Pragmatic Imagination

Single from Design Unbound

Pragmatic Imagination is a small book that presents a valuable resource for navigating our broadly connected, rapidly changing, and radically contingent world. It begins from an assumption that agency in the world today requires a productive entanglement of imagination and action. It then presents a framework for unpacking the imagination as a wide range of mental activity that can be put to purpose in this world. This is the Pragmatic Imagination: a concept and framework of six principles


This book is the last chapter of a larger work. It is both parent and child of a soon to be published five-book system of books called Design Unbound: Designing for Emergence in a White Water World, which provides a tool set for agency and impact in our world today. Like a single released before an album, this previews the larger work, introducing concepts and themes that both anticipate and encapsulate the larger project. But also like a single, it can stand alone because of the way in which it anticipates and encapsulates the larger project with a singular coherence.


endorsements, excerpts (full)

This book offers a fresh and immensely insightful look at the mystery of the imagination. It will change the way you think about imagination, and quite possibly, the world around us. • PAUL SAFFO, Chair, Future Studies and Forecasting, Singularity University


Pragmatic Imagination provokes a radical rethinking of the central importance of the imagination as a driver of pragmatic action. A gorgeously written and produced volume about the emerging science of creativity of two of today's most intellectually ambidextrous thinkers and doers, this book lays out a social theory to guide both artists and scientists. • BETH NOVECK, Professor, NYU and Director, The Governance Lab


A bold synthesis that ranges from the Surrealists to Sherlock Holmes, Pragmatic Imagination is a manifesto for how to process and reshape the world. • HENRY JENKINS, Professor, University of Southern California


Pragmatic Imagination not only provides an intelligent and thought-provoking analysis of how imagination operates but it also offers ideas about how to spark the process of imagination. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand how to unleash more innovation - or simply lead a richer life. • GILLIAN TETT, Editor, Financial Times and author, The Silo Effect


Architect/design visionary Ann Pendleton-Jullian and innovation guru, John Seely Brown's narrative is a powerful reminder that if we want to be relevant in the 21st century and beyond, we need to train ourselves to imagine differently. • DAVID L MORSE, CTO and Executive Vice President, Corning, Inc.


Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown combine their considerable and distinctive sources of expertise to offer a path through our complex and whitewater world. It is a book all social scientists should read. • MARGARET LEVI, Director, CASBS Stanford University.


Design Unbound

Designing for Emergence in a Whitewater World

Pragmatic Imagination is a framework for the productive entanglement of imagination and action that supports agency in the world. Design Unbound, Designing for Emergence in a White Water World is a system of books that provides a tool set for instrumentalizing the Pragmatic Imagination.

Making progress on complex problems requires thinking and designing with an understanding that one cannot design for absolute outcomes in a world that has become radically contingent – where propensities override causality. The future emerges out of actions in the present as they are influenced and interpreted through actions of the past.  If we want to have agency, we need to understand how emergence works. We need to think in terms of emergence and we need to design for emergence.


Design Unbound presents a new lens to understand our contemporary world and then a set of tools as mechanisms that honor and leverage emergence. The tool set begins in architectural design because, ultimately, architecture is about designing contexts in which things happen. From a room, a house, a complex ensemble of buildings, cities, landscapes, and territorial systems of occupation, it is only one more level of abstraction to imagine design, unbound from its material thingness and from its disciplinary boundaries, set free to work on designing contexts as complex systems/ecologies. These might be physical contexts (smart cities), institutional contexts (education), political contexts (making progress on networked terrorism), policy contexts (poverty, homelessness, environmental vulnerabilities), or cultural contexts (the ethics of data science). These contexts can accommodate well-practiced relationships and behaviors, or they can open up new possibilities of exchange, interaction and meaning creation.


Design Unbound is a system of five books that can be read together or separately. Like a reference manual or a vinyl analog album, one can leave and return to it, picking up the needle and placing it in the groove of a specific tune or skipping around among songs. Different books will probably interest different people, although all of the books together create a rich integrated tool set. The five books present a set of ten knowledge-, skill- or method-based instruments for acting through design and two meta-tools that do work of a higher order, at the level of the ecology of the project. These tools, separately, and together draw on the practical aspects of Pragmatic Imagination’s conceptual framework.


endorsements, excerpts (full)

On occasion, intelligent real world practitioners pause to consider their practices. Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown, respectively an architect and an innovation strategist, have produced a deep analysis of the creative process rooted in their own professional experience and in reflections over a vast array of intellectual contributors from philosophy, poetry, music, science and technology. They leave no stone unturned. In chapter after chapter they make you see old things and old actions in a new light. They let you glean the value of the often neglected difference between discovering and inventing. • ANTONIO DAMASIO Neuroscientist and Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute, USC


Design Unbound explores and illuminates the design process required by rapid change in a world of eroded cultural boundaries. The final words before the epilogue are “defendable optimism" as it celebrates individual potential to make a difference - nothing is inevitable. Design Unbound helps us understand the shift from the industrial age to the information age where individual narratives and social networks establish a new context for design. It is a book that all of us who care about advancing our common humanity will benefit from. • JONATHAN FANTON President, American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Former President MacArthur Foundation


Tibetan debate has been described by one of the foremost scholars on the subject as “rigorous conceptuality for the sake of eventually transcending conceptuality.” I believe that offers a decent context for the concepts presented herein. Debate is a ludic and agonistic enterprise, where play and combat are joined in service to profound purpose. Considering the stakes of our time in history, considering the minds of those who have crafted this excellent book, I would say that it follows that the ideas in Design Unbound are worth the best play and fight we can bring to them. • ERIC TRAUB, Serial entrepreneur and a formal student of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.


Perhaps the most important contribution of Design Unbound is to return a sense of optimism to people about the possibility that humans can usefully affect the course of complex interacting dynamic systems environments through the mechanisms of design. The perspectives provided in this important book offer a range of mechanisms through which human intentionality can be brought to bear. The authors are careful to avoid any temptation to suggest that control can be recovered even as some measure of directivity can be achieved through the thoughtful application of the concepts they discuss. • JEFF COOPER, Technical Fellow and VP for Technology with SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation)


Working with Ann Pendleton-Jullian for an extraordinary year was like building a new world. This book embodies the characteristics of the work we did together. With this thinking and through this book, Ann and JSB have helped us see our way forward -- now it is in our hands to fashion our collective work to construct that world. • ELLIOT SHORE, Executive Director of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and Professor of History at Bryn Mawr College


Other Related Books by ApJ and JSB

New Culture of Learning
Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown

Innovation Ecotones
Ann Pendleton-Jullian

Four (+1) Studios
Ann Pendleton-Jullian

The Road that is not a Road
Ann Pendleton-Jullian

The Power of Pull
John Hagel and John Seely Brown

The Social Life of Information
John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid