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Check Out Buckminster Fuller's Simulation to Save the Planet

From newsfeeds to Feltron, our cultural moment is obsessed with information. Whether it's mundane personal stories or displays that cleverly decipher an exceedingly complex world, data, properly gathered and communicated, grants knowledge, and therefore, leads us toward solutions. A similar working process informed iconoclast architect and thinker Buckminster Fuller, who devised numerous structures and concepts for a more sustainable future, from domes to his Dymaxion designs (dynamic, maximum, and tension). But his attempt to create a data model that would inspire others to find a solution to the problem—how humanity can share resources and create lasting peace—is rarely examined in depth, even though the task, and his accompanying simulation, occupied much of the last few decades of his life.

A recent exhibition at Columbia University, Information Fall-Out: Buckminster Fuller's World Game, offers a fascinating and comprehensive view of one of Fuller's more intriguing projects. The World Game simulation developed in the '60s offered a fusion of countercultural concepts and technologies; think the Whole Earth Catalog's attention to resource conservation mixed with Cold War military simulations and boundary-pushing computer technology. While Fuller's dream of creating this massive resource simulation system wasn't realized—at one point, he envisioned an interactive screen the size of a football field—it is, as the polymath thinker and designer would later claim, a summation of his work. In its drive to decipher data and make it actionable, it forecast big cultural shifts.

"It becomes a model for the information economy, which begins to emerge in the '60s," says Mark Wasiuta, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia and curator of the exhibition. "At the same time, there are a lot of people modeling and mapping, and thinking of resources. The question of global modeling is something you find elsewhere. But other people don't design structures for it and produce pedagogical models like the World Game."

Fuller's initial concept was to create a game of logistics that accurately simulated world resources and helped participants figure out a means of sharing them in the most equitable fashion possible. Accurate tallies of all manner of production and resource creation, a World Resource Inventory, would be charted, graphed and overlaid onto an interactive map (a version of his own Dymaxion Projection), creating an overall informational awareness. While it may seem like some kind of beneficent Settlers of Catan, and the title is a shortened version of "World Peace Game," the word "game" is actually meant to suggest Cold War-era simulations run by governments to discover strategies and weakness. Fuller took Cold War logic and flipped the zero-sum approach, creating a game where "everyone must win." The goal, as he put it was to:

Make the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.

Inside the exhibition, which was on display last fall at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation, videos and extensive documentation demonstrated just how committed Fuller was to accuracy and action. During his tenure teaching at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, he sought to have a model of this simulation included inside a dome at Montreal's Expo '67, and when that didn't work out, sought to have a computer simulation built on campus, enlisting great computational and engineering resources to create a huge screen to display real-time information about the world's resources. He viewed this method of looking at the world and its resources as a way to reframe politics as usual. While Bucky remained undeterred, and repeatedly wrote to various government agencies requesting funding to realize his vision, funding to create the grand version of the game never came.

"There are many utopias in this project," says Wasiuta. "The idea of complete informational saturation that could be scaled up was impossible."

The originality, in other words, outpaced the reality. Instead, Fuller's concept was adapted into a game played by students, an educational simulation that functioned as a seminar of sorts. After the first game was played in 1969 at the New York Studio School for Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture, it became, like many Fuller projects, part of the zeitgeist and counterculture, and was staged at schools across the country. While it never achieved a mass following, many players and observers, such as writer Gene Youngblood, found inspiration in the game's philosophy and collaborative approach; its since been adapted as a teaching tool, and an organization called O.S. Earth currently runs simulations based on the project for students. As recent Paris climate talks suggest, there's always a need for better ways to envision and explain resource allocation, and Fuller's insight into the value of well-displayed information seems particularly timely.

"What becomes a resource is the game's own information," says Wasiuta. "Here you're manipulating ideas and concepts to recirculate energy, calories and global resources to arrive at the greatest degree of human consciousness."

A Buckminster Fuller Dome on the Vitra Campus is Now a Pop-Up Shoe Store [Curbed]
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That'll Be $515K For This Buckminster Fuller Dome Home [Curbed]