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2011 Buckminster Fuller Challenge

A group shows their literacy certificates.

Before Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller was known the world over for his feats of engineering – most famously for his geodesic domes – he was, at 32, bankrupt and suicidal after the failure of his first business venture and the premature death of his young daughter. But instead of languishing, Fuller decided to embark upon “an experiment to find out what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefiting humanity.” That was nearly 90 years ago, and The Buckminster Fuller Challenge continues to celebrate Fuller’s pioneering spirit, enthusiasm and ingenuity with their annual $100,000 prize.

Now in its fourth year, the Challenge asks for submissions that “solve humanity’s most pressing problems.” Entries must integrate good design with a strategy that deals with “key social, economic, environmental, policy and cultural issues.” Last year biologist Allan Savory won for his Operation Hope concept, which “seeks to rebuild damaged or struggling grasslands by using grazing animals to thin out decay and move seed around.” Past winners have focused on sustainable mobility as well as the relationship between regionally specific biologies and economies.

It’s a pretty exciting award, inviting creative projects with strong links to the scientific world without limiting entries to the constraints of an identifiable ‘product.’ This year’s semi-finalists were recently selected. Of the 21 selected projects, many involve affordable housing for poor and remote communities, conservation efforts for threatened marine and forest environments and using new technologies to boost economies. One proposal aims to end adult illiteracy with a series of specialized classes that boast a 95% success rate. The Portable Light Project has developed solar textile kits that enable communities without light or electricity to harvest energy with woven bags and blankets.

The list of great ideas is staggering. Any one of the 21 semi-finalists could do a whole lot of good with $100,000. The jury, an impressive one at that, has their work cut out for them.