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Amy C. Edmondson
A Fuller Explanation
Chapter 16, "Design Science"
pages 266 through 269

Suspended Storage Systems

A third synergetic design application is Fuller's 1983 hanging bookshelf. Conceived as a space-saving storage device, the narrow shelving unit is suspended from the ceiling by six wires. The original design was a tall hexagonal column of wood, with compartments on all sides creating omnidirectional access, as the unit is suspended rather than leaning against the wall (Fig. 16-2). Hanging by its few cables, the column appears ready to swing back and forth at the slightest push from any direction. People would approach this structure—on display for a while in a Philadelphia bookstore—and touch it hesitantly and gently, only to be astonished by its resistance. The more daring will ultimately lean against the column with all their weight and discover that it does not move. Just as for the tensegrity sculptures, this rigidity is especially surprising because we do not expect "delicate" tension elements to be capable of the same strength as "solid" columns; however, even those who anticipate the great capability of tension are caught off guard by this display. In spite of recognition that thin cables can support a massive block of wood, the fact that the shelf does not swing even slightly out of place remains astonishing.

Hanging bookshelf
Fig. 16-2. Hanging bookshelf, U.S. Patent 4,377,114 (1983).
Click on thumbnail for larger image.

      This invention utilizes one geometric principle: Fuller's "twelve degrees of freedom." Twelve vectors, or independent forces (six positive, six negative), must be applied to a body in space to completely restrict its mobility. In Chapter 7 we looked at the application of this inherent spatial characteristic to a bicycle wheel, and observed that a minimum of twelve spokes was required to rigidly restrain its hub. Fuller's bookshelf presents a similar design problem; why then is it anchored with only six "spokes"? The answer lies in the massiveness of this gigantic "hub"; the hexagonal column is heavy enough to pull firmly against the six wires and remove the remaining, or negative, six degrees of freedom. The cables are symmetrically arranged—as are the six spokes anchoring one half of our hypothetical bicycle hub—but in this case gravity takes care of the other six spokes, pulling in the opposite direction from each cable by taking advantage of a heavy object's considerable attraction to the earth. If the column were made of lightweight plastic, the design would not work; six degrees of freedom would still be unaccounted for.

      This design represents a remarkably simple application of a synergetic principle, and produces a startling piece of furniture, the major significance of which—if saving floor space is not a consideration—may be educational. It is a profoundly reorienting experience to feel the precariously suspended shelf's refusal to budge.

      The above examples suggest that design science can be considered a science of spatial order. As such, this study is necessarily comprehensive; space is everywhere. We also learn that invention does not spring fully formed out of principle, but rather requires a little work. First a need is ascertained, as for example for an efficient shelter system. Then, relevant principles are gathered. From the jumble of known truths, one or two might apply to a problem. The next step is to pull them in, experiment, twist them around, and not give up: seek that innovative application of an age-old principle.

More with Less

The three designs described above were chosen as straightforward examples of design science. However, Fuller's main purpose is to call our attention to an invisible design revolution already taking place, to inspire our active participation in guiding this progression in preferred ways. He points out fantastic technological advances, such as new communications satellites, each one weighting a quarter-ton and outperforming 175,000 tons of transoceanic copper cable. (3) Anyone who remembers the shaky transatlantic telephone connections of the past can appreciate the qualitative improvement as well. Similarly, ever stronger metal alloys enhance humankind's structural capability. The average person is not aware of this metallurgical revolution, says Bucky, because it cannot be seen. An invisible reality is quietly taking over, accomplishing so much more with so much less material and other resources, that the logical extension is sufficient and sustainable life support for all humanity.

      To further explain this potential, Fuller discovers that he is forced to redefine "wealth." Too long associated with money and other tangible and limited resources, wealth is actually the organized capacity of society to apply its resources to take care of lives. A computer is not worth much in terms of its content of precious materials; its value is in the processing of information and knowledge. Wealth involves energy and knowledge; the former is neither created nor destroyed, and the latter is constantly increasing. Therefore, humanity's true wealth is constantly increasing and has no inherent upper limit. There is a fixed amount of gold in the world, but the currency of our emerging era is knowledge and its creative application.

      Finally, Fuller points out that Thomas Malthus could not have forseen this technological revolution. His epochal conclusion in 1805 that population increases geometrically while its resources—ability to feed, clothe, and house itself—expand arithmetically at best, is now obsolete. Malthus did not anticipate the phenomenon of more effective performance using less resources. His declaration predates refrigeration, let alone the information and communications revolution, emphasizes Bucky, and yet humanity's social and economic institutions are still based on the assumption of fundamental scarcity. Malthusian thinking has controlled human affairs for so long that we have mistaken it for absolute truth. The only barrier to a successfully sustainable planet is ignorance, Bucky declares. Fundamental scarcity is a remnant of the dark ages.

      The essential message of Fuller's design science is that human beings have access to the design laws of Universe, and a responsibility to use the extraordinary phenomenon of mind to discover and apply such principles. Our function is problem-solving. Synergetics, the discipline behind Fuller's more-with-less philosophy, above all encourages us to experiment. This material is superbly suited to nurture and enhance creativity, demanding both numerical rigor and intuitive leaps. The systematic study of spatial complexities is still young, and its significance and utility as yet undeveloped. The future is wide open, but we must probe and step beyond our fragile equilibrium, if Fuller's vision is to be tested.

      A design science revolution is imperative.

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