Designing a ‘Big Wheel’ for Civilization

By Terry Mock and Tony Wernke, SLDI Co-founders
Follow Terry and Tony on Twitter: Terry @SustainLandDev; Tony @Sustainable4U

This article is Part 1 in the Fractal Sustainable Development Trilogy.
Part 2: Like Life Itself, Sustainable Development is Fractal
Part 3: The Universal Principles of Sustainable Development

Everyone who has ridden a tricycle understands the fact that three wheels are more stable than one or two. In fact, a three-legged stool gives greater stability than one with four (or more) legs when the surface on which the stool sits is not perfectly level.

We also have learned that the simple balance of three applies not only to working with the laws of gravity, but to all aspects of life, hence the triple bottom line of sustainable development. What is harder to understand is why humans have so much difficulty applying this basic scientific fact through better balanced public and private policy.

Our current predicament is reminiscent of a comment that world-class architect and sustainability pioneer William McDonough commonly makes in his presentations as he circles the globe with a Cradle to Cradle design message of hope for a future civilization where “waste equals food.” Having witnessed his presentations in person and on video numerous times, we still chuckle with the audience at the irony as McDonough delivers one of his standard lines to illustrate the situation in which we find ourselves. “If we’re so smart,” he snidely remarks, “why did it take us 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage?”

 Our Past Cycles of History

The truth, as McDonough well knows, is that humans do not have a good record when it comes to building sustainable civilizations. Civilizations throughout time have made the same errors which have caused their downfall. According to research, such as documented in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse:

History warns us that when once-powerful societies collapse, they tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: peak power usually means peak population, peak needs, and hence peak vulnerability.

After telling the stories of particular societies that collapsed, Diamond asks pointedly,

What lessons can we draw from history? The most straightforward: take environmental problems seriously. They destroyed societies in the past, and they are even more likely to do so now.

The second reason for collapse is “failure of group decision-making.” Diamond then offers some examples:

1)    “conflicts of interest, whereby one group within a society can profit by engaging in practices that damage the rest of society”;

2)    “the pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of long-term survival.”

Diamond then proceeds,

History also teaches us two deeper lessons about what separates successful societies from those heading toward failure. A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions. The other deep lesson involves a willingness to re-examine long-held core values, when conditions change and those values no longer make sense.

The good news is that the reality of past civilization failures is now well-documented and a new triple-bottom-line message of sustainability has evolved that is being delivered through global communication technologies that are unprecedented in history.

Introducing a New Cycle?
From the beginning, tricycles aided mobility, but had their limitations.

In 1990 William McDonough and his partner Michael Braungart delivered a set of sustainability principles to the city of Hannover, Germany, for use in the development of their 2000 World’s Fair. These Hannover Principles were organized as a list of nine subject areas “to provide a platform upon which designers can consider how to adapt their work to sustainable ends” and “should be seen as a living document committed to the transformation and growth in the understanding of our interdependence with nature, so that they may adapt as our knowledge of the world evolves.”

The concept of "sustainable development" that was universally agreed upon was illustrated by a now-familiar diagram showing three circles representing triple-bottom-line needs intersecting in an area of consensus representing sustainability.

The Hannover Principles were well received worldwide, influencing participants at the 1992 World Summit on Sustainable Development where groundbreaking international resolutions involving future development guidelines were overwhelmingly adopted.

Unfortunately, translating this common vision of sustainability into reality has proven to be problematic in addressing specific issues affected by what Jared Diamond called a “failure of group decision-making.” One result was that the Hannover 2000 World’s Fair was a commonly acknowledged failure and many other attempts around the world to implement similar lists of well-meaning but non-integrated sustainable goals have proved to be impossible without a better defined model which can balance competing perspectives.

The triangular form is embedded in the first powerful tool that people use to maintain balance and move forward – a vitally important skill.

In answer to this dilemma, McDonough and Braungart responded with an improved plan in 2002 with 

Cradle to Cradle Triangle – Provides a visual tool for describing the need for integration between competing human needs.

The Cradle to Cradle Design Framework which introduced the concept of “fractal ecology” symbolized by the fractal equilateral triangle model of sustainability to demonstrate how the three ecology-equity-economy bottom-line needs needed to integrate.

Building on this new model framework for industry and their best selling book, Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart introduced the Cradle to Cradle® certification program to audit products and ingredients to verify a company’s use of healthy materials and use of healthy materials and eco-intelligent design. After proving the worth of the program by enlisting the participation of hundreds of producers, McDonough and Braungart announced earlier this year that they were donating the intellectual property developed through Cradle to Cradle certification  to a non-profit in order to facilitate an open-system where the program can more easily spread without perceived conflicts of interest.

Sustainable Land Development

As the largest human-made physical creations on the planet, land developments form the infrastructure for civilization and represent the macro end of sustainable development thinking. If land developments are not sustainable, it is inconceivable that ultimately anything else developed by humans can be. Given that sustainable land development best practices and standards had never before existed, in 2007 Land Development Today magazine proposed that a system be developed with industry support in an article entitled People, Planet and Profit .

Building on the largest published library of best practices and overwhelming industry support, Sustainable Land Development International (SLDI) was launched in 2008 with a transparent strategic plan adapted from the original Hannover Principles and structured as a People, Planet & Profit fractal decision making model.

The historical evolution of our understanding of sustainability and the problems civilization has encountered achieving sustainable balance were described in the SLDI article – Origin of Sustainability Movement Leads to Current Challenges :

Overall, the effort to define and achieve sustainability [in local government] has involved a significant amount of consciousness-raising about the trade-offs involved in community decision-making. At its best, it is a process for ensuring that otherwise overlooked perspectives and constituencies are not excluded from decisions. But it remains an ill-defined process in which operational results remain elusive. 

In order to build a practical model for society to use for decision making, let’s get back to the essence of sustainability – Balance…

The Big Wheel® was first developed by Louis Marx Toys and presented to the public at the 1969 New York Toy Fair. The Big Wheel® immediately became a national success. The new kind of tricycle owed its novelty and high performance to its design. On old steel tricycles, the rider perched on a seat above the drive wheel—and pitched over on sharp turns. And traditional tricycles did not have much speed. But the Big Wheel rode only a few inches off the pavement, allowing high-speed skid-outs on slanted or uneven surfaces.  An additional boost to the success of the Big Wheel was a report released on toy safety spawned by the Consumer Products Safety Commission. The report stated that of many bicycle and tricycle related injuries, the “low slung” Big Wheel® was far and away safer than traditional bicycles.

A ‘Big Wheel’ for Civilization

Based on the proven advantages of a stable equilateral triangle paradigm design, in 2009 SLDI released the world’s first comprehensive sustainable land development best practices system. Unlike other standards and certification programs, the SLDI Best Practices System helps to structure a triple-bottom-line (people, planet and profit) decision model that helps development projects achieve greater success in each area.

This “holy grail” Sustainable Land Development Best Practices System is symbolized as a geometrical algorithm that balances and integrates the triple-bottom-line needs of people, planet and profit into a holistic, fractal model that becomes increasingly detailed, guiding effective decisions throughout the community planning, financing, design, regulating, construction and maintenance processes while always enabling project context to drive specific decisions – The SLDI Code.

In the pass-it-forward spirit, SLDI is now offering this “Big Wheel for Civilization” to all those willing to collaborate for the collective benefit of people, planet and profit – today and in the future. It’s high time for us to remember what we learned in kindergarten.


Help raise awareness by holding a SLDI Big Wheel race in your community to promote sustainable land development.



Sustainable Land Development Initiative

For the latest SLDI tweets, click here.

The 21st century will overturn many of our previously-held assumptions about civilization. The challenges and opportunities land development stakeholders now face – to fulfill the needs of society and achieve a favorable return on investment without harming the environment – have vast implications on the sustainability of our communities around the world.

SLDI - Sustainable Land Development Initiative is a stakeholder social media association now positioned to help transform the industry that creates the very infrastructure of our civilization. SLDI is dedicated to delivering sustainable land development technology and knowledge resources to promote and enable fully integrated sustainable land development worldwide.

How do we develop a sustainable civilization?
By delivering the "holy grail of sustainable decision making" - a universal geometrical algorithm that balances the needs of people, planet and profit - The SLDI Code™
The World’s First Sustainable Development Decision Model is symbolized as a geometrical algorithm that balances and integrates the triple-bottom line needs of people, planet and profit into a holistic, fractal model that becomes increasingly detailed, guiding effective decisions throughout the community planning, financing, design, regulating, construction and maintenance processes while always enabling project context to drive specific decisions.

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Dubuque, IA 52001

SLDI Co-founders:
Terry Mock
Tony Wernke

Read The Fractal Frontier - Sustainable Development Trilogy.
Read Developing a Sustainable Endgame for the Global Economy
See history and evolution of SLDI @ SLDI Foundational Articles