“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
R. Buckminster Fuller
The world is beset by wicked problems.
Due to their scale, complexity, interconnectedness, and the persistent lack of information which makes it difficult for us to see all of their facets and implications, wicked problems cast a large shadow on the world.
These include climate change, food security, poverty, politics, economics, healthcare, pandemic flu, nuclear weapons, waste, and many others. How do we even attempt to deal with issues of such epic scope? Throughout human history, we’ve relied on a combination of technology and social coordination to drive our success as a species. But what technology, and what social structure?
In his groundbreaking book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn originated the phrase paradigm shift to describe the historical progress of science and technology. Major shifts in consensus thinking do not happen easily, as novel ideas that fundamentally challenge the norm are often met with fierce resistance by the keepers of the status quo before they are commonly accepted after further study and discourse. And so it goes.
A key phase of technological or scientific change is the crisis period in which consensus thought or design is unable to deal with anomalies or failures within the current paradigm, thus allowing a new paradigm to gain traction and even take its place. Sometimes, crisis is simply the realization of things as they actually are. The Copernican Revolution, for example, forever changed our understanding of our place in the cosmos.
There are an increasing number of people who believe that cryptocurrencies and their underlying blockchain data infrastructure will inevitably launch a monetary revolution and catalyze global political and economic change. After all, the cryptocurrency paradigm was forged in the crucible of the 2008 financial crisis with the advent of Bitcoin and the promise of a financial system “based on cryptographic proof rather than trust.”
However, instead of revolutionary world change we got a decade plus of incredible wealth transfer vastly disproportionate to its actual social impact. Can the crypto economy mature before it repeats the sins of the past and simply becomes a stranger breed of central banking? Will it be co-opted and cannibalized by the establishment?
World-changing for the better requires solving wicked problems, but blockchain technology isn’t an island; it will require a commitment to change that is undeniable and irresistible.
A humanitarian technologist from the 20th century who embarked on his own scientific revolution to help steer humanity towards a better future embodies some of the lessons for the blockchain industry. He provides a compelling narrative for an industry seeking to create meaningful systemic change; he developed a unique methodology that could benefit blockchain development and implementation; and yet his story is a cautionary tale for a self-identifying tech revolution which believes in its own inevitability.
The Leonardo Da Vinci of the 20th Century
Born in 1895, Buckminster Fuller was an inventor, architect, engineer, systems thinker, futurist, and self-proclaimed “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist” who worked tirelessly over the course of his career to build the systems necessary to relieve human suffering and provide for the basic survival needs of everyone in the world. Wicked problems, indeed. His hope was to set in motion a globally coordinated effort to make the world work for everyone in it within a new technological paradigm which he called a “design science revolution.”
“Technologically we now have four billion billionaires on board Spaceship Earth who are entirely unaware of their good fortune. Unbeknownst to them their legacy is being held in probate by general ignorance, fear, selfishness, and a myriad of paralyzing professional, licensing, zoning, building laws and the like, as bureaucratically maintained by the incumbent power structures.
R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path
After a 1927 awakening experience, Fuller fully committed himself to designing alternative systems for meaningful world change using a first principles approach to tackling wicked problems such as resource scarcity, shelter, transportation, and energy poverty. Fuller understood that in order to solve these problems, we must first be able to see them.
Fuller’s obsession with data and facts, to see things as they really are, pervades his work. From the age of 12 to his death at age 88, he maintained what may be the most documented record of an individual’s life which he dubbed the “Chronofile.” Every letter, reference, and thought painstakingly rendered in an archive of 737 volumes of 300-400 pages each. To Fuller, the devil (and perhaps God) was in the details.
Early in his journey, Fuller realized that much of the conflict throughout human history was rooted in the mismanagement of scarcity. He rejected the economist Thomas Malthus’s influential idea that human growth will inevitably exceed the productive capacity of the earth, resulting in atrocities such as war and famine if strict population controls aren’t implemented.
He was also critical of the enduring strain of Social Darwinism that arose when everyone from business magnates to world leaders misconstrued Darwin’s original theory of evolution to mean that only the strong will survive, with competition prevailing over cooperation at all turns. Fuller saw both of these world views as false justifications for endless cycles of violence and other zero-sum games.
Fuller saw all this as a fundamental design problem. A thorough reengineering of society with precise knowledge and allocation of the world’s resources could allow us to achieve equilibrium on this pale blue dot and allow us to reclaim our “planetary equity” — an ultimate egalitarian vision of the future.
One of Fuller’s mental models was to view our planet as an exploratory space vessel with billions of crew members working with limited resources, which he called Starship Earth.
Fuller often used this framework to tackle global concerns around resource allocation and sustainable energy supply. How can we maintain the life support systems of Starship Earth (energy supply, food supply, shelter, etc.) such that no one is excluded? How do we realize a post-scarcity world?
Tools for a Design Science Revolution
While a full exegesis of Fuller’s work is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to define his reasoning and methodology and describe some of his “artifacts,” inventions which were just as much a conduit of ideas as they were functional objects.
A common thread throughout Fuller’s work is his propensity toward whole systems thinking, which is the holistic analysis of complex systems as an interrelated network of individual components in which the parts cannot be properly analyzed to the exclusion of the whole. Fuller called this way of thinking “synergetics.” By taking a holistic view, we can better understand how our critical systems actually work and account for any externalities that might otherwise go unnoticed (labor conditions, pollution, etc.). This is a fundamental principle that Fuller used to grasp wicked problems.
A portmanteau of “dynamic”, “maximum”, and “tension”, Fuller used the term “dymaxion” to identify his various inventions, from housing to transportation. He defined dymaxion as being at the heart of a mission to achieve “maximum gain of advantage from minimal energy input.” This obsessive pursuit of eliminating waste in society, to improve the quality of life for all, was Fuller’s raison d’être.
Fuller defined ephemeralization as our ability “to do more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing.” This has often been compared with Moore’s law, which states that the processing power of computers doubles roughly every two years as more transistors can be built onto an integrated circuit, thus enabling computers to progressively do more with less.
The Geodesic dome is perhaps Fuller’s most recognizable invention. The core idea behind a geodesic system is to equally distribute power and tension within a physical system to maintain structural integrity without a central foundation. The geodesic model can be applied beyond physical architecture to fields such as economics, biology, and even global financial networks (more on this later).
The Montreal Biosphère, formerly the American Pavilion of Expo 67, by R. Buckminster Fuller, on Île Sainte-Hélène, Montreal, Quebec / Eberhard von Nellenburg – Creative Commons
The World Game
“World Game comprehensively details that which individual humans must do to realize total success for all and do so within the critical time limit, before humanity passes the point of no return en route to self-extinction.”
R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path
In 1969, Fuller kickstarted a globally-coordinated research and development effort he called the World Game. The mission statement was a question:
“How do we make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone?”
An antithesis to the “war games” played by the world’s militaries in anticipation of armed conflict, the World Game was an effort to tackle the world’s wicked problems by shifting human ingenuity from creating tools of “weaponry” to tools of “livingry.”
While he initially undertook the World Game with associates “longhand” i.e. through laborious phone calls, paperwork, and visits to information clearing houses, Fuller early on realized that such a process would need to be played “shorthand”, automated with the use of computers. Back when the earliest conception of the Internet was barely a glimpse in ARPA’s eye and access to mainframe computers was expensive, Fuller envisioned a “world-around, satellite-relayed, and world-integrated computer accounting system” for the precise, real-time management of the world’s resources.
One of the profound conclusions of the World Game in the two decades it was played was the necessity of a globally-connected energy grid.
The proposed planetary accounting system would be integrated with the energy network and facilitate a digital currency denominated in kilowatt-hours, a global currency beyond borders tied directly to the productive capacity of the earth rather than the whim of central bankers.
The World Game was intended to be a persistent R&D initiative that would produce the necessary systems for solving wicked problems that incumbent power structures are unable or unwilling to tackle.
So what happened to Fuller’s design science revolution?
It never happened. Or rather, it has not happened yet.
In his last book, Critical Path, Fuller predicted that the design science revolution to make the world work for everyone in it would be in full effect by 1989 and placed the threshold for effective implementation of planetary accounting at the year 2000.
While Fuller’s influence can be discerned in areas such as the renewable energy sector, his successors set aside the rhetoric of world-changing revolution and replaced it with the promise of energy efficiency and cost benefits to make it more palatable in the marketplace.
It turns out that saving the world struggles with product-market fit. Sound familiar?
Now, what can the blockchain industry learn from the design science revolution that never came to pass?
Adapting Crypto’s Narrative for World Change
The most powerful social systems in the world are held together by a shared story of how things are and how things ought to be: religions, politics, enterprise. Similarly, technology movements are also driven by narrative.
The free and open-source software movement was effective not only because it produced incredible software that contended with the cathedrals of centralized, corporate development but also because it was driven by a shared vision of a more democratic and egalitarian future realized by open access to technology. It gave builders a North Star to guide them in the face of adversity and uncertainty, even if that direction was uncodified.
Over the years, the modern cryptocurrency movement has been driven by a core set of narratives which intend to give the technology meaning. The waxing and waning of these narratives indicate that the industry is still trying to cement its identity and purpose, to find its seat at the global table.
The early years of Bitcoin, for example, were driven by a call to action to “End the Fed” with the desired result of upending the fiat banking system and the state along with it. This story is quite ambitious and still prevalent amongst the crypto community.
Fuller was there first.
Decades before the discovery of public-key cryptography and earliest experiments in digital cash, Fuller envisioned a complete reengineering of the global economy facilitated by a synchronized accounting system integrated with a global energy network. The US dollar, the global reserve currency since WWII, would be replaced by an energy-backed digital currency system denominated in kilowatt-hours, minutes, and seconds.
Price discovery in the market would be expressed in kilowatt-hours since the universal accounting system could factor in the precise amount of energy (or work) that went into the production of each individual function or item. Fuller believed that such a “time-energy world accounting system” could do away with unreliable monetary systems subject to the manipulation and whims of the bankers and governments that oversee the central mints. Global finance could be tied intrinsically to production and less susceptible to exploitation and rampant speculation.
Also, every individual in the world would be able to see his or her share of planetary equity through the use of “pocket-computer credit cards.”
Fuller made it clear that such a system would need to exist outside the constraints of existing power structures. As he writes in Critical Path:
“There can be no planetary equity until all the sovereign nations are abolished and we have but one accounting system–that of the one family of humans aboard Spaceship Earth.”
Both Fuller’s movement and (arguably) the crypto industry have so far failed to gain significant traction. Why?
For the most part, any proposed system of world-change built with eschatological overtones such as that posited by Fuller (and possibly the cypherpunk narrative for Bitcoin) will be met by severe resistance by not only the powers-that-be but also the very people these movements are trying to save.
As Morpheus tells Neo in The Matrix:
“You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”
There is an incredibly unsettling paradox in world-changing endeavors in that radical propositions can be perceived as “too early” or “ahead of their time” when in fact the wicked problems in question are too severe to wait for mainstream adoption. The key question here is this: how do we roll out the systems necessary for handling crises before we find ourselves within the crucible of one (or many)? It’s a question that seems more relevant than ever as we live through pandemics, social unrest, and the rise of authoritarianism.
To start, the blockchain industry can adopt the mindset of Fuller’s World Game: “to make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone.” Not only could the blockchain industry use its considerable resources to advance the World Game or some similar initiative, it could also proceed using Fuller’s core principles.
Blockchain: The Geodesic Dome of Global Finance?
From April 1998 to December 1999, financial cryptography advocate and Cypherpunk Robert Hettinga wrote a series of articles that explored how a new form of accounting using a digital bearer transaction settlement protocol (what we would now call a blockchain) could create powerful, decentralized capital markets with a network topology similar to Fuller’s iconic Geodesic dome. This new era of global, borderless, peer-to-peer financial technology would allow us to not only properly update existing financial instruments for the Internet age but also realize experimental and exotic systems.
While Hettinga was an enthusiastic proponent of this disruptive change to the global financial order, he was wary of the nonsensical products that could arise simply because they were now possible (“gold-denominated Burmese opium futures”).
Fast forward twenty years and there is no shortage of gold-denominated Burmese opium futures in the blockchain space. Whereas the principle of doing “more and more with less and less” defines Fuller’s work, the industry appears to lack clarity on where capital and talent ought to be allocated for the greater good.
The ICO craze of 2017-2018 was an incredible display of wealth transfer (literally billions of dollars) with little-to-no social impact. If the ethos of the World Game were to become a guiding principle for the blockchain industry, then all market participants (the builders, investors, and consumers) would have to stare into the abyss of value generation and come to terms with what stares back.
The framework of triple bottom line accounting (TBL), which factors in not only profits but also environmental and social impact, has been around for decades, yet there still isn’t a common protocol which institutions can adopt to properly hold themselves to account.
Blockchain, as a credibly-neutral system for tracking trade, could spur adoption of TBL with the lure of exponential efficiency gains through cryptographically secure and verifiable transaction records, and global value settlement. While this seems relatively benign and non-revolutionary, the future prospect of such a trend would bode well for the global quality of life.
Imagine an open-source version of Fuller’s Geoscope with a protocol stack consisting of virtual Dymaxion maps, blockchain-based synchronized accounting of corporate and regional supply chains, and machine learning for simulating trends in markets, natural phenomena, and resource management.
Such a device would be a technological Holy Grail that would secure crypto’s role within the operating system of humanity, a fundamental tool for solving wicked problems.
Blockchain, in short, could help rebalance the ledger of Spaceship Earth.
“When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
R. Buckminster Fuller