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 Locus Awards.
Below, Alec shares 5 key insights from his new book, Inventor 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, that’s because of Fuller. If you’ve ever seen a playground dome, that’s because of Fuller. If you’ve ever seen—or been annoyed by—the word “synergy,” that’s because of Fuller.
Fuller was born in 1885 and died in 1983, and for much of his life, he was the most famous futurist in the world. During his life, Fuller was a huge influence on the founders of what later became Silicon Valley. In many ways, Fuller’s life was a manual for producing change at a cost.
I’d like to go through some of my thoughts on how Fuller did all that he did. Let’s start with “ephemeralization,” a word coined by Fuller himself. Essentially, it means “doing more with less,” although it evolved to mean a lot more. One of Fuller’s first projects was a house—a mass-produced house that would be built in a factory and delivered anywhere in the country. For this to work, it had to be light, so instead of using materials like concrete, Fuller opted for aluminum. Instead of compression, he went for tension. This made sense for the house, but he eventually took it further.
He said that ephemeralization starts with compression, goes through tension, then ends up in the visual, and finally the abstract. What does that mean? Well, just look at technology today: Technology is growing smaller, lighter, and more abstract. Fuller was talking about this trend in the early 1930s.
2. Take advantage of simplicity.
Fuller was not a great businessman. For many years, he was what we now call a serial entrepreneur, and he was trying to disrupt different industries like housing and cars. It didn’t always go well, mostly because of interpersonal conflicts between Fuller and his investors. After doing this for a while, he realized that he wanted to operate independently, and he needed to ephemeralize or abstract the concept of the corporation itself to the point where he could put it into practice on his own. He succeeded—the question is how.
“Fuller’s practical goal, because he didn’t have much in the way of resources, was to create structures that were simple enough to be reproduced at minimal cost.”
Fuller’s original house designs required a factory—a huge industrial operation with a big capital investment upfront, and he had to work with others because he needed their resources and money. To operate independently, he had to rethink his product. There’s a reason that we associate startup companies with things like software—with building an app. It’s much easier to build software than hardware. And when you start building a device or gadget or house, it is pretty challenging. 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 is an enclosure that we can use for shelter, but in some ways, it’s also closer to software. It’s based on geometry, and once it was refined, people could build domes using tables of numbers called chord factors, which was a kind of real-world coding. This drew many of the same people that would later be drawn to computing. You could build domes out of all kinds of materials. Fuller’s earliest domes were made of Venetian blinds, and later he made domes out of cardboard and plywood. As long as you knew the rules, you could build a dome using almost anything.
The rules that Fuller derived are very close to how nature builds. If you look at a virus, or at the interior of a cell, or a buckyball (a carbon molecule named after Fuller because its structure resembles a geodesic sphere), you see these things following some of the rules seen in the dome. Fuller’s practical goal, because he didn’t have much in the way of resources, was to create structures that were simple enough to be reproduced at minimal cost—and in the natural world, it makes a lot of sense. Fuller’s ideas have actually found applications in fields like chemistry and virology that he never even imagined when he was alive.
3. Leverage 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 spread from there to the entire culture.
If you were trying to build or develop something like the dome in the early fifties, there were two obvious places to do this. One was the military, and the other was in colleges, and Fuller used both. The Marines were looking for shelters that could be used as advanced bases and could be airlifted into place by helicopter. Meanwhile, at colleges, he would have seminars where he would bring an idea for a dome project, the students would build the dome themselves, doing most of the calculations and the engineering and physical labor. From there, he took that design to the next college on his list. This is how he developed the dome.
“The rules that Fuller derived are very close to how nature builds.”
He did this for years. He shaped his message for these two very different audiences. When he was talking to the Marines, the dome was an emblem of the Cold War and American dominance overseas. When he talked to students, his message was about providing for all of humanity by using resources in the most efficient way and creating universal housing. Although these messages were in some ways contradictory, he embraced both because he needed both systems to accomplish his goals.
By the end of the sixties, he was losing his military contracts, 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 on certain kinds of risks and work long hours, in ways that become less possible later in life—which is part of the reason startups today tend to hire young people. Fuller knew that this was his research team, so he changed his message yet again. During the sixties, he became more outwardly idealistic, even utopian, because he was targeting college kids. This is the version of Fuller that most people remember now.
4. Use words and images to define a culture.
Fuller was not especially good at building things. He was not a practical engineer, and toward the mid-sixties, he was earning most of his money through lecturing. And he began to realize that he didn’t need to build much of anything at all—that he could rely on images and ideas alone.
The dome had succeeded in large part because it looked futuristic. Even though it can be built in someone’s garage, it looks like an artifact out of science fiction. Fuller understood that this was part of its appeal. He also saw that after a certain point, he didn’t need to build a full-size dome. He could show people models, slides, and conceptual art, and he could use words. At one point, he became notorious for lecturing for hours and hours—and this was no accident. This was his way of creating a culture that he could sustain by himself. He used corporate catchphrases like synergy and ephemeralization. His vocabulary became a way of defining the culture that he was trying to inculcate.
His geometry eventually became almost an entire product line that he spent years developing, because he could think about geometry anywhere. It was weightless, he could do it on the road, while traveling. By the late sixties, he reduced the core of his operation to one person: himself.
5. Embody your ideas in yourself.
Fuller often spoke of his life as an experiment. He called himself Guinea Pig B. He said that it was an experiment to see how much one person could accomplish that could not be accomplished through conventional institutions, like governments or corporations. His persona, in the end, was the one thing totally under his control.
“His vocabulary became a way of defining the culture that he was trying to inculcate.”
This is why he engaged in things that, today, are called biohacking. He talked about his sleep schedule, where he would sleep for half an hour every four hours, and supposedly get by with much less sleep than average. At one point, he endorsed a diet that consisted almost entirely of beef. These things seem strange, but they’re also things that tech CEOs are often seen doing. The reason is that the founder’s personality is a form of branding. Fuller was not just an eccentric—he was someone deliberately building his audience. He realized at a fairly early stage that people would respond to his example, which was more compelling than any particular project. For decades, he ran a virtual corporation, where he could initiate projects, seemingly out of nothing, with only the force of his personality to drive them. It was all very intentional. Once, he was asked what kind of business structure he used, and he said, “An individual.”
Obviously, there are certain advantages to this kind of structure. It’s easier to innovate when your costs are low. You’re more flexible; you can pivot between ideas easily. As Fuller liked to say, unlike a government or a corporation, the individual can simply start to think.
But there are also downsides. Fuller was not especially good at finishing things. There’s a reason that we call these businesses “startups.” Fuller had a tendency to start projects and move on before they were done. Also, not everyone gets to take risks like this. Fuller was very privileged. He was a white male from a prominent family and he knew that he could fail repeatedly in life without falling out of the upper class—which is not true of many people with good ideas. Lastly, this kind of operation tends to focus on one person, instead of building a larger movement. This is a big part of why Fuller is no longer as familiar a cultural figure as he used to be, because after he died there was no one left to carry on what he started. Despite this, Fuller did more in one lifetime than most of us ever will. I hope that people can benefit from his example to use other kinds of solutions to address the problems facing us today.
To listen to the audio version read by author Alec Nevala-Lee, download the Next Big Idea App today: