A Prize That Rewards Sustainability Projects With Visionary Flair

photo:  Artography/shutterstock

photo:  Artography/shutterstock

Buckminster Fuller is best known for popularizing the geodesic dome, a type of structure that sprung up everywhere in the mid-20th century (think Epcot). 

Fuller’s legacy runs much deeper, however, and a driving principle of his life’s work is in the DNA of modern sustainability efforts—he wanted to make the world work for all of humanity in the shortest possible time, without harming the planet’s ecological processes. 

What makes Fuller’s work really shimmer is the way in which he pursued that goal, throwing out the rulebooks and drafting utopian concepts with little regard for the reality of the time. He took efficiency to the extreme in his housing construction innovations, but also dreamed up flying cars and underwater colonies.

A philanthropic prize in his name, the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, carries on some of that legacy, rewarding sustainability projects more tied to reality than some of his ideas, but with a certain amount of audacious flair nonetheless. Like Fuller’s career, the challenge encompasses several fields, with a big emphasis on design and architecture, but also healthcare, agriculture, labor and urban planning. 

The challenge is in its 10th year of rewarding projects that solve social or environmental problems in ways that address several pieces of larger systems. In other words, they’re looking for ideas that meet a need, but with an eye on the big picture. 

The Buckminster Fuller Institute, founded in 1983 by Fuller’s family, has announced the latest round of 17 semifinalists. Ideas up for the $100,000 grand prize include rapidly deployable structures to serve slums or populations of refugees, open-source healthcare software for use in poor countries, and stormwater storage devices to empower smallholder farmers.

The prize is the flagship program of BFI, a nonprofit that runs on donations and sponsorships. It is reminiscent of some other high-dollar challenges seeking big ideas to solve social problems, such as the Dyson Awards, the Biomimicry Prize and the just-hatched Roddenberry Prize. 


Backers of BFI include Interface, the carpet company of the late sustainability crusader Ray Anderson, Phillips, and Halloran Philanthropies, founded by energy company exec Harry Halloran. The award is judged by panels of external advisors, and one nice feature is that applicants can take advantage of benefits from BFI’s network, including other funding opportunities and advising. 

In its first 10 years, some notable winners have emerged, including the Living Building Challenge, underwater farming innovator GreenWave, and a massive effort to conserve the Great Bear Rainforest in Canada. 

Fuller’s ideas about modular, easily reproducible buildings are in the mix of this latest round of contestants, Fuller’s ideas about modular, easily reproducible buildings are in the mix, with some housing and planning projects proposed. But they range quite a bit, with projects focused on sanitation in India, solar power for those living off electrical grids, and solar-powered kiosks delivering connectivity and other services. 

None are quite as out there as some of Bucky Fuller’s more audacious ideas. But they all call to mind a concept he coined called the trimtab principle, which states that a small, strategic action at just the right time has the potential to create a huge amount of change. That’s a very familiar aspiration in the world of philanthropy and nonprofits, and it’s that kind of optimism that may be Fuller’s true legacy, even more than his famed dome.