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The Secret of Buckminister Fuller’s World-Changing Ideas Was Serendipity

Posted on by Brandon Klein

In his 2016 book, You Belong to the Universe, Jonathon Keats sets out to release Buckminister Fuller from “the zany sci-fi designs that made him notorious, and rescue him from the groupies who have impounded him as a cultish prophet.”

Keats, a writer and artist who whips up his own world-changing ideas through trickster gallery and museum exhibitions, comes to Fuller’s rescue by venturing beneath the veneer of his infamous inventions—the geodesic dome, flying car, world peace games, and dome over Manhattan—to expose their broader significance. 

That significance can be summed up in the unwieldy title that Fuller gave himself: “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist.” The most succinct definition of the title is Fuller’s determination, he said, “to make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

The reason he wanted to make a flying car was because his first daughter died of meningitis.

As Keats points out, Fuller’s 100 percent ethos was prophetic “and only becomes more resonant in a society where half the world’s wealth is held by the wealthiest 1 percent.”

One of the qualities Keats most admires in Fuller, who was born in Massachusetts in 1895, is the inventor’s conviction that people learn through serendipity. His bewitching inventions, books, and lectures were designed to spur serendipitous thinking in others. Fuller knew, Keats writes, that “new ideas might emerge from the chance meeting of disparate information in a curious mind.” 

In his own life Fuller courted the lucky discovery. “He was an autodidact and a generalist, meaning that ideas from many realms could intermix freely in his mind,” Keats says. “Society needs generalists, who can bring essential creativity to the world’s problems.”

Fuller’s vision of an interactive world, and antipathy toward specialization, was a theme that ran through an interview I did with Keats before an audience at the AC Institute, an “art think tank” and exhibition space in New York City. Keats and I adapted our talk for the interview below.

In person, Keats is as provocative as he is in print—a quality Nautilus readers know from his essay, “Famous for Being Indianapolis: How Cities Are Like Kim Kardashian.” He is constitutionally incapable of swimming in the mainstream.