The Dymaxion Tomorrow

Events / by Elizabeth Cline /

A city-wide vehicle sharing program, a latrine block that treats sewage on-site, and bicycles that double as ambulances take top honors in the Buckminster Fuller Design Challenge.

The annual Buckminster Fuller Design Challenge awards $100,000 to a visionary design project, one that can be inserted into a failing system to do no less than accelerate the transition to an equitable and sustainable future. In his book on the condition of man, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, Fuller wrote that: “If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat … makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top.” Today more than ever, it has become clear that much of the technology, design, and systems in use in our everyday lives — from our transportation system and our power grid to the way we build our homes and think about sanitation  — is a sea of piano tops. Fuller called for a different approach to problem solving, which he called “comprehensive anticipatory design science,” that utilized systems thinking and scientific rigor with faithful reliance on nature’s underlying principles.

The Fuller challenge’s winning designs, presented here, meet an impressive set of criteria: They solve multiple problems without creating new ones; anticipate future trends, needs, and the long-term impact of implementation; are ecologically responsible; and are feasible, verifiable, and replicable. They are regionally specific yet globally applicable and have a plan in place to quickly move the solution forward. These are the revolutionary ideas that within a few years time will change the way we approach solutions to environmental and social problems, en route to solving them.

Courtesy of the Buckminster Fuller Institute


Sustainable Personal Mobility and Mobility-on-Demand Systems

Submitted by MIT | More info

The Challenge: To transform personal transportation so that it better serves urban spaces and the needs of city-dwellers. In cities, gas-fueled, private cars have resulted in street and road congestion, excessive consumption of space by parking and wide street lanes, petroleum dependence and its associated geopolitical/economic problems, air and noise pollution, and carbon emissions that contribute substantially to climate change.
The Solution: The CityCar, RoboScooter, and GreenWheel electric bicycle — a fleet of light weight, foldable battery-electric vehicles for use on demand in urban areas (the CityCars’ chassis will be located within the front tires, which enables the car to fold up to a length of 60 inches). Passengers can swipe their credit card to “check” out a vehicle from racks conveniently located around a city, unfold them if need be, and drive to their destination and return the vehicle to another nearby rack, where they are automatically recharged. The vehicles use little road space, reduce parking space requirements by almost an order of magnitude, and are silent, energy-efficient, and produce no tailpipe emissions.
Why It Could Work: The team has closely examined existing personal on-demand mobility systems to avoid pitfalls, such as the restraint of two-way systems that demand users return vehicles to an original pickup point. The team has researched the top vehicle sharing systems in cities around the world and has developed an algorithm that identifies the best locations for racks and anticipates user demand, so that there isn’t a wait for a vehicle or for parking.
When We’ll See Results: Prototypes for the RoboScooter and the Green Wheel bicycle are complete, as well as the prototype for the CityCar’s chassis. The team is pursing venture capital funding, after which they plan to implement a pilot program on the MIT and Harvard campuses, followed by a city-scale deployment within three years.


Courtesy of the Buckminster Fuller Institute


Dreaming New Mexico

Submitted by Bioneers | More info

The Challenge: Envisioning ways to transition to sustainable energy and eco-friendly infrastructure on the state level, and bringing together the key players needed to accomplish these goals.
The Solution: Dreaming New Mexico, a set of organizing tools leveraged towards achieving renewable decentralized energy, a localized food system, water management, land and wildlife management, and more. Citizen-experts first imagine a sustainable, green New Mexico in the year 2020. From this “dream,” regional data is used to create a “future map” that shows how existing infrastructure and the state’s resources can be best be used towards the dream  — for example, the best regions in the state for large-scale wind and solar farms, locations of power lines, as well as potential sites for algae-to-biodiesel reactors. A core group of local visionaries in various sectors of government, civil society, and business are then identified and brought together to plan how to implement the dream, and are able to connect and share ideas on the website. From there the DNW meets with policymakers, business leaders, and activists to move the dream forward.
Why It Could Work: Visualizing and comprehensively mapping out a future where humans and natural systems are integrated could be a powerful first step towards making it happen. Key players in the plan are able to connect via the website, where a Google Earth plug-in can be used to map out sites for sustainable development. The state government and many environmental and green jobs groups have embraced the group; their materials may soon be used in official state communications, with parts of the DNM platform potentially used as action items.
When We’ll See Results: DNM has completed the first future map, “The Age of Renewables” [view PDF] and the “Ecological, Localized Food System” map will be completed in July. A “Dreaming Mallorca” group has started up in Spain, and there is interest from Oregon, Nebraska, and Florida.


Courtesy of the Buckminster Fuller Institute

Honorable Mention

Cycle for Health

Submitted by Mr. Joseph Agoada, Two Wheeled Foundation Dr. John Baptist Niwagaba, Kigezi Community Project Mr. Patrick Kayemba, First African Bicycle Information Organization | More info

The Challenge: Rural communities in Africa often have the proper medical supplies and skilled professionals to deliver health care, but poor roads and limited access to cars lead to delays in patient care. Treatable problems oftentimes spiral into serious ailments, resulting in long, costly journeys for advanced care at city hospitals.
Solution: Cycle for Health collects bicycles in North America, packages them with spare parts and tools, and ships them to community based organizations in rural East Africa. The bicycles can then be used to mobilize medical resources, personnel, and patients.
Why It Could Work: The bicycle is an accepted and valued form of transport in rural areas, so the concept can be adapted to a broad range of conditions. Whereas current aid programs simply drop bicycles into a needy community, Cycle for Health packages materials and trainings together into an instantly deployable workshop, and envisions bicycles as capital to start sustainable small-scale enterprises. Recipients are trained to repair, refurbish, and remodel recycled bicycles into ambulances, goods carriers, and off-road transporters. The bicycle designs can then be marketed to hospitals, health care organizations, other NGOs, and women’s development groups to mobilize their resources and improve their services.
When We’ll See Results: A pilot workshop has begun in southwest Uganda, where the first bicycle shipment arrived earlier this year and the first containerized bicycle workshop was established. A three-year plan describes rolling out satellite bicycle workshops from a central “hub” in Kabale, Uganda, which would double as bicycle repair points and stops on a KCP mobile health clinic route.


Courtesy of the Buckminster Fuller Institute

Honorable Mention

Mukuru BioCentres

Submitted by Umande Trust, GOAL Ireland Partnership | More info

The Challenge: The lack of sanitation in Nairobi’s slums, where an average of 650 people share a single toilet cubicle, resulting in the most prevalent childhood sicknesses and 40 percent of infant mortalities caused by inadequate sanitation.
The Solution: BioCentres, latrine blocks managed by community groups that treat waste on-site by mixing water and human waste in anaerobic conditions to make biogas, which can then be used for cooking. The remaining liquid waste is 90 percent pathogen-free and filtered on-site.
Why It Could Really Work: BioCentres can be built with locally available technology, unskilled labor, and require minimal maintenance. An international NGO is working with Umande Trust to identify the locations with the greatest need and will staff each Centre with a community health worker that will disseminate hygiene and health information. Toilet operations will be subsidized by businesses like restaurants or cottage industries in the Centres’ upper floors, as well as by kiosks selling clean water. Each BioCentre will donate 10 percent of its profits to a community sanitation fund, which will be used to scale up the project and alternatively support the construction and upgrading of plot-based latrines. The technology can be applied to informal settlements worldwide and to rural or urban institutions such as schools and offices.
When We’ll See Results: Twelve BioCentres have already been built in Kenya, four more are under construction, and an additional four are planned by mid-2009. Over the next three years, the project aims to reach a critical mass of 20 BioCentres, which will serve 12,000 people a day.

Originally published May 7, 2009

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