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Harnessing the Multiplier Effect

We’re all familiar with vicious cycles. But what happens when solutions build on each other?

Buckminster Challenge, photo by Laureen Krawse, Side B Photography

As the winner of this year's Buckminster Fuller Challenge, Blue Ventures will use the $100,000 prize money to create a sustainable solution to overfishing. Founder Al Harris discusses the much needed relief the project will bring to coastal economies.

Photo by Laureen Krawse, Side B Photography

We often hear that the world's problems compound themselves: chronic poverty leads to political destabilization; inadequate education can contribute to gender discrimination. But what if the opposite were true as well? What if teaching women to read could also fuel local economies? What if habitat preservation could lower unsustainable birthrates?

This idea—that targeted investment in one area could catalyze a chain of ameliatory effects—was among the most important legacies of late Richard Buckminster Fuller, one of the best-known thinkers of the early twentieth century. In an increasingly interconnected world rife with inequality and scarcity, he reasoned, it is both possible and critical to enact solutions with a holistic appreciation of the environment in which you operate.

Today, Fuller's approach is being put into practice by a number of organizations around the globe, through strategies as diverse as social networking and satellite GPS mapping. Four of those groups were recognized last Friday as finalists for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, an award of $100,000 granted to a sustainable design project whose benefits carry beyond its immediate objectives.

"Our call for proposals is very broad,” said Elizabeth Thompson, Executive Director of the BFI. "We don’t define the problem space, the geographic region, or the nature of the solution. We invite entrants to make a case for why their solution a key leverage point to turning the system around - or at least playing a pivotal role in transforming that system.”

In an increasingly interconnected world rife with inequality and scarcity, he reasoned, it is both possible and critical to enact solutions with a holistic appreciation of the environment in which you operate.

This year, the prize was awarded to Blue Ventures, a marine conservation organization working with fishing communities along the coast of Madagascar, where rapid population growth has prompted chronic overfishing. Four years ago, Blue Ventures began working with a single village to develop a system of rotating marine sanctuaries in which octopi and fish are give time to repopulate. Today, the system has spread along the coast to over a dozen villages. But the project didn't stop there.

"The enclaves created by the the coastal communities have become a draw for ecotourism, which funnels much-needed cash into the villages," said Al Harris, the organization’s founder, during his acceptance speech. The communities have also expanded the model to create land-bound sea-cucumber sanctuaries, he said, adding that the cucumbers fetch a good price as aphrodisiacs in certain international markets.

Blue Ventures was selected from a group of four finalists, each currently undertaking an ambitious and potentially wide-reaching development project somewhere in the world. 

Honorable mention this year went to TARA Ashkar, an accelerated literacy-based education program in India, and Frontline SMS, which develops simple communications solutions to network NGOs and activists in low-tech areas.

Mexican forest, photo by Lara DanielleRewriting the "Tragedy of
the Commons"

What cooperation and sharing
have to do with saving the world.

Participatory Mapping in the Congo Basin, a project of the Rainforest Foundation UK, was named runner-up for the award. As project coordinator Georges Thierry Handja explained, the project’s aim of providing mapping technology to forest communities is a critical first step in advocating for indigenous rights.

“In the Congo Basin, governments own all the land and lease it to foreign corporations to log, to mine, without respect for the people who have lived there for generations” he said. “Our technology literally allows the forest communities to put themselves on the map."

“The project teaches communities to essentially create their own maps depicting their own locations and the resources necessary to their traditional way of life,” he said. Where the government’s maps show empty forest, the communities create their own maps showing villages, foraging grounds, and important resources, he said. With these maps in hand, they can then make a strong case to their own governments and international monitors against displacement.

And the corollary benefit? “Environmental,” says Handja. “Not only are we protecting local communities, but we’re protecting the forest itself—it’s a proven fact that communities who own their own lands do a better job of protecting natural ecosystems than states or corporations who have appropriated those lands.”

“There isn’t a single problem in the world that exists in isolation. Today more than at any other point in history, it's one integrated system."
- Elizabeth Thompson, Executive Director of the BFI

“There isn’t a single problem in the world that exists in isolation," said Thompson. “Today more than at any other point in history, it's one integrated system. That was one of Fuller’s big insights, and we want to see more groups putting it into practice.”


Nathanael MasseyNathanael Massey wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Nathanael has has worked as an independent journalist in Tunisia, Lebanon and the United States. He is currently a Middlebury Environmental Fellow.  

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