Alec Nevala-Lee is a culturally influential biographer and science fiction writer. He was a finalist for two prestigious science fiction awards, the Hugo and the Locus Awards.
Below, Alec shares 5 key takeaways from his new book, Inventors of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller. Listen to the audio version – read by Alec himself – in the Next Big Idea app.
1. Do more with less.
Buckminster Fuller was an architectural designer and inventor. If you’ve ever seen a geodesic structure like the sphere at Epcot Center, it’s because of Fuller. If you’ve ever seen a playground dome, it’s because of Fuller. If you’ve ever seen the word “synergy” — or been annoyed by it — it’s because of Fuller.
Fuller was born in 1885 and died in 1983, and for much of his life he was the world’s most celebrated futurist. During his life, Fuller had a major impact on the founders of what later became Silicon Valley. In many ways, Fuller’s life has been a manual for making change come at a price.
I want to go through some of my thoughts on how Fuller did all that he did. Let’s start with impermanence, a word coined by Fuller himself. Essentially, it means “do more with less,” although it has evolved to mean much more. One of Fuller’s first projects was a house – a mass-produced house that would be built in a factory and shipped anywhere in the country. It had to be light for this to work, so Fuller chose aluminum over materials like concrete. Instead of compression, he relied on tension. That made sense for the house, but he eventually went further.
He said that impermanence begins with compression, goes through tension, then ends in the visual and finally in the abstract. What does that mean? Look at the technology today: The technology is getting smaller, lighter and more abstract. Fuller spoke about this trend in the early 1930s.
2. Benefit from the simplicity.
Fuller was not a great businessman. For many years he was what we now call a serial entrepreneur, trying to revolutionize various industries such as housing and autos. Things didn’t always go well, largely due to interpersonal conflicts between Fuller and his investors. After doing this for a while, he realized that he wanted to operate independently and needed to ephemeral or abstract the concept of the company itself until he could put it into practice himself. He succeeded – the question is how.
“Fuller’s practical goal was to create structures simple enough to be reproduced at minimal cost, since he didn’t have many resources.”
Fuller’s original home designs called for a factory—a huge industrial operation with a large capital investment up front, and he had to work with others because he needed their resources and money. In order to act independently, he had to rethink his product. There’s a reason we associate startup companies with things like software—making an app. It’s much easier to build software than hardware. And when you start building a device, gadget or house, it’s quite a challenge. So how could Fuller build a house using essentially a startup model? The answer is the dome.
The geodesic dome is a tangible structure. It’s an enclosure that we can use as a shelter, but in some ways it’s also closer to software. It is based on geometry, and once refined, people could build domes using tables of called numbers chord factors, which was a type of coding in the real world. This attracted many of the same people who were later attracted to computers. You could build domes out of all sorts of materials. Fuller’s earliest domes were made of venetian blinds, later he made domes of cardboard and plywood. As long as you knew the rules, you could build a dome out of almost anything.
The rules Fuller derived are very similar to how nature builds. If you look at a virus, or the inside of a cell, or a buckyball (a carbon molecule named after Fuller because its structure resembles a geodesic sphere), you see that these things follow some of the rules seen in the dome are. Fuller’s practical goal, because he didn’t have many resources, was to create structures simple enough to be reproduced at minimal cost – and in the natural world that makes a lot of sense. In fact, Fuller’s ideas have found applications in fields like chemistry and virology that he never even imagined while he was alive.
3. Use existing systems.
The dome went viral in the early fifties, in the classic sense that it became popular within an existing network of people and from there spread to culture as a whole.
If you were trying to build or develop something like the dome in the early fifties, there were two obvious places to go. One was in the military and the other in the colleges, and Fuller used both. The Marines sought shelters that could be used as advanced bases and helicoptered into place. Meanwhile he held seminars at colleges where he put forward an idea for a dome project, the students built the dome themselves and did most of the calculations and the engineering and physical work. From there he took that draft to the next college on his list. So he developed the dome.
“The rules that Fuller derived come very close to how nature works.”
He did that for years. He shaped his message for these two very different audiences. When he spoke to the Marines, the dome was a symbol of the Cold War and American dominance overseas. As he spoke to students, his message was about caring for all of humanity through the most efficient use of resources and the creation of universal housing. Although these messages were somewhat contradictory, he accepted both because he needed both systems to achieve his goals.
He lost his military contracts in the late 1960s, but he still had the colleges. He understood that young people were the audience he needed. A young person is usually unattached, they can take certain types of risks and work long hours in ways that are less possible later in life – this is one of the reasons why startups today tend to hire young people. Fuller knew this was his research team, so he changed his message again. In the 1960s he became outwardly more idealistic, even utopian, for targeting college kids. This is the version of Fuller that most people remember now.
4. Use words and images to define a culture.
Fuller wasn’t very good at building things. He was not a practical engineer and in the mid-1960s earned most of his money from lectures. And he began to realize that he didn’t need to build much at all – that he could only rely on images and ideas.
The dome succeeded in large part because it looked futuristic. Although it can be built in someone’s garage, it looks like a sci-fi artifact. Fuller understood that this was part of his attraction. He also saw that at a certain point he would no longer need to build a full-size dome. He could show models, slides, and concept art to people, and he could use words. Eventually, he became notorious for lecturing for hours — and it was no coincidence. This was his way of creating a culture that he could sustain himself. He used buzzwords like synergy and impermanence. His vocabulary became a way of defining the culture he was trying to inculcate.
His geometry eventually grew into almost an entire line of products that he developed for years because he could think of geometry anywhere. It was weightless, he could do it on the street, on trips. At the end of the 1960s, he reduced the core of his work to one person: himself.
5. Embodie your ideas within yourself.
Fuller often spoke of his life as an experiment. He called himself Guinea Pig B. He said it was an experiment to see how much one person could achieve that could not be achieved through traditional institutions such as governments or corporations. His personality ended up being the only thing totally under his control.
“His vocabulary became a way of defining the culture he was trying to inculcate.”
Therefore he dealt with things that are called today bio chop. He spoke about his sleep schedule, which included half an hour of sleep every four hours and reportedly getting much less sleep than average. At one point he advocated a diet consisting almost entirely of beef. These things seem odd, but they’re also things tech CEOs often do. Because the founder personality is a form of branding. Fuller wasn’t just an eccentric—he consciously built his audience. He realized early on that people would respond to his example, which was more compelling than any single project. For decades he operated a virtual company, where he could initiate projects seemingly from scratch, using only the power of his personality to drive them forward. It was all very intentional. He was once asked what type of business structure he was using and he said, “One individual.”
Obviously, this type of structure has certain advantages. It’s easier to innovate when your costs are low. You are more flexible; You can easily switch between ideas. As Fuller liked to say, unlike a government or a corporation, an individual can just start thinking.
But there are also disadvantages. Fuller wasn’t very good at finishing things. There’s a reason we call these companies “startups.” Fuller tended to start projects and move on before they were finished. Also, not everyone can take such risks. Fuller was very privileged. He was a white man from a prominent family, and he knew that he could always fail in life without falling from the upper class – which is not the case for many people with bright ideas. Finally, this type of surgery tends to focus on one person rather than building a larger movement. This is a big part of why Fuller isn’t as familiar as a culture figure as he used to be, because after his death there was no one to carry on what he started. Still, Fuller did more in one lifetime than most of us will ever do. I hope that people can benefit from his example to find other solutions to the problems we face today.
To hear the audio read by author Alec Nevala-Lee, download the Next Big Idea app today: