Mapping the Pragmatic Imagination: An Interview with Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian (Part 1)

Every so often, you are introduced to a person and by the time the first conversation is completed, you know you have met someone who is going to be a vital part of your intellectual community for years to come. This is what happened to me when John Seely Brown, AKA JSB (of Xerox Parc fame) introduced me to Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian.  Ann is an architect and urban planner, currently at the Knowlton School at Ohio State University, but she is so much more than that. Like JSB, with whom she sometimes collaborates on research and writing projects, she has a profoundly interdisciplinary mind. They are both fearless about pursuing their interests where-ever they lead them and they consistently ignore divides between science/technology and humanities/culture in doing so. They are  also both people with a pragmatic approach -- they want to identify the most compelling problems of our time and work with others to find innovative and meaningful solutions that make a difference on the ground.

In Ann's case, problem-solving increasingly involves a design process grounded in the concept of world-building as it has been shaped by the realms of speculative fiction, production design, and participatory planning. Every time I meet her, Ann describes to me new projects she is undertaking around the world, all of it growing out of a belief that humans have the creative agency to make a difference in their own lives if they are given the freedom and resources to do so.

The two have  been working together to produce a profoundly important project, Design Unbound.  As I've discussed it with Ann across the past few years, this project  has taken a variety of different shapes -- it is epic in scope, sprawling in content, and totally original in its bold synthesis of ideas coming from all different directions.   As Ann explains in response to my first question below, the project has required them to constantly reflect on what kind of thing a book is in the 21st century, what it means to read and publish such an object, and how a book can be the beginning as well as the end point of a creative and intellectual process. We still do not know the final shape this project will take, but along the way, they have put together what they are calling a "single," a stand alone booklet-length essay on The Pragmatic Imagination.

Given that some strands of my own current research centers around what we call The Civic Imagination, I've enjoyed many conversations with Ann about the value of imagination in confronting real world problems and so I am using the publication of The Pragmatic Imagination as an excuse for an extended public discussion with her about those aspects of their project. The result was something unique -- certainly not an interview in the sense I normally feature here.  She took each of my questions as a prompt for an extended essay which spells out many core aspects of her approach and along the way she provides us a vivid model for how she thinks and works. We might see the whole exchange as two polymaths thinking about thinking.  I am so excited to be able to share her responses with my readers over the next two weeks, hoping that they inspire others to think more deeply about the value of combining play/imagination/speculation/design with problem-solving.

You can learn more about The Pragmatic Imagination here. 

You describe The Pragmatic Imagination as a “single.” Can you explain a bit more why you are releasing this segment in advance of the book proper and how it fits into your larger project? What does it mean to think of Design Unbound as a “system of books” rather than as a self-contained volume?

Pragmatic Imagination is the last chapter – chapter 19 – of the larger project Design Unbound. Designing for Emergence in a White Water World. In a sense, it is the generative idea but we had to write the entire ‘book’ to discover that.

We began this work five years ago as a project to answer the challenge of a colleague of ours. We were at an Aspen Institute roundtable that was focused on how new technological tools could be used to influence diplomacy around the world. The dialogue ranged from conversations around drug wars to weaponized computer viruses. One participant, in a moment of exasperation said something like ‘the world has just come together too quickly to make sense of it,’ and our colleague John Rendon responded that the problem is we are using an old tool set and that it was time to develop a new one. We had already begun work on what would become Design Unbound, and JR’s challenge became an interesting provocation.

Design Unbound set out to define a new tool set for the world we find ourselves in – a world that is rapidly changing, increasingly interconnected, and where, because of this increasing interconnectivity, everything is more contingent on everything else happening around it – much more so than ever before. We characterize this as a white water world in reference to white water river kayaking, where navigation – often survival, even - depends upon understanding how to skill up for dynamic contexts in which things change and emerge without respite. One can see this as a difficult context or as an adventure. We chose the latter. The super interesting thing about whitewater rivers is that they are navigable, just not under the same terms. They require very different tools, skills, dispositions, and even epistemological frames.

Design Unbound is a tool set for having agency in today’s world, whether it is personal agency or agency to make progress on complex problems. It is about being able to navigate this white water world and/or to influence it – to work in it and even on it. The kinds of tools it presents are not the tools of a carpenter or coder but tools that are directly associated with a new kind of design that is an offspring of complexity science married to architecture.

We begin in architecture because principally architecture is about designing contexts in which things happen. It is an ambidextrous endeavor in which the social and technical come together to both hold and shape peoples’ relationships to each other and to the world. 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.

Complexity science gives us a new lens through which to view the world - viewing that leads to action. It is an epistemological lens just as Newton's and Darwin's were. We don't see it as replacing those first two (gravity still works, last time I checked, and species still adapt and evolve), but, instead, as adding a third way to make sense of things, especially today when simple cause and effect do not seem to give us answers that stick, or solutions that can adapt to emerging events.

This third lens or window draws deeply from complexity theory and specifically from the perspective of ecology science - from understanding the complex dynamics of ecosystems. A Newtonian window looks at the world as described by physics. A Darwinian window focuses on processes and optimization. The complexity/ecological window looks at the world as a context - not a thing - and that context is a space of dynamic exchanges between all of the components.

These exchanges can be material in nature. They can be social in nature – exchanges influenced by our social systems (like economics and politics). And then there are all those things that are bound up in the dynamic exchange of ideas - the ideas that motivate us, the stories we build identity and culture through. We think of these as three registers or ecologies for this new window: material, social and mental ecologies of exchanges.

This is where Design Unbound begins. It then uses case studies and reflection on those case studies to present a series of tools that can be used to understand the world today and act with agency in it, and for impact on it.

Beginning the project that would become Design Unbound five years ago, it has gone through a series of different ‘completions’. We actually thought it was finished twice before. The first soft publication was around 225 pages; the second just shy of 375 pages and this last – ‘last’, meaning it’s done - manuscript has just weighed in at 800 pages. But more importantly, design unbound from thingness and disciplinary boundaries became not only the framing concept but also the way we worked. As the book became its own project, it transgressed more and more into other fields. This means, first of all, that the audience for this system of books is going to be broad and diverse.

So we decided to divide Design Unbound into five books for two reasons. Firstly, people read differently today. Shorter attention spans and multi-tasking means that we are often reading several things simultaneously. I am certainly reading in smaller chunks and as I do so, something I am reading in one area might get stuck to something I am reading in another: global affairs with landscape ecology with fiction with . . . By stuck, I mean that they overlap on each other in my mind, creating interesting correspondences. So I see reading in smaller chunks as being full of possibility. Publishing five books of smaller size makes it easier to focus on one part of the larger work at a time; to come and go cognitively.

Secondly, because Design Unbound draws from a vast array of domains: from architecture, science and technology, philosophy, cinema, music, literature and poetry, the military, even, different books within the larger system of books will resonate with different reading audiences. DesUnbound aims to blend a polymathic reservoir of thought seamlessly with real life examples of successful design and action, but it does not expect all readers to be polymaths. So, from architects to people involved re-conceiving higher education to the public policy or defense and intelligence communities, each audience will find different books most relevant. Each of the five books has its own narrative arc within the larger arc of the full book. They each have a different framing chapter and a different set of inter-related tools.

For a while, we thought of Design Unbound a little like a manual, and we were using that analogy until a friend of ours called it a ‘system of books.’ We were having trouble describing succinctly what it was – more than a book and yet not a series in the sense of being ‘serial’ where coherence depends upon the way short installments or successive pieces of something follow one on another in a linear fashion.

Instead, DesUnbound’s coherence is dependent on the way the different books and their chapters interact with each other to create an aggregate whole. They can be shuffled and grouped differently, yet still do the same kind of work. If we think of systems: in biology, a system is an assemblage of organs or related tissues that are concerned with the same function – their coherence is given by the fact that they are all working towards the same thing. Similarly, DesUnbound is an assemblage of books and chapters (tools and lenses) that are concerned with the same function - designing for agency. In astronomy, a system is a collection of celestial bodies that act together according to certain laws of physics – our solar system, for example.

DesUnbound is a collection of books and chapters that act together according to certain concepts (not exactly laws) around the entanglement of agency and imagination. And In ecology, an ecosystem is an assemblage of components that form a complex whole by the manner in which they interact with each other and with their environment. They interact by participating in material and social exchanges. DesUnbound is an assemblage of books and chapters that are meant to interact with each other, through how different tools use other tools, creating new capacities that either tool alone does not hold. So calling it a ‘system of books’ began to work for us.


As a system of five books, DesUnbound 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 Pragmatic Imagination’s conceptual framework. But they also instrumentalize the pragmatic imagination. They depend upon the imagination for fuel just as muscles working physical tools depend upon food as fuel. But they also convert the imagination into work in the real world, just as muscles convert energy from food into work. As the last chapter of DesUnbound, Pragmatic Imagination is a framework for the productive entanglement of imagination and action that supports agency in the world.

We have called Pragmatic Imagination a single in reference to the music industry. I am a great fan of the television series Nashville. It and real work on DesUnbound began around the same time. So I will admit that this influenced the thought at the time.

Like a single released before an album, Pragmatic Imagination is meant to preview the larger work, introducing concepts and themes that anticipate, but also encapsulate, the larger project. And also like a single, we feel it can stand alone because of the way in which it anticipates and encapsulates the larger project with a singular coherence.

At one point we called it a prequel but that made less sense because it is not a single part of a linear story. It is part of the whole story. It carries the critical themes. But I will say that, as a theory, the irony is that it is less like the tool-oriented chapters – the more pragmatic chapters. But it sets the stage for them. It is the foundation, the dna, the primary autotroph, of DesUnbound. The kind of world we are navigating now, the kinds of problems we want to have agency on, demand a new tool set in which imagination is a not an embellishment or adjacency to real work in the world, but the keystone capacity upon which all other work depends because it advances understanding (empathy even) and it drives novelty. As a muscle of agility, it is necessary in whitewater.


Ann Pendleton‐Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator of international standing whose work explores the interchange between architecture, landscape, culture, science, and technology within complex contexts. She is currently Full Professor and former director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, distinguished Visiting Professor out of the President’s Office at Georgetown University, and periodically co-teaches world building studios at USC’s School of Cinema.

ApJ’s projects range in scale and scope from things to systems of action. Notable projects demonstrating this range are: a house for the astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife; award winning prototypical bioclimatic houses – one for Tenerife; various winning or placing competition entries including a New Congress Hall in Valparaiso, Chile, and an urban design project for the Miguelete River basin sponsored by the Municipality of Montevideo. Much of her recent work focuses on empowerment and economic development through various projects including the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and an eight-village ecosystem conceived around rural craft tourism in Guizhou province in China. Currently she is working on a new Jesuit University for Eastern Africa, including its pedagogical model, the future re-imagining of the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, and a house in an environmentally sensitive part of the Pocono Mountains. ApJ has five authored books and portfolios, including: The Road That Is Not a Road and the Open City, Ritoque, Chile by MIT Press (’96); Games for Shanghai (’08) published by CA Press in Shanghai; and Design Education and Innovation Ecotones (’09).