Agency in a White Water World: Designing the Future of Public Policy When All is Rapidly Changing, Hyper-Connected and Radically Contingent

Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown


Date: 2017-03-16
Time: 4:00pm
Location: Room 1202, CSE Building, UC San Diego

Guest Speaker: Ann Pendleton-Jullian, Ohio State University and
John Seely Brown, Deloitte Center for the Edge


In a conference on "Systems Perspectives in Design," held in Banff, Canada, October 2015, Don Norman presented probably the best description so far of the characteristics that define "wicked" problems. He also initiated a meme that ran throughout the conference when he referenced Charles Lindblom's complex problem solving mechanism of "muddling through." This was an approach to public policy formulation which recognized that when dealing with complex socio-technical problems one could not plan definitively, but instead, must just muddle through - "doing well the little things that come up" to make progress. This is a tactical heuristic approach with merit in its bottom up humility and its desire for moving forward through action. And small things, done well, do scale. For Lindblom, 'muddling through' was "not a failure or method for which administrators ought to apologize," but a step-by- step system of successive limited comparisons that aimed for incremental sequential change. It was prescient in that it recognized that contexts change as you do anything to them.

But 1959 and 2017 are different worlds. The pace of contexts-that- change has increased exponentially. We need new tools to have agency and impact in social and institutional contexts that are not only rapidly changing, but hyper-connected through digital infrastructures, and radically contingent because of this hyper-connectivity. Touching anything in one place has multiple entangled repercussions elsewhere. And the pace of change means that one is often making decisions under conditions of extreme uncertainty. Simultaneously, new affordances create a legitimate tension between top down and bottom up agency, while applications of these new technologies hold serious new implications for society itself, implications that public policy will be called on to address.

This talk will present a project for the redesign of the future of public policy as it has emerged through work ApJ and JSB are doing with the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy. This project works off of their new book Design Unbound: Designing for Emergence in a White Water World, which presents a new lens to understand our contemporary world and then a set of tools that honor and leverage emergence in order to have agency and impact.


Ann Pendleton-­Jullian is an architect, educator, and writer of international standing. Her design work negotiates the overlap between architecture, landscape, culture, and technology and is motivated towards internationalism as both a concept and a reality.. Ann took up architecture after a brief but serious attempt to adopt astrophysics as a career choice. She obtained her BArch degree from Cornell University and her MArch from Princeton. She began her professional apprenticeship in Chicago and in the mid eighties, opened her first professional office in Los Angeles. After three years in practice there, she returned to the east coast to establish a partnership with Guilllaume Jullian de la Fuente from 1986 - 1996. Back on the east coast, she also began teaching at Cornell University, Princeton University and then later at MIT for fourteen years. Her most recent work has focused on furthering the use of game design as a way to approach complex and emergent systems within architectural, urban and landscape design, both theoretically and in practice. And seeing education as its own design problem, she is also involved in thinking and writing about education for the 21st century, in practice. Ann maintains ongoing working affiliations with the MIT Media Lab, the School of Architecture at the Catholic University of Santiago, Chile, The University of Porto Alegre, Brazil, Tongji University in Shanghai, the New University of Singapore, and the London School of Economics.

John Seely Brown (JSB) was the Chief Scientist of Xerox Corp and Director of its famous/infamous Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).  Currently he is a visiting scholar and advisor to the Provost at USC where he facilitates collaboration between the Schools for Communication and Media and the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT). JSB is also currently the Independent Co-Chairman for Deloitte's Center for the Edge where he pursues research on radical innovation, institutional innovation and a reimagined work environment built on digital culture, ubiquitous computing, and the need for constant learning and adaptability.  His personal research interests include digital youth culture, the application of technology to fundamentally rethink the nature of work and institutional architectures in order to enable deep learning across organizational boundaries - in brief, to design for emergence in a constantly changing world. JSB is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Education, a Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence. He serves on numerous private and public boards of directors, including Amazon. He has published over 100 papers in scientific journals and 6 books. His most recently is Pragmatic Imagination, co-authored with Ann Pendleton-Jullian.
JSB received a BA from Brown University in 1962 in mathematics and physics and a PhD from the University of Michigan in 1970 in computer and communication sciences.  He also has received nine honorary degrees.