Holoscope for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge

When he foresaw the end of scarcity, Buckminster Fuller had in mind not only the elimination of poverty, but also of scarcity-based competition, which continues to mark the political and social climate we live in.

In March 1969 Fuller spoke to the US Senate Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations about his “World Game” proposal, which he described as “an organization of computer capability to deal prognostically with the world problems.” If we can see clearly the long-term consequences of our actions, claimed Bucky, we will be able to turn the conventional competitive political game into a one “in which, as with mountain climbing, the objective would be to find all the moves by which a whole field of climbers would win as each helped the other so that everybody reached successfully the mountain top and all returned safely to the base.” Naive? Utopian? Necessary, claimed Bucky: “We are not going to be able to operate our spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.” Bucky claimed that we have reached the level of technical capability where with a different approach, which he called “comprehensive anticipatory design science,” we can make the world work for 100% of humanity.

The Buckminster Fuller Challenge invites, supports and coordinates projects that aim to further Bucky’s work and vision. We are participating in this year’s Buckminster Fuller Challenge with a project called ‘Holoscope.’

As explained in the above teaser trailer, Holoscope is an informing practice, designed to illuminate the way for our society in rapid change. We use our usual bus metaphor instead of the spaceship, but the message is similar – that further progress must be informed by the vital needs of the global system as a whole. Holoscope is proposed as an informing practice that can help us see and think in this systemic or holistic way.

The name ‘Holoscope’ suggests a scientific instrument. The microscope and the telescope, its familiar relatives, enabled us to see the things that are either too small or too distant to be seen by the naked eye. But they also point at a down side of our conventional scientific way of looking at the world, namely that it may keep us focused on things that are either too distant or too small. The purpose of the Holoscope is to correct that, by helping us see the world in correct proportions, with nothing left out or hidden. As the name suggests, the purpose of the Holoscope is to provide holistic vision.

To see what difference this might make in practice, consider the approach that is now common, for example in healthcare. When a tissue or an organ becomes ‘ill’ and causes bothersome symptoms, we look for a ‘remedy’ that can bring its condition back to normal.  Typically, this will mean either treating the ailing organ, or the unpleasant symptom. But what about the rest?

The human organism consists of many organs – the heart, the lungs, the kidneys, the nervous system, the endocrine glands etc. – which all depend on one another. And they also depend on the environmental conditions and lifestyle habits, such as nutrition and movement. All this must to be in good condition if the organism should be well. If even a single nutrient is lacking, or if the functioning of a single organ is impaired, the whole organism will be weakened, and consequently every organ. This suggests an approach to healthcare that would take care of the wholeness of the organism and its environment, by improving their function and strengthening their weakest components, instead of  waiting for the  things to break down. Holistic vision is the sort of vision that makes this approach possible. (Werner Kollath, medical researcher and pioneer of scientific study of civilization-induced health risks, claimed that this approach to health has become necessary for handling the sort of diseases that have become dominant. Kollath saw clearly that the issues of health, environment and lifestyle are  power-related, as we shall see shortly. He envisioned a central role of a suitable informing or academic practice, which he called ‘political hygiene.’)

Holistic vision naturally leads to the pursuit of wholeness. And wholeness is a uniquely simple yet wonderfully powerful orientation! When we take care of wholeness, all good things naturally follow, because wholeness includes them all. Both health and holiness, linguistically the relatives of wholeness, are in practice subsumed by it.

To see how holistic seeing may change our social wellbeing, imagine us humans as cells in a social organism. As it is the case with the biological organism, here too the wellness of the whole and the wellness of each part are closely related. What is different, however, is that while in the biological organism the maintenance of the equilibrium condition is secured by an automatic regulatory system that is defined by the genetic code, in the social organism the functioning of the organism as a whole is not a priori granted and must be secured. What makes this task challenging is that the will, the awareness, the identity and the very brain and nerves there do not exist at the level of the organism, but at the level of the cell. Imagine what would happen with a biological organism if its cells were endowed with self-interest and awareness, but the organism were not. Imagine each cell striving to maximize its own growth, at the expense of all other cells. Imagine the cells making alliances, and some tissues growing out of proportion, while others shrivel and shrink. Imagine the cells of the liver teaming up to reclaim all the nutrients for themselves, and the cells of the kidneys trying to do the same, but losing in competition, being much smaller in number.

Whenever our global organism attempts to handle some of its vitally important issues, as the case was during the recent meeting in Copenhagen, it becomes apparent that this odd form of social organization is not far from becoming reality.

But how can we change it? How can we begin evolving healthy social organisms?

The remedial action has to start somewhere, and informing is certainly not the worst place to begin. Holoscope is a result of some of the cells of the global organism, whose function is to create information, taking up the task of self-organization. We asked the question: “What should information be like to best contribute to the functioning of our social organisms?” We then undertook to evolve a social structure that can produce such information.

So what should information be like, to enable us to think and act in a holistic way? Is there a simple example?

While a number of examples have been created, I usually answer this questions by pointing at the bus ideogram.

The image of the bus with candle headlights shows clearly what needs to be done to improve our societal structure. Our society’s ‘headlights’ need to be designed, they cannot simply be inherited from the past! And when such a simple and clear message is produced by a reliable method (the design of which has been the subject of information design and polyscopy), and by a reliable and democratic social process (the design of which is the subject of knowledge federation), and when the resulting message is communicated in a palpable, visual form, it can become a trusted and shared source of guidance.

That sort of information can enable us to act in unison.

That sort of information can also enable us to self-organize.

Without such holistic vision, our understanding of self-interest is bound to remain limited to what we can perceive at the periphery of our own body. Our democracy is bound to remain confined to counting opinions and votes, and to policies that are a sum total of narrowly conceived self-interests. And our society is bound to remain unable to evolve in ways that would enable it to adapt to the changing conditions.

But in what way is our social organism currently evolving? This question brings us to another example of polyscopic information – the power structure. As its name might suggest, polyscopy is all about choosing or creating a way of looking or a scope, or better said a multiplicity of scopes, so that we can see the whole from all sides, and in particular the sides that are obscure or hidden, and then synthesize such partial views into a meaningful view of the whole.  The power structure is a way of looking at power and freedom. The power structure is a general model of a power holder. It is then also a general model of the socio-political ‘bad guy’ or evil doer, and a generic model of our political enemy. Normally, we imagine a political enemy as a conventional entity, such as a terrorist organization, political clique, another country or a dictator. The power structure includes all of those as special cases, but also something much more general and ubiquitous – societal structures. Some of them, such as the corporations, will have a recognizable identity, while others will not. A salient characteristic of the power structure is that it includes not only physical and human entities as its vital parts, but also our values and ideas, and our habitual ways of doing thing.  All of that can evolve within the power structure, as organs evolve within an organism. To a degree that is presently unknown to us, the world we live in, including how we are and what we do, can in effect be created by the power structure. Slowly and without noticing, we can be ‘socialized’ to become faithful subordinates of the power structures. We can become parts in a variety of  power structures, and spend our lives working for their benefit, at the expense of  our own.

This is not the place to talk about the details of the power structure model and about its legitimacy (please see the note at the bottom of this text).  Suffice it to say that the power structure is offered as a potentially useful scope, i.e. as a way of looking that can help us see something that would otherwise remain hidden, so that we may acquire a more correct understanding of our situation as a whole, and see what needs to be done.

It has turned out that this new way of looking reveals to us an insight that is even simpler and more general than what is conveyed by the bus ideogram. An insight that can guide us to an even more comprehensive change of behavior.

By looking through the power structure model as scope we see that the troubles of this world, including the environmental destruction, poverty and war, tend to be the products of power structure.

We also see that our present way of developing our society tends to lead to proliferation of power structures.

The power structure model brings us to an interesting new approach to politics, where the dividing line is no longer  ‘us against them,’  but all of us against the power structure.

The power structure model brings us also to an interesting new approach to ethics. Traditionally, we feel responsible for ‘doing our job’ or for performing our conventional social role. But this attitude is what now binds us to the power structure. Indeed, the attitude of ‘minding our own business’ or of pursuing exclusively our own narrowly conceived self-interest, which is presently considered as simply normal, is what produces the power structure. The power structure model shows that when we follow that attitude, we tend to join the other side. We tend to become (part of) our own political enemy!

This is all fine, you might say, but what else can we do? Is there an alternative?

The alternative is what I have been calling design. By definition (design is the alternative to tradition, see the reference at the bottom) design means ‘stewarding wholeness,’ or taking care of wholeness, or assuming the responsibility for wholeness, which the tradition can no longer secure. The traditional ethical stance of ‘minding our own business’ now binds us to the power structures. Design is an ethical stance that empowers us to self-organize.

Design, defined in this way, is no longer a profession, but something that everyone can practice in his or her profession. Seen from the point of view of the society as a whole, design is simply the self-organization of the social organism.

Holoscope is both a result of applying design to informing, and an informing that can illuminate the way  to design.

To see how this might change our practice, consider the basic tenet of polyscopy – that correct understanding of any phenomenon or issue can be greatly facilitated by finding a suitable way of looking or scope. We should not be surprised if it turns out that the most useful ways of looking are found on a much higher level (of abstraction or generality) than how we are accustomed to look at things. Indeed, to use my usual metaphor, no matter how large and complex the problem space might be, if we ascend  high enough on the metaphorical mountain we can see it in simple yet accurate terms, and we can also see the way  through.

On a detailed level, as a ‘piece of machinery’ so to speak, Holoscope is carefully designed to afford such views. Usually, and in particular in the presented examples, this method will bring together relevant insights from  a variety of academic disciplines and cultural traditions, and apply scope design to synthesize a view that combines them all.

This large and exciting possibility for information making – that we can create simplicity and clarity by going sufficiently high up in scope – translates into a similar possibility for design. Also in the practice of design the high level has been neglected. (To see this, consider the VLSI chip – so much technical skill, coordination and algorithmic complexity packed into a miniature physical object! Then consider how little of similar thinking has been applied on the opposite end of the spectrum of scales, namely to the organization of the global creation of knowledge as a whole.) And here too it is on the high level that the potential for positive impact is the largest.

By abandoning those broad and basic features of our social organism to spontaneous evolution and chance, we have abandoned them to power structure!

The substance of the Holoscope entry for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge is a portfolio of my work at the University of Oslo, which in addition to the described design of an informing practice includes prototype designs in university education, corporate business  and healthcare. Together, those designs represent a single design prototype – of an academic practice that is consistently based on design.

On an even higher level, Holoscope is a prototype of the design approach in general. In this designed approach to design, we are no longer designing isolated objects, but the global system, or our ‘social organism’ as a whole, by designing its bits and pieces and its ‘organs.’

A subtle but central point here is that Holoscope helps us determine our priorities strategically. It helps us realize, for example, that such goals as elimination of scarcity, or sustainable living, will not be reached through technical innovation alone,  because our societal structures stand in the way. Developing an informing practice that can show us a way through such obstacles emerges as the natural next step in a remedial strategy.

And finally, Holoscope is my work journal. It illustrates, as Bucky used to say, “what an average, healthy human being can do” for the wholeness of the global system, or for  “spaceship Earth” as he called it, by applying the design approach in his or her own profession.

(The power structure model is constructed based on elementary insights from physics, combinatorial optimization, artificial intelligence and artificial life, and verified based on works of sociologists Bauman, Beck, Bourdieu, Castells and Giddens. The consequences or ‘predictions’ of this model agree with basic insights from modern sociology. In “The Century of Camps,”  for example, Bauman argues that even the concentration camp is only an instance of a characteristically modern form of organization, where the evil happens as a consequence of everyone ‘doing his  job.’  The power structure model was first presented at the InfoDesign2000 conference in Coventry, Great Britain, and subsequently published in the Information Design Journal, in the article Information for Conscious Choice. The related ideas are further elaborated in my article “Design is the Alternative to Tradition at the EAD06 conference, and finally in Chapter Four of my book manuscript “Informing Must be Designed“; the password for opening the chapters is “Dubrovnik”.)

Join the Conversation


  1. very interesting approach
    i m interested in deep space and the relations between the biggest structures, galaxies and clusters to the smallest, atoms, cells and embryos
    i m now in the midst of an article that would summerize the united theory

    have magic in your life
    ted barr

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