Marcelo Saez, investment director at Argo Capital Management

Hedge Magazine, May 2018. Original article p32-34.

Marcelo Saez, Investment Director at Argo Capital Management

Marcelo Saez uses the word “ideas” a lot when he’s talking about investing. “You have to have a certain degree of curiosity when you invest in emerging markets. A healthy dose of curiosity goes a long way to keep you abreast of developments in emerging markets. It’s not something you read about every day in the newspaper, but you know, if you dig enough around the place you can find good information.”

Saez is the Investment Director at Argo Capital Management, the alternative investment manager that focuses on emerging markets. We’re sitting in Argo’s offices in Mayfair, which is a modern space once you get past the marbled lobby. It’s a mild spring day a few days after the snow melted and Saez is in a blue suit and an open-collared light blue shirt. He’s calm and focused as he talks shop, equally comfortable discussing details as he is the big picture.

Established in 2000, Agro Capital Management operating an an absolute return policy. Saez is part of a half-dozen strong investment team and the way he describes it, there’s a fair amount of discretion: “We pick and choose our investments predominantly from our own research. We look at companies that are coming to the market issuing bonds, and there’s been an increasing wave of those. Last year was the biggest on record on the corporate credit side and this year is meant to surpass that,” says Saez. “As more resources are being devoted to emerging markets, you get a lot more exposure from companies that you may not have heard of before.”

Right now, Saez’s key investment interest is high volatile emerging markets and some of the frontier countries. “I think it’s interesting. You’re seeing a lot of issuance from these places, but in some of these countries you’re not getting a lot of information. There seems to be a big demand for emerging market issuance, and particularly these for names that no one’s heard of before. You have to run your analysis of these countries fairly thoroughly before you get comfortable.”

*

Emerging market investment have traditionally been more driven by political instability than mature markets, however recent events in Europe and the US have, to an extent, turned things on its head. “Paradoxically, some of the emerging markets have gone the other way round,” says Saez, noting how Argentina had been the “basket case” of emerging markets for the last 20 years until the country started reforms in 2015.

But still, there’s a trade-off between how much analysis you’d like to do and how much analysis you can do given the time limit – particularly for new issuances. “Given that we are seasoned investors with 20-plus years’ experience for most of the team members, you get to know pretty quickly which areas you need to focus on for a particular country.” Take Nigeria for example: “They used to run a current account surplus, but they’ve started to run a current account deficit since the oil price dropped and that tells us a lot. … The fact that they’re running a fairly conservative fiscal deficit and that their level of debts is very low by international standards, would make us confident that this particular economy has the ability to service its debts. There’s still a lot of challenges, but we got pretty comfortable that these were attractive investments.”

Keeping the promises of an absolute return fund that’s also deep into volatile territory requires a fair amount of diversification. The fund has 50-60 low-correlation positions across the corporate and sovereign sides. “10-20% of our portfolio is what we deem a liquid distress bucket, or ‘fallen angel’ investments – corporates where bond prices are dropping from 100 down to 80 down or even lower. We get quite excited by those low correlation opportunities.”

Saez’s favourite part of the job is putting together the portfolio – piecing together the different ideas. “For example, in February there was a big dislocation in the marketplace because of the VIX Index – it exploded. … At the time we were kind of scratching our heads. We had positions in place, but how could we make any value out of it?” The solution was to hedge the portfolio and go long on volatility. We saw some funds that invested in inverse volatility go from 100 to 4 in the space of a day, losing 90% of their value. “It cushioned our returns nicely. That kind of looking for ideas demystifies the market to an extent. Having the conviction to put those ideas in place is very satisfying.”

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Saez was born in Chile, and the family emigrated to Australia when he was 11 and he grew up there. “I picked up the language quite quickly and I did all my high schooling and university in Australia. It set the foundations, which was a good opportunity as the educational system there is good.” Saez speaks in a hard-to-peg international accent, although the Aussie comes out every time he says the word “Australia”. Saez got his degree from Macquarie University: “I did economics and actuarial studies in Australia and soon found myself working for AMP, a big asset manager there. I was still on the actuarial path when the dot-com bubble happened. … You could see the raw power of the markets and how people were sucked into this trading environment. I decided then that I wanted to go into the investment markets.”

Saez joined a local asset manager called Equity Link, which led him down the fixed-income investment path. The company was taken over by Aberdeen Asset Management, which provided Saez’s introduction to the Latin American markets and eventually saw him move to London in 2003. He subsequently joined a hedge fund called Convivo Capital, which was started by an ex-head of emerging data at Aberdeen. “It was an exciting time to get into emerging markets. Local emerging markets was in the process of being developed, so it was a lot of hard currency stuff, and only a handful of corporates. … It was less benchmark-driven and you had the ability to use long and short positions and really take sides with a particular creditor if you liked it.”

Saez joined Argo in 2011 following a year’s sabbatical, having previously left the Swiss hedge fund Tell Investments. That fund was in the process of being wound down, and Saez figured it was a good time to pause – he was also in the process of getting married. “It’s good to take a break. Sometimes you get too enclosed in a particular market that you fail to take a broader view,” says Saez. “Sometimes the best ideas come when you’re not expecting them.”

Saez and his family live in Wimbledon with their two young children. “They’ve got very thick English accent!” He laughs. The family travels often to visit family in Australia and Latin America. Saez’s favourite thing about London is the multiculturalism and the dynamic. “There’s very few cities in the world where you have so much available.” Saez’s international background must provide a unique perspective, I suggest, and he nods – everyone should travel if they have the opportunity. “To be able to experience another culture opens up a whole new level of understanding, particularly for up-and-coming analysts or researchers. … Go to Latin America or go visit Asia for three months, and you get a whole new world of experience, and you become a better analyst for it.”   

London is a good place to be to maintain a global view of investments, says Saez. He thinks he’ll stay here: “There’s a lot of exciting things going on in London. The biggest one is of course Brexit, which continues to have a huge impact.” Saez is diplomatic in his answer about how Brexit is impacting business, but: “If you slam the door on an opportunity or a market somewhere, it can be hard to open in new markets, particularly if you’re a smaller economy relative to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, we’re finding out that some of the UK’s allies may say one thing but do something entirely different when it comes to trade deals.”

For all its strengths, the financial system can also be pretty fragile – Saez learned that when he watched Lehman Brothers collapse. “Confidence permeates everything else. For all your reputation, if the market loses confidence in you, it can go south very quickly.” Emerging markets have been on a good run but it’s been largely beta-driven, says Saez, who thinks it’s time separate the wheat from the chaff. “People have been coming into the sector and not really been discriminating. A as 2018 develops I think you’re going to see a lot more divergence between countries and corporates. Being long-short as we are, we’re in a better position to disseminate what’s a bad credit from a good one.”

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Strange birds

Published in Lionheart Magazine (Issue 9: Land, Water and Air) in April 2018

Strange birds

Wild parrots don’t belong in London but still, they are everywhere. I always find it a little jarring to see one – the shocking green and red typical of a parakeet is starkly out of place. It’s like we instinctively know that English birds should be brown and grey, with a hint of colour on the chest at most. The parakeets are striking outliers: they are characters of a brighter, sunnier place that’s clearly very far away from here.

I suppose your attitude to happening upon a flock of wild parrots in London will depend on who you are – will you respond to this uncanny encounter with awe, or with scepticism? They sure are adorable, darting between the trees, but seeming a wild parrot in an English park also feels like someone messed up and put the wrong bird down on the island.

I feel a bit like that myself in West London – a strange bird in a wrong place. I moved here from East London, my home of nearly a decade, for reasons that were good but ultimately not my ideal choice. I was pretty sour about it at first, but I’ve had some time to think about it and I’ve come to take a more philosophical approach to the matter: what makes a home?

The parrots made England their home by being big and bold. Now, wild parrots are actually one of the most common birds found in London, and their numbers are growing at a rapid pace as winters are getting milder. There’s more of them out West, but they’ve been spotted in all 32 boroughs. In Kensington Gardens there’s a group that’s apparently so tame they will eat out of your hand. Peckham, Brixton and Greenwich also have them living in the local parks. There’s lots of different types: Alexandrine parakeets have been seen in Lewisham, while Bromley has blue-crowned parakeets, and Amazonian orange-winged parakeets have made a home in Weybridge.

No one quite knows how London came to have wild parrots. Maybe they escaped from a film set, or from a hanger at Heathrow Airport, or were set loose when aviaries were damaged during the 1987 storms? The best story is that Jimi Hendrix once released a breeding pair of parrots on Carnaby Street in the 1960s, but like is often the case with myths like that, the truth is probably far less remarkable.

There’s a flock of feral parakeets living not far from my house, and I often see them in the trees in my garden. I enjoy their company a lot. I’ve never seen any wild parrots in East London, so the first time I spotted one out West it felt like it meant something – maybe this place would have its own charm too? London is so big, made up of all these little villages, meaning that wherever you are there will be things that you can’t find anywhere else. One of my favourite things is when someone says something smart to me that I hadn’t thought of. When that happens, it’s like my brain cracks open for a second, with the sheer thrill of it. Sometimes, places are a lot like that too.

Interview with Thomas Deinet, Executive Director of the Standards Board for Alternative Investments 

Published in Hedge Magazine, February 2018. Original article p36-38.


Interview with Thomas Deinet, Executive Director of the Standards Board for Alternative Investments 

“We’re a small organisation with a big impact,” Thomas Deinet tells me as he opens the door to his office. It’s a modest room, just big enough for him and two others alongside a row of filing cabinets. The setting would be unremarkable if not for the fact that we’re inside the elegant settings of Somerset House, and the Executive Director of the Standards Board for Alternative Investments (SBAI) has just led me along the neoclassical grandeur the courtyard and columned hallways. But SBAI is a non-profit so no one cares about crown moulding here, and after all, the real work of establishing a framework for transparency and integrity for the alternative investment sector is happening out there, among the members located all over the world.

Our meeting takes place hot on the heels of a name change: until September of last year, SBAI was called the Hedge Fund Standards Board. It’s a case of evolution, says Deinet, who’s in business formal in a grey suit and modest striped tie, peering through his horn rimmed glasses as he talks in his engaged manner. Since having a hand in the organisation since its start in 2008, Deinet has cultivated a favourable reputation (“a complete industry legend!”) among peers for his work with regulators.

“The industry has evolved a lot from when we started in 2007-8,” Deinet says, explaining the name change. Many of the stakeholders involved aren’t actually focused on hedge funds: “Some are very diversified alternative investment managers doing many different things, including private equity [which falls outside SBAI’s remit]. It made perfect sense for us to move forward by broadening the branding to include other forms of alternative investments,” says Deinet.

SBAI’s membership numbers are on the rise – there’s been a push to expand in the US and the Asia-Pacific – and this has contributed to this broadening of what the stakeholders do. But while hedge funds remain central to SBAI, the group has also found that some stakeholders simply don’t like using that name to describe themselves. “Few of our stakeholders call themselves, or have ever really called themselves, hedge funds,” says Deinet. So yes, this is absolutely a branding exercise: “It’s true that there’s been a bit of negative association, at least in some parts of the world, with the term ‘hedge’,” Deinet nods, adding that some members run strategies without any hedging elements at all. In any case, you don’t need to be a hedge fund to be concerned with alternative investment codes of conduct: “It’s certainly good if other areas of investment to also subscribe to the standards and commit to better practices.”

*

SBAI’s success hinges in large part on the fact that the alternative investment industry has really come around to the idea of a code of conduct. “If managers have robust evaluation procedures and good risk management frameworks, and they are transparent and disclose strategies properly to their investors, that’s a good thing. Investors like to see this.” Companies can do a little or a lot – Deinet tells the story of a new joiner which, before even getting in touch, had already completed many of the steps recommended on the SBAI website: produce an administrator transparency report, compile with open protocol risk reporting, present a standardised total expense ratio, and conform with alternative investment standards. “I think this example really is a reflection of how investors enjoy the benefits of better standards and ultimately, and so will any of us who are saving in a pension plan.”

Deinet likens the SBAI way to Kaizen, the Japanese concept where you gradually and continuously improve the way you operate. “The way we do things is quite similar. We constantly look at standards and practices to find areas where something can be improved,” says Deinet, adding that it’s a collaborative effort. “The standards are not carved in stone. No, the standards evolve over time.” For example, there was an issue in 2014 where a company had separate funds for staff versus client money. But which got traded first? Which got the senior traders? How were resources allocated? Did they have skin in the game! SBAI launched a consultation into conflicts of interest after that, leading to amendments of the standards. That includes a requirement to disclose any co-investment by managers to clients, who can then make a call as to what they’d like to do. That’s the essence of the SBAI requirements – comply, or explain why you don’t. But Deinet says that since the new standards on conflict of interest came into force in 2016, everyone complies: “Everyone does things in line with the way we have suggested it should be.”

SBAI standards conformity is voluntary of course, but regulators have more than once made use of the organisation’s materials when creating new rules: “Parts of the Alternative Investment Fund Managers directive were in fact taken from our standards. We’re always pleased when regulators think what we do is meaningful.” Although it’s not always perfect alignment: in the days before our meeting, headlines claimed the Financial Conduct Authority had been critical of the SBAI for not going far enough on fee transparency. When asked about this, Deinet is quick to point out that this was a comment from one member of a working group, before providing a detailed explanation of what exactly SBAI wants when it comes to fees: to have a total expense ratio that gathers every structural costs, including paid-for research, but excluding performance fees and other trading costs. This is because a well-performing fund will have higher fees than a non-performing fund, so adding this into the total expense ratio won’t provide a true basis for comparison, he asserts. “We are crystal clear that we’re not including the performance fees into this calculation methodology.

*

Deinet was born in Germany, where he trained as an industrial engineer at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Business was added to the mix with an MBA from Purdue University in the US. Deinet thinks both elements has helped him at SBAI: “The analytical skills you gain [from engineering] is very helpful in whatever you do.” Deinet spent first seven years of his career in management consulting, working at Oliver Wyman: “I worked with financial institutions around the globe, including banks, asset managers, and exchanges.” This was also the start of his work in alternative investments: “One of my projects there was the so-called hedge fund working group. We were called in to help set up a standards board with a credible framework to improve practices in the industry.” This work started all the way back in 2006, having been initiated by a group of leading industry stakeholders – pre-dating the financial crisis, Deinet points out. Nearly 300 global entities and regulators provided feedback on the working group, which created the first set of standards. The culmination of those years came in 2008, when what is now SBAI was established with Deinet as Executive Director from year one.

Deinet has been living in London for almost ten years now, having moved out from central London to live in Surrey with his family – he has a son who’s 2.5 who brings the energy. Deinet’s favourite part of the city is Kensington Gardens, where he’s also the Commodore of the Model Yacht Sailing Association – one of the oldest model sailing clubs in the country, he informs me. “Building boats gets me back to my technical engineering roots. And it’s fun to compete, racing on the pond.” Deinet feels properly plugged into London life after all these years, both socially and professionally: “The concentration of financial services talent here – we really have this fantastic cluster of expertise, so closely knit together. You can find an expert for everything within a mile or two. I think that’s very impressive.”

Asked about his personal motivations for doing the work, Deinet says it’s a fantastic and dynamic marketplace. “It’s full of entrepreneurs and people who want to deliver good returns for their investors, and investors who want the best possible standards for their investments,” he says. “I’ve always been widely interested in a diverse range of topics. [Here] we can work on many topics and learn very quickly from experts and turn this into good deliverables. … It’s something that feels good to do.”

On synchronicity

Published in Lionheart Magazine #8, the Pattern & Colour issue, September 2017.

On synchronicity

Reality has one advantage over fiction: real life events can be wildly improbable. When you’re making things up they have to be believable, but reality makes no such promises: anything can happen.

It was the author John Irving who said this, I think – I seem to remember reading it in a preface to one of my favourite novels, “The World According to Garp”. This is a book where magical things happen to ordinary people. Or more likely, where perfectly realistic things happen, because reality is full of wild coincidences.

Like this one. I met my friend Johanna in San Francisco 18 years ago, and while we’ve kept in touch we hadn’t seen each other in the past decade. But the other week we’d agreed to meet – and three days before we were supposed to see each other for the first time in all that time, we ran into each other on the street. It was around the corner from my house in London, although she didn’t know I lived there, and she lives in Vienna now. I was headed into a café, so had she walked up just a moment later we’d have missed each other.

I ran into my partner at Waterloo station a few days later. He was on his way home and I was on my way into Soho when our paths crossed by the ticket barriers. This is less freaky as we both go through that station all time time, but Waterloo is the busiest rail station in all of Britain and the place was rammed with people. I wasn’t supposed to be on that train but I’d missed the last one, and I wasn’t supposed to take a left at the gates but did it anyway as it was so crowded. And suddenly Luke was there, I saw him first and reached out to touch his arm, interrupting the flow of people to steal a moment out of time.

Coincidences come with a feeling that something has slipped through a crack somewhere, interrupting the normal workings of time and space. A person shows up in a place they’re not supposed to be in; a name or number repeats; two people have had the same experience; a song plays at the perfect moment. These are some of the most common coincidences, and they happen to all of us, all the time.

But it feels so profound when it happens, and a number of coincidences in a row can create a sense of luck. Maybe it feels like you’re being carried forward by an invisible force, or that things are being nudged along to make sure they’re going your way. Like when you’re travelling through traffic and all the lights turn green just as you approach, or you get what you need in an unexpected way, just at the right time. The psychologist Carl Jung called this “synchronicity” – meaningful coincidences. This relates to Jung’s idea of the “unus mundus” – the idea of “one world” with an underlying order and structure where everyone and everything is connected.

It’s a quick jump from the idea of a connected world to superstition. As pattern-seeking animals, it can be hard for us to experience coincidences and not be tempted to read any deeper meaning into them, especially if the experience feels like it borders on the supernatural. But there are seven billion people on the planet, and with such large numbers, outrageous coincidences actually start to become likely. It may feel unlikely to meet someone who shares your birthday, but mathematically, you only need 23 people in a room before there’s a 50/50 chance two of them will be born on the same day.

Still, none of this explains how it’s possible to be thinking about someone – maybe a friend you don’t speak to every week – and the moment you do, your phone buzzes with a text from them. This happens to me all the time. Once my partner used “oak” as a metaphor, and we rounded the corner to find the ground suddenly covered in oak leaves. I was in a taxi on my way to something I was dreading, and “Don’t bring me down” came on the radio – and the same song played again in the taxi on the way back. I start thinking I want to get some Birkenstocks and suddenly I see them on a million people every day. But this isn’t the universe speaking to us – this is what linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky calls the “frequency illusion”: you think about something and your brain becomes primed to focus on it. It’s not that these things are suddenly happening more often, it’s just that now, you’re paying attention.

If it makes you sad to think that coincidences are just a toss of a coin, don’t be. Just because there’s nothing magical about magic, it doesn’t make our experience of it any less meaningful to us. Although Carl Jung didn’t like the idea of reading coincidences as random: “This would result in a chaotic collection of curiosities, rather like those old natural-history cabinets where one finds, cheek by jowl with fossils and anatomical monsters in bottles, the horn of a unicorn, a mandragora manikin, and a dried mermaid.” He says this as if it’s a bad thing, but it sounds pretty great to me.

It’s such a big world, and it can feel so overwhelming. How amazing is it that we find the things that we end up loving: our people, our places, our songs, our random detours that become memories that stick in our brains for the rest of our lives? I’m sure my partner and I have passed each other at Waterloo station without seeing each other a dozen times, and I believe it was luck that we saw each other that day. But that didn’t make it any less wonderful. A face that I love appeared in the crowd, purely as a surprise, and we shared a moment that shouldn’t quite be happening.

London’s challenger banks are the envy of New York fintech

FusionWire, 2016. 

London’s challenger banks are the envy of New York fintech

New York has no shortage of impressive fintech startups, but when it comes to challenger banks, everyone is looking to London.  

New York fintech holds its own against any other startup scene, no doubt about it – but even New Yorkers will admit that London is ahead when it comes to challenger banks. During a recent reporting trip to New York, the consensus was clear: there’s great admiration for up-and-coming UK banks like Mondo and Starling. These are the next-generation banks that are offering a full retail banking service, rather than just a front-end built on top of existing infrastructure. “This is what I want [to see] more of the US. I want new online banks built from the ground up. I want to see somebody do it,” said Joe Ziemer, head of communications and policy initiatives at Betterment, when we met in May.   

Starling and Mondo both secured UK banking licences this summer, joining the dozen-plus new banks that have received licences since 2013; that was when UK regulators changed the rules in an effort to encourage innovation in the retail banking sector. Goals are lofty and ambitious and there’s money available to pursue them: Starling raised $70m in January, while Mondo was valued at £30m following its £6m fundraising in February. In May, new name Tandem raised £1m on crowdfunding platform Seedrs in less than 20 minutes.

In New York, leading US robo adviser Betterment is an example of a fintech startup that provides a full service, rather than just repackaging products from traditional financial groups. There are two key benefits to this approach, says Ziemer: “One is the user experience. If you open a Betterment account you will open the entire thing in two minutes – the advisory relationship and the brokerage relationship. … If you fund your account tonight you’ll be fully invested tomorrow morning.” This is possible because Betterment handles everything in-house, and no outsourcing means no delays, no profit-sharing, and overall full control.

Building from scratch – like Betterment is doing as a US robo adviser, and Mondo is doing as a UK challenger bank – has drawbacks. For one, it takes much longer. It also requires more funding up front, as years can go by before the product can be launched and even then, it can take years to make money. But if successful, the payoff will be a company that’s central to the customer, rather than a nice-to-have. An example of this is how we may use a service like PayPal, but this is useless without a bank account: our central relationship is still with the bank. The overall goal of Betterment gets to the heart of this, says Ziemer: “We want to get to a place where we are the client’s central financial relationship.” For UK challenger banks, the goal is the same – this is what’s caught the admiration of the New York fintech scene.  

The regulation advantage

So if New York can nurture a full-service financial advisory startup like Betterment, why the dearth of groundbreaking challenger banks? Put simply, it’s the lack of supportive infrastructure or permissive regulation. “There’s certainly a number of connecting data points around challenger banks being more prominent in Europe and Asia rather than the States. It may have to do with the regulatory scheme here in the US: you don’t often see them popping as much,” said Jesse Podell, Managing Director of Startupbootcamp Fintech New York, when we spoke in May. “[In London] you have some proven leaders, like Mondo. Whereas here, it may feel a bit stalled.”

Podell says London has done a remarkable job at boosting its fintech scene, which unlike in the US, benefits from being focused primarily in one place. But the UK still lags behind when it comes to funding. In North America, VC-backed fintech companies raised $1.8 billion across 128 deals in the first quarter of 2016, according to KPMG and CB Insights, which concluded fintech deal activity in the region is on track to reach a new high this year. In Europe, funding numbers for the period came in at $0.3 billion, and half of this went to WorldRemit and LendInvest. “Fintech investment in Europe has certainly been less overheated than in other markets,” CB Insights CEO Anand Sanwal said when the numbers were published, adding that this has resulted in increasing interest from US and Asian investors. These number do however pre-date Brexit, which has created uncertainty; London’s ability to hire people from all over Europe has been a significant asset when it comes to competing with the US.

London benefits from having more fintech accelerators compared to New York, and Podell is impressed by the quality of the infrastructure set up to support fintech startups in London. “What I do really appreciate and like about London is the regulatory scheme. It seems to be more adept at working and experimenting with startups. It’s seen as quite adversarial here in the States.” Podell, who’s just overseen the first round of companies completing the Startupbootcamp Fintech New York accelerator programme, says this is something he would like to work towards improving in the US: “[In London] you have a regulatory sandbox that startups have enjoyed. That could be a big part of the reason why the UK has done well.”

Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth

Aquila Magazine for children, July/August 2017 (PDF)

Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller wanted to bring humanity closer to utopia – a perfect place where everyone has what they need – and he believed that technology was how we’d get there. Fuller’s dream was borderline crazy but “Bucky” got closer than most, in part because he didn’t just try to solve each problem individually but he looked at how every single thing in the world is connected.

Buckminster Fuller was a scientist, as well as a designer, architect, geometrist, engineer, and cartographer. Or you could simply say he was a genius – and a bit of a crackpot! He had wildly creative and beautiful ideas for how to solve humanity’s problems, and he was deeply interested in pretty much everything he came across.

As the root of technology is science, Fuller studied the basic patterns in nature in the hopes of reproducing them in his inventions. Fuller is probably best known for his Geodesic Domes – those half circles that look a bit like a football cut in half. This construction doesn’t need any supporting beams, and is stable enough to endure harsh weather. Standing inside a Bucky Dome shows you how this design isn’t just strong and light, but also elegant and graceful. Fuller said: “I never work with aesthetic considerations in mind. But I have a test: If something isn’t beautiful when I get finished with it, it’s no good.”

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Richard Buckminster Fuller Junior (1895-1983) was born in Massachusetts, USA, to a family of strong individuals dedicated to activism and public service. Young Bucky was no different, and the work he went on to do inspires us to this day. Fuller was severely nearsighted as a child, but until he got glasses he refused to believe the world wasn’t blurry. Early inspiration came from family trips to Bear Island in Maine, where Fuller learned about nature and boat construction. Fuller was later thrown out of university for spending too much time with friends and missing his exams. He then went to work at a mill, which taught him about machinery. His time in the Navy meant learning about engineering – Fuller invented a winch for rescue boats that meant pulling planes out of the water in time to save pilots’ lives. This invention earned Fuller the opportunity to train with the US Naval Academy, before he went to work with his father-in-law where he invented a new way to strengthen concrete buildings.

After the construction company went under, Fuller found himself at a loose end. He withdrew, wondering how he could best contribute to humanity. “You do not belong to you. You belong to Universe,” he concluded after he emerged from two years in deep concentration. His goal was ambitious: “To make the world work for 100 percent of humanity in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” Fuller wanted to find a way to solve all the problems in the world at the same time, because he believed it was all connected. Fuller called his particular brand of whole-system thinking “synergetics” – to look closely at the natural relationships between objects, and examine how we think about things.

Not everyone liked Fuller – his ideas were unusual and pretty out there – and even those who supported him found he could be exhausting at times. He would often start talking about one subject and before you knew it, hours had gone by and Fuller would have covered not only the original topic, but put it into context with everything else around it. In Fuller’s world the simplest thing, like ancient boat building, was a vital component of the biggest issue, like the development of modern science – and listeners would find themselves not only convinced, but also inspired. Concluded the New Yorker magazine concluded after interviewing Fuller in 1966: “As Fuller told it, the whole rousing saga sounded absolutely irrefutable.”

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“More with less” was Fuller’s guiding principle as he worked on one of his key areas of interest: revolutionise construction in order to improve housing. He invented the Dymaxion House, a cheap, mass-produced module that could be airlifted into place. The name, a mix of the words “dynamic”, “maximum” and “tension”, became a calling card for Fuller, who went on to invent the Dymaxion Car – a vehicle that even today looks like something out of science fiction. This car had three wheels and aerodynamic rounded edges, was 20 feet long and could hold up to 11 people and it used very little fuel. The Dymaxion Car caused such a stir when Fuller drove it that he was asked that he kindly keep it off the streets during rush hour because it caused gridlock. Fuller also dreamt up underwater settlements where people could receive supplies via submarine, and floating communities where people could live in the clouds.

The Dymaxion Map shows the whole planet on a single flat sheet of paper, without any of the usual distortions that you get with maps – the idea was to encourage people to think about the planet in a more comprehensive way, instead of focusing on individual countries. Fuller also developed the World Game, which used the Dymaxion Map to help people better understand how to use the planet’s resources to the benefit of everybody. Fuller figured we were all in the same boat, so it would make more sense if we all pulled in the same direction: “I’ve often heard people say: ‘I wonder what it would feel like to be on board a spaceship,’ and the answer is very simple. What does it feel like? That’s all we have ever experienced. We are all astronauts on a little spaceship called Earth.”