Could the Solution to the World's Biggest Problems Be...a Park?
Experimental philosopher Jonathan Keats dives into the work of Buckminster Fuller, an early 20th century oddball scientist whose visionary ideas we are only now catching up to.
Jonathon Keats: Buckminster Fuller was a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist by his own definition. What exactly that meant and how he defined it changed constantly over the course of his lifetime as he sought to make the world work for 100 percent of humanity as he described it.
What he wanted to do was to figure out what all of the problems were within the world in his time and how those problems might evolve over time and what sort of technologies might be available that could address those problems in a way that would make the world sustainable at every level; from the environment as a whole to individual lives and the ability of individuals in society to thrive. He often overshot as far as his ideas were concerned in terms of coming up with inventions that were improbable at best and required materials, required mechanisms that would take a very long time to come about that only in our own world, in our own time have become feasible. But in so doing he set a sort of a template, I believe, for thinking comprehensively and thinking in terms of the patterns that exist between people and problems and the ways in which solutions need to come from far enough in the future to be able to genuinely address those problems holistically and to be able to do so in time and through time.
Buckminster Fuller had many ways over his lifetime that he applied his key invention, the one for which he’s best known, the geodesic dome. Possibly his most unexpected use of the dome was initially as an outdoor planetarium in which you would be able to see your relationship to the planet by looking out at the stars through cutouts of the continents but which became as he became more ambitious a globe that would be 200 feet in diameter placed in the East River in view of the United Nations that would be completely clad in lighting that would allow for visualizations of everything from climate, to where warfare was taking place, to global migration patterns. And the idea was this sort of massive visualization that the United Nations could use in order to be able to understand what was happening in the world and the impact of decisions being made within the UN.
This never happened. He lobbied for it for decades and it was never feasible largely because there were not the sort of data streams that would have been required and also because he was asking for an enormous amount of money for a very large and unwieldy structure to be placed in the East River. Today it is incredibly easy to imagine how those data streams might be drawn from sensor networks that are ubiquitous throughout the world making use of the Internet.
One might initially dismiss the idea of the geoscope as pointless given that everybody on their computer or on their smartphone is able to see any sort of visualization. We live in a culture that is very much oriented toward these visualizations. Yet the problem is that each of us does so in a way that is very much a matter of how we navigate that global set of patterns, that global set of data that comes through the sensor networks. As a result we end up each of us seeing the world in our own way and not really being able to communicate with each other.
The idea of the geoscope was quite the contrary to have a commons by which everyone could come together as Fuller envisioned it in his time that body being the United Nations. But today given the ease with which we could achieve what the geoscope did both in terms of data feed and also in terms of visualization of that data it becomes something that could happen in any city and that I believe needs to happen in every city.
What I foresee is a future in which every city has what I call a data park which is a park that is at scale the shape and contour of the city itself. A public space during the daytime covered in grass where people go and do what you would do in a park. But at night where the ground is illuminated with colored LEDs, all of which are networked in a way that becomes possible to visualize the data of the city; microclimates and how the interact, energy usage and how that may correlate with the possibility of harvesting energy through solar and other alternate energy sources, gentrification. All of these issues that we tend only to see through the narrow confines of what interests us and our own beliefs by way of our own computer or smartphone for this to be a public space in which people can come together and see that data for their city while simultaneously seeing a geoscope in miniature that maps the same data for the entire planet. Then therefore creates interrelationship between the place in which you live and the planet as a whole.
To me this data park becomes a way in which to take the spirit of Buckminster Fuller and this idea that we need to understand the world through pattern recognition but it has to happen collectively in order for collective action to take place.
Buckminster Fuller was a self-proclaimed "comprehensive anticipatory design scientist." What this meant to him changed over the course of the years, but one thread ran through it all: he wanted to identify the world’s problems and find a fix for them. To be clear, this was for the entire world’s population, not just his neighbors, not just his country – everyone.
He tried to look forward, to see what problems may arise in the future, beyond the problems of his day. Jonathon Keats, experimental philosopher and conceptual artist, admires the ambitious thinking of Fuller and his outlandish inventions that seemed a little far off in Buckminster Fuller’s day, and in some ways still could be seen to be so now. One of the best known ones is the geodesic dome. While Fuller hoped that this could be used as an outdoor planetarium, it became more than that. He wanted it to be a functional display tool for UN, completely lit and displayed with changing data streams, used to remind the UN how big their decisions were, and to visualize war and climate and migration live across the globe.
It never happened, because in Fuller’s day, as Keats points out, there was no way to get the big data for the kind of visuals he wanted. Today, that problem seems miniscule. Most people in first world countries have a smart phone that can retrieve all kinds of information. But even though so many people have the ability to navigate a world’s worth of intel, most use it to navigate only a narrow and self-interest-driven stream of data, rather than exploring outside their known world and using data as a tool for communication and actionable change.
Keats imagines that the geodesic dome isn’t so far off now, but in his view it would be a data park in every city in the world. The park could be shaped and contoured like the city it’s in, and at night, it would glow with LED data visualizations of all the things happening in and to the city. As Buckminster Fuller wanted, Keats strives to make a place that not only links its users to their homes and neighbors, but to the world around them.
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