop at any point and flip the book again and continue. In a way, this book contains the means to keep reading the same book indefinitely, and creates a microcosmic little universe all its own.” This conceptual layout suggests that Fuller and Levey had anticipated the potential of the Internet long before the Internet existed as a book publishing vehicle.
In the great tradition of Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and others, Buckminster Fuller made his own life experience the direct generator of his insights. In his view, designers were not specialists in a world of specialists. Design, an integrative discipline, had allowed itself to be relegated to a specialised cubbyhole. Designers have a duty to navigate the flagship as the last remaining generalists able to assemble a big picture, a map to show how the parts create a greater whole. Design science was the systematic method Fuller proposed to make synthesis possible.
Buckminster Fuller saw how our understanding is constrained, not only by our language, but also by our metaphors and images. He thought that we should replace statistics (which are anything but static) with vitalistics, and data with mobilata, to emphasise movement and change through time (1938, p. 47). He pointed to the need for graphic formats to represent the role of design in scientific discovery, and its capacity to evolve through time.
Fuller’s predictions were sometimes wrong in the details. For example, he predicted in the 1960s that the whole world would be industrialised by 1985 and that human population growth would stabilise at the 1985 level (1969 p.131).
But Fuller was strikingly right in forecasting the big picture. Fuller applied the principle of association and emergence to our planet as a “forwardly operative, metabolic, and intellectually regenerating system” (1969, p. 86-7). He highlighted “the enormous intellectual task which must be successfully accomplished . . . to convert man’s spin-dive toward oblivion into an intellectually mastered power pull-out” (1969, p.125). He believed that the elimination of war could only be achieved through a design and invention revolution.
Fuller, when asked how we could resolve the ever-accelerating dangerous impasse of world-opposed politicians and ideological dogmas, said unequivocably: “It will be resolved by the computer” (1969, p. 132). Many of Fuller’s ideas had practical potential for applications, such as user-friendly, evolvable manufacturing methods (Frei et al. 2007). His Guinea Pig B “is me” aligns with a core principle of collaborative intelligence, collaborative autonomy, wherein each individual must be recognised as unique, with a unique role to play in an emergent collaborative intelligence ecosystem.
Spaceship Earth: “We are all astronauts.”
Buckminster Fuller’s third powerful concept was the metaphor of our Earth as Spaceship. “We are all astronauts,” in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth entrains NASA’s aspiration to send astronauts to outer space into “a Fuller inspiration” to view ourselves as stewards of our Spaceship Earth — what NASA engineers term a CELSS, or Closed Environment Life Support System. This term applies, not only as NASA engineers use it, to describe NASA spaceships, but also to our Earth as spaceship.
Earth may seem large, but as humanity’s footprint looms ever larger, we must recognise that there’s no way out: “there’s no good old country doctor on Mars to revive those, who, through mental inertia, are streamlining into extinction” (1938, p. xi). Spaceship Earth is large enough for myopic views to miss Fuller’s grand perspective of Earth as an integrally-designed machine (1969, p. 52). We must safeguard our Earth, since all life on Earth depends upon its sustainable functioning.
Fuller notes the cleverness of designing Spaceship Earth with a large safety factor, so humankind could be very ignorant for thousands of years until we amassed sufficient expertise to manage our ship. Much as a chick is provided nutrient in the egg, Fuller thought that Mother Earth gave us a large cushion-for-error. But we will soon exhaust that cushion-for-error. We must then be ready to hatch, face reality, and figure out what to do: “The designed omission of the instruction book on how to operate and maintain Spaceship Earth and its complex life-supporting and regenerating systems has forced man to discover . . . what his most important forward capabilities are” (1969, p. 56).
In Guinea Pig B, Fuller described Planet Earth as “a superbly conceived and realised . . . (over 6.5 sextillion tons) spaceship, cruise-speeding frictionlessly and soundlessly on an incredibly accurate celestial course. Spaceship Earth’s spherical passenger deck is largely occupied by a 140-million-square-mile ‘swimming pool,’ whose three principal widenings are called oceans. Upon the surface of the ‘swimming pool,’ humanity is playing high-profit gambling games with oil-loaded ships.”
Fuller called on us to harness principles to leverage small resources and dynamics and grow them in order to do more with less. To organise our grand strategy for saving (operating and maintaining) our Spaceship Earth, first we must discover where we are now. Then we must harness our diverse capabilities to best advantage.
Al Gore was attracted to the idea of a satellite, which he called Triana, at a high enough orbit to photograph the Earth as a whole. Like Fuller, he wanted people to see the Earth as a single system of systems in order to change how we think about our role as designers on this planet. To harness our individual capabilities as strategic thinkers for the sustainability challenge, we should not build a massively multi-player World Game. Instead, we can innovate through globally distributed, loosely linked mini-gaming sessions, exchanging and sharing knowledge, harnessing our collaborative intelligence.
Leonardo da Vinci — anticipatory design scientist
Buckminster Fuller’s fourth powerful concept was to redefine the role of design scientist. He chose Leonardo da Vinci as the ultimate design scientist, a heroic exemplar of cross-disciplinary invention. Historians tend to focus on the impressive objects of Leonardo’s invention, neglecting his process, which for Fuller represented design science at its best. In The Sublimations of Leonardo (1970) author Raymond Stites contends that Freud deserves blame for broad misconceptions about Leonardo da Vinci. Stites aimed to set the record straight.
Leonardo’s word lists were examined carefully by several scholars. Luca Beltrami, with support from Prince Trivulzio, transcribed the word lists and published them in 1891 (thereafter they were called the Codex Trivulzianus). Beltrami first questioned the previously held notion that these were vocabulary lists. Many of the words were simple, and many were repeated.
Beltrami noted that certain groupings of words occurred repeatedly in Leonardo’s lists, one sequence in particular: unico/ aldacia/ concietto/ necessita (unique/ audacity/ concept/ necessity). The word concietto was one of those most frequently repeated. Might Leonardo have been trying to understand the unique daring required to conceive a new invention? (Adler, 1934). Since many of the words in Leonardo’s lists were simple, and many were repeated, Leonardo’s Codex Trivulzianus could not have been merely a vocabulary list, as had been previously assumed. In 1895 Henri de Geymuller, after studying Leonardo’s word lists, remarked that ideas may be born “in some mysterious region of the mind.” Leonardo’s word lists were mixed with pictographs and sketches, suggesting that he might have had a method to stimulate his own inventive powers.
Psychologist Raymond Stites began seriously studying Leonardo in the 1930s, speculating that Leonardo may have used “automatic writing” as a technique to bring submerged material up from his subconscious to fuel his creativity (1970). Stites hypothesised that Leonardo’s great achievements as a technologist were a result of his unique way of putting his mind into its artistic mode to conceive new inventions. He thought that Leonardo epitomised the designer’s challenge: “The great problem for creative genius in every age is to know how to objectify his own struggles without upsetting prevailing convention. On the whole, . . . Leonardo seems to have found a way to present the most daring concepts without drawing down upon his head official censure. How he did this is of course part of our . . . study of perfect sublimation” (Stites 1970, p. 80).
Some words occur repeatedly in Leonardo’s lists: integrita, errore, mentale, mirabile (integrity/ error/ mental/ miracle). He seemed to have tapped a deep vein for creative insight into his own process of invention. Oppositions occurred in Leonardo’s word lists. Words were paired: volupta — dispiacere (pleasure or delight — distaste), amore — gielosia (erotic love — jealousy), felicita — ividja (happiness — envy), fortuna — penitenza (good fortune — penitence), sospetto (suspecting or doubtful).
This last word stands alone, suggesting that Leonardo, like any inventor, was uncertain as to where doubt would lead. If “doubt” (and uncertainty) play key roles in creative cognition and design, then starting from uncertainty is the basis for discovery and innovation. If Leonardo’s associative word lists were a tool to study his own process of invention, and if free association, tapping into his subconscious, was the method he used to make himself more inventive, then the striking relevance of his word lists to the way that contemporary society is creating a new problem-solving environment on the internet is no coincidence. The multi-faceted individual mind and the collaborative intelligence of an effective group mind both engage the creative process. Human creativity and cognition, then and now, remains the same.
Tensegrity Synergetics: balancing opposed forces
R. Buckminster Fuller defined synergy as the behavior of whole systems, unpredicted by the observed behaviors of the system’s separate parts, or any subassembly of the system’s parts. Fuller’s fifth powerful concept was synergy, and synergetics, the dynamic interaction of subsystems through which synergy is maintained. Synergy is the essence of chemistry, exemplified by an alloy with greater tensile strength than any of its component elements. Fuller contrasted synergy with the conventional view of a chain that is no stronger than its weakest link (1969 p. 71).
Synergy, from the Greek word synergos, which means “working together,” or cooperating, refers to the combined or cooperative effects produced by the relationships among various forces, particles, elements, parts or individuals in a given context, that functional synergies (economic benefits, broadly defined) drive evolution toward complexity. Synergy, the opposite of a chain that is no stronger than its weakest link, is the result of effective collaboration. Collaborative intelligence is an instance of synergy.
Peter Corning proposed the Synergism Hypothesis as fully consistent with Darwin’s theory, with the canons of physical, biological, and social sciences, and with the science of complexity. He saw the course of evolution as determined by an accumulation of various forms of functional synergy with economic “payoffs” for survival and reproduction, a process propelled by a series of behavioral innovations and “Neo-Lamarckian” (teleonomic) selection.
The Synergism Hypothesis incorporates bioeconomic benefits, synergies of scale, threshold effects, combinations of labor, complementarities of cost- and risk-sharing. Corning argues that “to a considerable degree our species invented itself.” He cites authors who have also argued for this view: V. Gordon Childe (1936) Man Makes Himself, on the agricultural revolution; Jonathan Kingdon (1993) Self-Made Man.
Corning argues that the cliché definition of synergy as “the whole greater than the sum of its parts” is misleading, since sometimes wholes are not greater than their parts, just different. When we assume that synergy is limited to organised systems, we overlook how synergy explains a range of irreducible cooperative effects, and that sometimes the cooperative effect of many components is negative, rather than positive.
Synergy is also the essence of life and a prerequisite for its sustainability. The behavior of the whole is greater than, and may be qualitatively different from, the aggregate behavior of its parts. If, as James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis argues, our biosphere behaves like a single synergetic organism, continually adjusting its many interdependent variables, this global coordination presupposes accepted tolerance ranges of viability for the many variables that must be in balance with each other to achieve homeostasis of the biosphere. If organisms collaboratively maintain Earth’s variables within life’s tolerance ranges, despite significant environmental perturbations, then organisms and their biosphere are collaborating, rather than solely competing, for survival of the fittest.
I first saw sculptor Kenneth Snelson’s seemingly weightless tensegrity structures exhibited in an outdoor show in Bryant Park as a young college graduate in New York City. Several years later I went to work in Buckminster Fuller’s office.
Kenneth Snelson, an engineer turned sculptor, was inspired to discover tensegrity structures while a student of Buckminster Fuller in 1948 at Black Mountain College, then a famous summer program to spawn creative thinking. Snelson worked through the fall in Oregon and returned the following year to show his discovery to Buckminster Fuller (Snelson 1965; Fuller, Applewhite 1975).
Fuller, known for his geodesic domes, realised that Snelson had discovered an important principle, which Fuller called “tensegrity,” an abbreviation for “tensional integrity,” which characterises a system that maintains its integrity through the opposition of a continuous web of tension, connecting discontinuous compression members.