Sunday, May 20, 2018

World Building, Wicked Problems, and the Civic Imagination

Just listened to "Ann Pendleton-Jullian on World Building, Architecture, and Wicked Problems," an episode of the podcast How Do You Like It So Far? with Colin Maclay and Henry Jenkins. I found this interview so resonant for my research that I needed it in text form, so after some YouTube auto-transcription and a whole lot of cleanup, I'm posting it here in the hopes it will be useful to others too.

Here's the audio:

Here's the blurb:
Ann Pendleton-Jullian is an architect by training but increasingly she is being hired as a world-builder, someone who can put into process a collaborative, multidisciplinary mode of thinking which approaches complex problems in a systemic way. Her professional and civic practice has been informed by ideas from speculative fiction and production design, including by Alex McDowell, who we featured on our program last week. As we explore some of the implications of Ready Player One, we decided to dedicate these two programs to the ways world building has evolved from as a way of developing on-screen fictional worlds to a way of confronting challenging problems in our own world. 
Alex and Ann teamed up for the RiLAo project, where students and experts around the world collaborated to imagine and document an imaginary floating city which contained aspects of Los Angeles and Rio De Janeiro. Ann has also developed a forthcoming book, Design Unbound, with John Seely Brown (formerly of Xerox PARC) which releases this fall. I had previously conducted an expansive interview with Ann for this blog about one segment from the book which introduced their concept of the Pragmatic Imagination
This discussion is high flying and rapid-fire: she was racing to the airport and we were happy to grab a few minutes with her. Afterwards, Colin and I discuss world-building more generally and explore some of our own thoughts on Ready Player One.
And here's the transcript:

Ann Pendleton-Jullian on World Building, Architecture, and Wicked Problems

[Intro excerpt] Ann Pendleton-Jullian: ...And world building isn't just saying, "Okay, now I'll entertain them, what a great idea!” It's to say, “What are the repercussions? What would it mean for this? What would it mean for that? Who would be involved? How would they be involved?" And when you can actually begin to allow yourself to play it out, only then can you go, "Oh, maybe that's okay. Maybe that would work." There's this way we stop ourselves at the barrier of constraints, and not see all the other things we could be doing.

Colin Maclay: Welcome to our podcast How Do You Like It So Far? We're trying to bring together diverse perspectives on contemporary popular culture and its political and social ramifications.

Henry Jenkins: Hello, I'm Henry Jenkins from the Civic Imagination Project.

Colin: Hi, I'm Colin Maclay from the Annenberg Innovation Lab and we're speaking to you from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Spoiler warnings in place [for Ready Player One]. 

So I'm thrilled to be here with Ann Pendleton-Jullian today. I don't even know how to introduce her, in the sense that she has such a crazy wonderful career as an architect and an author and an educator and just a troublemaker, especially in academia but I think elsewhere, really blazing a remarkable trail that spans all these different disciplines, from with appointments in places like RAND and the Cinema School here at USC, Georgetown, Ohio State, so all these different kinds of institutions bringing new techniques and perspectives to those worlds, which Lord knows need it. So it's great to have you with us here today and Henry joining remotely. Henry, are you there?

Henry: I'm here!

Colin: All right. So you know, when I moved to Los Angeles a little over a year and a half ago, I don't think I had heard of world-building. It wasn't a thing in my kind of lexicon.

Ann: In Hahvahd? [laughter]

Colin: Either in the Hollywood sense, or the you sense, of taking these techniques that come from Hollywood or from Alex and company, and bringing them into other kinds of problem-solving spaces. I'm curious how, where did you kind of first intersect with world building?

Ann: Wow, yeah, as you were talking I was trying to figure out where. I think I was primed for it, first – you know they talk about this in viral things: you have to be susceptible. So I was susceptible for it, because I grew up in the Midwest, it was it was the 1960s Midwest, where they were all new brand new developments, and the yards went on forever and the trees were never higher than five feet, and when they start to grow we moved. And so this very surreal landscape and lots of tornadoes and yellow sky. So I picked up Ray Bradbury. I'm not a science-fiction fan per se, and then later on in life I discovered the magical surrealists – or the magical realists, and I began to understand this notion of creating a kind of coherent alternate reality, that's both coherent and really rich, where the story is interesting. Oh and also did a lot  of historical fiction. I love to kind of get into the space – kind of the empathetic, kind of contextual – the empathetic imagination, right, where you get into the contextual space.

And then when I was dean at Ohio State in architecture, Alex came and gave a talk and I'd never – he really didn't talk about world building, I don't think, but I'd never heard anyone speak like this. And it was just engaging. I had the fortune when I was out here, to meet him right when he was being brought to USC, wasn't quite sure what his role would be, and I think together we just fell into, let's do this Rilao Studio, based upon one of my favourite books, which is by a Portuguese magical surrealist (if there's such a thing), Saramago. And the beautiful thing was just working it out together. You know you teach and codify in the actual practice. and that was it I remember we had one amazing lunch in one of the favelas in Rio, in which we were just he was sketching out the idea of the horizontal in the vertical. And little by little it became part of my own way of working and it would be interesting to reflect back actually reconstruct it, but it is a little bit haphazard, it's kind of the adventure of following the thread, if you will.

Colin: And so tell me more about what that was like, to go from, here's a sort of imagining as you were saying from your youth, a coherent world, and whether it's a historical one or future-looking and to sort of imagine how the pieces might fit together in that, just seems so different from a lot of practice in storytelling, especially kind of Hollywood-y sort of, you know, where you kind of put a put a bunch of different pieces together of: story meets whatever set we have, meets whatever – and I don't mean to denigrate those, but – not the same rich way that Alex was talking about practicing it, and what that construction process is like, and how that segues into thinking about problems, or opportunities, and using that as a platform for exploration.

Ann: Yeah, so maybe I'll backtrack even just a little. And I can't leave Henry out as well. While Alex is a brilliant practitioner, he does things, less than reflecting. And so to try to understand what, why, when, and all that stuff, it was Henry's writings. And then meeting Henry, that actually helped me begin to put that together.

But to backtrack a tad, as a practicing architect I was often sought out for really complex cultural, environmental problems, where also technology, or like "what's the future of...?" was there. For instance, what's the future of a library when books – now when things are going digital? So how do we construct very real, architectural ways, or looking at buildings and programs from both the perspective of, how is the world changing – books are books anymore – but also from the perspective of how cultures are changing.

And so I ended up being involved with a few projects where I started doing more than things. So the master planning for a university in Bangladesh, where if you are not just educating 500 women for better lives – laudable as it is – you're actually thinking that you might change the socio-political dynamics of the region, because you've got four constituencies that don't get along, four different cultures.

So little by little, projects that started out as things  were pulled into a region where you could not accomplish anything of value by abrogating agency to other people, so it was about many more than things. Meanwhile I'm beginning to write Design Unbound with my co-author John Seely Brown. I had the fortune of meeting and spending a lot of time with Henry, and talking about what he was doing, and how he was using the civic imagination as a way to get people to imagine better states. I loved Rilao, because was while it was a fictional construct, it was about how LA and Rio have cities in cities. Rilao comes from Rio and LA – "LA" stuck inside of "Rio".

And my recollection is that Alex had just come on board, was brought in, brilliant hire. And we were sitting around talking I said, so Alex, why don't we do a – this is my recollection, he may have a different one – why don't we do a studio, a world-building studio? And he's like, what is a studio? And we talked about, from architectural practice, what it was. And then just got rolling. He wanted to do LA, and Rio was of interest to me as well, and I think he was going to Rio – there was a reason why Rio and LA were on the table as an either/or.

And then I remembered Saramago's book The Stone Raft, which I don't know if you know the book, but it's a really wonderful conceit where there's a snake in the ground and this guy with a staff goes to kill the snake but it  sends a reverberation through. And a faultline begins to grow, and basically Portugal just falls off into the ocean as the "stone raft".

So the thing was, that's really, really cool, what if there was an earthquake what in LA and a piece fell off? And a piece of Rio fell off, and they came in the middle of the ocean, they actually met? And that was the beginning of the conceit. And then – with all good world building, we did research at first, and we– it was such a beautiful joining of two worlds, because you've got a real resonance between the two, an alignment so you have the Carnival in Rio, you've got the street art here. You've got the notion of the city and the city – that Rio has different cities the favelas and has the city – you've got that in LA. There were so many incredible things together. So we're doing all this research and we're finding similarities, and we're beginning to construct our logic points: in other words, the "what-if" is: "What if these two events happened and they came together and joined in the ocean?"

But then you have to set it up so that you can build it separate from the rest of the world. So one of the students had the idea that there was a plague. And the brilliance of that is that when you've got a plague, you have to quarantine the island – meanwhile you've got these doctors there, who are now advancing with technology, but they're not part of the mainland, they're quarantined out there. There was a religion about – I forget the guy's name who was the kind of founding father of the religion. What was interesting was that some of the logic points or assumptions didn't quite line up, which was really great.

And then the students, some of them were doing projects based upon these new assumptions – and the cyborg was in there as well – others were actually contributing to the assumptions, like the plague. One of the projects was a plague doctor, and the plague doctors were like the carnival figures. And then the cyborg was part of it. And there was this one beautiful project, a woman from the architecture school who had an environment / garment and all the birds' feathers, it's something that, using musculature and electronic wire like the prosthetics would use, you could fold yourself down into this thing and create a place – that's the notion of the homeless – a place to live / sleep. But at the same time, if you needed to create more space around yourself because you felt vulnerable, you could actually make this thing grow out. And it was all beautiful [?]. A suitcase, which was someone  coming back from Rilao, they escaped, and what would be in the suitcase? Some of it was dark, some of it was humorous, some successful, some less so. It was just brilliant. It was really, really brilliant.

Colin: It sounds like a remarkable juxtaposition of sort of different practices and the introduction of kind of discontinuities, like things where it changes, and it creates the possibility for you to imagine, to play out different futures, positive, negative, whatever the whatever the scale, and whatever the valence. And then to kind of see how they manifest in a variety of ways from what it looks like at some sort of more grand level versus at a micro level, like the suitcase. Where you're like, this is how that stuff all comes together, and this is what it looks like, this little corner of lived experience: in your suitcase you have these things.

Ann: The brilliance is – it's the same thing when Henry talks about fanfiction – the brilliance is that sometimes you start out making an artefact that represents the assumptions you've already made, but you make an artefact that creates new assumptions because it just has to fall back into the world.

Then Alex used that first studio, brought– I think there was there was an intersection with many, many other schools around the world. Fiona Robbie, I remember she was skyping with us once (the technology was all so difficult at first). And just really brilliant. And then he had a whole group actually make the maps. And it moved into a more cinematic version of world building.

Whereas I think what we were doing at the beginning– and the beautiful thing was, Alex was not sure how to teach the methodology. He knew how to talk about it, but I knew how to teach, and how do you begin to make it something others could use? So I thought it was a brilliant collaboration, where he's like, "I do this." And I'm like, "Okay how do we talk about doing this?"

Colin: It seems like also– I don't feel like I'm deeply familiar with the way architecture is practiced, but also a real significant, I don't know if departure is the word, but kind of layering on a whole bunch of other kinds of practices around the humans, in a way that's going steps and steps beyond what maybe the normal approach would be.

Ann: Well, yeah, because there's different ways of design in all fields. You can either completely ignore what the user wants...

Colin: One great tradition.

Ann: Like, really easy. Or you can try to understand what the user wants. They can tell you. But then you could say, "Well, but there's more here." And you begin to, you know that kind of empathetic imagination, try to understand what they're really doing. And then you can still do something that fits like a glove, or you can do something which actually creates new possibilities for them.

I was doing a house with a young family, and the situations were such – to try to get at their stories,  to build a world around them was really, really interesting. And there were a lot of paradoxes and conflicts between them and actually in the process of doing the house and getting those stories out, and world building the possibilities – not just the house – there was actually I think a lot of healing that was going on in that family. The daughter had a degenerative disease, and father was a doctor and mother was something else, and they couldn't help.

The beautiful thing about world building is that the process and the result are part of one in the same thing. And that's why when I help organizations, whether it's the RAND Corporation, or we create a whole new model world for the university, it's to begin to do that, to kind of collaborate towards that new world.

Colin: I could see where, whether it's at the scale of the family or a much bigger, not deeper challenge, but a larger-scale challenge, the way that wicked problems are perceived – that sort of intersection of social stuff and cultural stuff and built stuff, and all the different elements that we have a hard time, from any one discipline or set of practices, taking on. And recognize that they're all intertwined in all kinds of crazy and in often invisible ways, that getting in with that kind of depth and nuance would allow you to start to untangle, and understand those relationships in novel ways.

Ann: And the methodology is great for that, because you set all these containers, and then you ask the question. So you're kind of saying, "What am I missing?" It's a wonderful framework to begin to do that. And the projects I’ve done, some of them are world-building the future of something, like the research library, or an organization like RAND. Or a new model for something, like a whole new model for education. The beautiful thing is when you work with people, if you do it in the right way and they're all clients, you're not– you don't ask them to ever vote. You're just building richness together.

My job is to create the methodologies to get them to be audacious enough, and to begin to weave together the coherence into it. And it's really very effective that way. And the really, really exciting thing is that I can work with 160 people, 400 people, and we never vote. It's never like, "This was my idea." Because voting, you get the least common denominator, and nobody's interested.

But usually when the first real kind of synthetic thing is presented back to a large group of people, I have people come up to me, Colin, and they'll say, "You know, I was in on one of the first workshops and I'm hearing my words in what you're saying." So you don't ever have to do that awful thing which is "socialize the idea" – I hate that terminology – because they're building it together, and I'm just the architect that's helping create the environment – which I owe so much to Alex and Henry for that. And then I operate as an architect to give form, structure and coherence to the patterns that they're creating.

And there's quite a few people – I'm up at Stanford now, and the other day the conversation was can we do similar to what Spielberg did, and get the right people in the room and actually redesign democracy? And you can't forget capitalism if you do that, so it's like a little freaky and scary, but it's also it's exhilarating.

Henry: So I want to unpack a little bit some of the scales in which world building works in this conversation.

So in the most basic level we have a science fiction writer, like Bradbury or Asimov, who are conceiving of the kind of basic design rules of a world that is only gonna exist in words on a page.

Then the next level out would be Alex McDowell designing a world for a science fiction film, say by Spielberg, where the words on the page become material things, that stand in for the logics and relationships, the systems at play in the world.

Then a step up from that might be a kind of design-fiction provocation, like Rilao, where we're designing a world together in the real world, drawing on knowledge of various people, with the idea that it's not going to – Rilao is never going to exist – it's a way of thinking through problems together that have real world – that allow us to think about the real world in new ways. And we could call it a design fiction, and then it's a provocation through design to think in new ways.

And the next step out would be you as an architect literally building a world that emerged from this collaborative process that has real-world consequences.

So world building encompasses all of those levels, I think, and I just wanted to tease that out as we're thinking about the conversation we're having. Because we're moving between levels of fictiveness, levels of materiality, as we think about what a world would look like.

Ann: Absolutely, and I think it comes partly back to purpose. When I started working on transmedia, when you introduced that to me, Henry, there were people that said, "No, that's not transmedia. Transmedia is X. Or transmedia is X. That's not really, they're not really doing transmedia."

I began to realize that the motivations were what was different. And that the motivations then lead to the scale you're talking about. So you've got the New York crowd which is more motivated transmedia for marketing. You've got the West Coast – I think this was also again a breakfast conversation between us – where you've got the transmedia that's more storytelling. You've got what's going on in parts of Europe and Canada, where it's transmedia for social change. So there's these different things.

What I love in world building is you've got the world building which is, really, it's to try to play– it's about the delight of the world that gets created, and everybody can really enjoy that. And then there's the purpose, where you're actually trying to create– potentially provide a utopian or dystopian message. Again, for me, the most critical thing among world building is this idea of coherence. How do you have a coherent logic to the world so you can understand implications. And then you move into the other realms of understanding fiction.

But for me, what becomes really interesting is when you get to that place where you're using it to speculate on alternate realities. So when it comes to, for instance, helping a major organization do it, it's to do that, when it's at the scale of a university, it's what you're talking about: how can we create a new model for a university, that may have stuff in it and that stuff might be buildings on campus, but it also might be curriculum, but it also might be this social structure, right?

It then becomes, when it comes to wicked problems, which is what I'm doing now – and in RAND we're taking on homelessness in  this area – what we're world building now is a different state. So once you map the complexity of the problem – we're creating new templates for that – try to map the world, the problem space.  I don't like causality diagrams, but we're starting with things that are recognizable to the RAND crowd. And then you begin to say – which we're doing literally this morning – how do you create a new "what if" around that problem space?

One simple example is homelessness. A lot of the discussion is around, "people should have homes," right? But without understanding that the youth are different than the vets, are different than xxx. And it's always individual, let's get each individual a caseworker. So one guy came up with something which I could turn into a what-if, which is this notion of "what if in 2040, communities that were of housed and homed people, were actually responsible for coherent social units, (not individuals) of the homeless? So what if the homed take responsibility for the homeless, community-to-community? Not social worker (paid)-to-individual? What would that look like? And what would be the mechanisms then to get there?

And all of a sudden it completely broke them open. It wasn't, "here, let's map the problem space, and now let's find where the leverage is and create a policy." it was more, "how do we imagine a new state? How do we world build that state? What does it look like? And how do we get there?"

Colin: And so, Henry, that to me seems parallel overlapping with your civic imagination work, where you have this excuse, whether it's the what-if, or the periodicity, or whatever happens, that allows you to gain a different perspective, a different way for looking at the situation, and a different way to imagine what it could be, where you're not as bound, as sort of tied to where you see where you're currently seated, but can kind of stand up and move somewhere else.

Henry: Yeah, I think build on Stephen Duncombe's idea of the tyranny of the possible, the ways in which we self-edit or limit ourselves in imagining what possibilities might be for solving problems, by falling back on the grooves we've already dug, falling back on patterns of earlier choices we've made, a sense of constraint of options. The tyranny the possible is when we say, "It would be great to do this, BUT we can't afford it." or "It'd be great to do it, but we'll never get X to approve it." or "It'd be great to do it, but that'll never work." And I think world building is an interesting way of rethinking those underlying logics, so we can see what the field of possibilities may be, moving beyond limits.

But as we think about that, I'm wondering: design often depends on constraints, right? So is there a way to bring a kind of civic imagination – which is about moving beyond the limits of the possible – in dialogue with a design process, which is about recognizing and working around constraints? Is that something like what your pragmatic imagination gets to?

Ann: Yes and no.  Pragmatic imagination is one chapter in the book. One other chapter is one which I call "The Expanded Brief." And what's really interesting in "The Expanded Brief" is, sometimes we sort constraints by how many people feel it's a constraint. So the Eameses had a brilliant diagram where they said that the constraints belong to three different constituents. It's what the architect wants (think of a bubble diagram with the architect, and– those aren't bubbles they look like shoes), and then there's what the client wants, and the client may be several stakeholders. And then there's what society will allow. And they say, where those three things intersect, there's a design problem.

And I say the opposite: the whole field is the design problem. And then even the things you didn't think about. So the key is to begin to realize that constraints are often sorted for you. And how do you expand the problem, such that you get at those things that may be less tangible, and literally make them constraints? They are constraints. It's really important that people are happy. It's a constraint, right? So part of it is a reframing of it as well.

I think that this tyranny of the possible is so dead on. And why I love humour is because this is often the place that intelligent people will relax those constraints. And so one of the CASBS Fellows, a brilliant political lawyer, was talking about, it was a throwaway – and he's actually been doing part of the redistricting, to pull back on the gerrymandering, so he's a pretty prominent figure – and he threw it out there as a joke, you know, he really wants a Truth and Reconciliation process – a total joke, and everybody laughing, hahahaha – so he could point fingers.

And I said. "Well, you know what, that's not such a crazy idea." Because we have caused so much relaxing of norms, and creating new norms, that the idea that you would actually look at– that you have put together a process that would allow you to look at what happened, and begin to recalibrate for it. Because democracy was always meant to be worked on. That's what it is! It's just being worked on in a bad direction. And so everybody laughed, but I said, "You know, Nate, that's not a bad idea." And I brought it up at two more lunches until it began to catch on, until finally it was, Nate said, "I can't do it because I'm in a political hot spot right now." And I said, "Nate, I will help you write the article."

But this notion that his humour was the only place he allowed his imagination to work, because it was an unconstrained environment. That's the beauty: when can you entertain those things you would never entertain as viable? And world building isn't just saying, "Okay, now I’ll entertain it. What a great idea." It is to say, "What are the repercussions? What would it mean for this? What would it mean for that? Who would be involved? How would they be involved?" And when you can actually begin to allow yourself to play it out, only then can you go, "Maybe that's okay. Maybe that would work." But it's the way we stop ourselves at the barrier of constraints, and not see all the other things we could be doing.

Henry: So in some ways, if we think about science fiction and its origins, you know, the founders of American science fiction were very clear that they were trying to take existing technologies and scientific knowledge and push it to the limits to see what kinds of new thoughts would emerge – without breaking it, right – so the idea was to work within the limits of known science, but pursue ramifications of it that had not yet been achieved, or that had not yet been imagined. So it is imagination within constraints – I mean bad science fiction, space opera, is imagination without constraints – but the hard core notion of science fiction is precisely about acknowledging those constraints on reality, but pushing as far as we can to speculate and imagine other possibilities within that system.

Ann: A hundred percent. But I think what I'm saying is what I love about world building is that it's a procedure, as much as the rest of it, that actually asks you to fill in things you wouldn't have thought about. So when I look at traditional science fiction, you're getting on the page what the author has thought about. When you take the methodology where you say, here's my "what if", now I have to build it out. And you say, "What are the containers I'm going to build it out around? Oh, look, I haven't thought of any sociological containers. Oh, I should do this." I'm really, really into these  prosthetic frameworks that allow you to discover things you would not have discovered. So yes, I'm actually saying you would expand the constraints. You would even make more of them. Because every constraint is an opportunity.

The most brilliant part of a design problem for me is when when you have a conflict that you can then turn into a both/and. A paradox. Usually that's where the hardest proud of the problem is. At RAND, this is exactly what happened. We did all these workshops, and the patterns I was seeing form were a major conflict. There were the people – and that's why they hadn't gotten very far – with the Graduate School. So one is the group that says, "We are the trusted advisor. We are rigorous about our analysis to help you make the decision. But it's your job. You're the politician." And then you have the group that said, "RAND was started to change the world, and public policy was the way. I came here to be part of the action." So we redesigned the school around both. Holding the two, and adding the technologist into that as the kind of mediator, and the new thing in the mix that would allow us to do that.

So for me, the problem is wrestling and going after– it's like the hunt: What are more constraints? How do you even open the problem bigger and bigger? And that's what I love about the framework, about how you use the procedure to force you to fill in things you never would have even thought of.

Colin: That seems like, as you get a better sense of those constraints and you change the frame, you broaden the frame, then you can imagine, you see different patterns, right? It's at a whole different scale, level of abstraction, to understand how things flow. Which both help you to understand the system within which are operating – both in terms of the constraints, the limitations, and also the opportunities. And the ways that these things might connect that you might not otherwise...

Ann: And sometimes you find that some constraints don't matter anymore. When we've been world building the future of the university, new models, it's not that we ignored the problems that have been in all of the literature about what's wrong with higher ed – the two biggest ones being access and tuition. And we didn't ignore "Oh, technology will change the world," at least that rhetoric.

But when we started designing for the world now, and not fixing the Industrial Revolution model, we found that all of a sudden the budget and the access weren't even relevant. It wasn't that we'd solve them, they weren't even relevant as problems in our model. So to sit there and wrestle with them, as opposed to saying, "How do we define or frame all of the constraints of the world that's now a networked society?" that we were able to world build that. And then compare back and go, "Oh, look what we did! There's no budget problem."

Colin: It seems also that when you're moving ahead to the not-now, but to the future, as opposed to responding to the current conceptions of constraints, you sort of limit yourself to being able to fix some of those in some sort of modest way. Whereas by kind of stretching the possibility out much further into the future – I mean, not necessary time-future, but sort of to a different approach – that you allow us to say, "What do we want?" That sort of imagination, more in the realm of pragmatic imagination, right? Of like, "What's the world that we want to iterate, between what we are now and where we want to be?"

Ann: Right. And I take completely that constraints are part of design, and they are opportunities as well as challenges. But again, it's designing the constraint framework, as well still recognizing the ones that that are there, at the same time.

The other thing is I think that– so often JSB and I both talk about the crisis of imagination. I think this world building, I'm very much a believer that it's not just about better states and more desirables. We've got to also world-build the bad. Because if we don't, we don't see it coming, right? And so I think this is all part of the tool, if you will.

Colin: So what's an example of world-building the bad?

Ann: Well, for instance, there are often exercises that are done within the intelligence community, which is, you know, "Design the way to take down our country. Show me." And there's one story – it's JSB, so I don't know how much percentage of fact is in the story, and how much embellishment, but I really, really believe that there is major kernel of fact there, because I know a lot of people in DoD and intelligence. And they actually started down this exercise, and I really do believe he had something, but there was a point they said where they said, "No, we're gonna stop this exercise." It was just too scary. But the problem is, the bad guys get places first. They don't have the same moral grounding. This is a very robust thing, it's just really robust, and it gets the imagination going. And we really have a crisis of imagination, I think.

Colin: So what do we do about the crisis of imagination?

Ann: Now we're back to pragmatic imagination! [laughter]

No, the first is to understand that the imagination is not a precious thing for those people that are in the creative arts. Our whole trying to go to a spectrum. That even in the simplest, most rudimentary perception, you are employing that cognitive activity of putting images together to assimilate what you've seen. Which is why two people can see the same event and truthfully recount it differently, because they've assimilated– but to understand that the imagination is all the way through the process.

And some of it is sense-making, when do you use sense-breaking to actually move into a different realm? And then part of what pragmatic imagination tries to do is then: how do you scaffold these different kinds of imagination? How do you get them working when you need them? And then how do you begin to instrumentalize them?

My fascination for the Sherlock Holmes part of the imagination, where you're trying to reason a hard problem – wicked problems, so it's perfect for that – but you don't have enough facts to just put together. Neither do you have enough facts that filling in helps anything. You have to begin to just, "What if it were this? What if it were that? What if it..." That's abductive logic. And then see if the facts even match. And then how would you find out if it were true or not?

And that's that sense-breaking: allowing yourself to leave reality enough, and not just figure out, "You've got five things on the table. What do these five things mean?" Realizing that there are probably 25 other things you need, and these five are only a set of the whole thing. And that's for me the most exciting part of it. People get the Sherlock Holmes, especially the new Cumberbatch version of it. It's just done so well. People get that. So I'm always using that as the starting point.

The other is to not to not beat it out of our kids when they're little. That's how they learn. It's all imagination. And imagination is a muscle, and if you don't get off the couch, your other muscles decrepitize. And if you don't use your imagination, that one doesn't work very well either.

Colin: Yeah, it seems like it definitely  weaves throughout the education system, whether as parents, or through elementary, middle, high, higher education included. That there are, relatively speaking, so few opportunities to build those muscles, and that's just not part of the standard practice, in ways that seem really worrisome.

Ann: And we're in such a dialectical society. Because that RAND you've got the quants. And how do we bring in all this new stuff without it being – immediately they go to, "Well, if it's not the quant stuff, it's fluffy bunny stuff." The issue is, it's both/and. That's how even the most brilliant scientists move forward. That's how those brilliant doctors operate. It's this this ability to do both, and not necessarily, "One is serious and one's not. Prioritize one and not the other." We need to be ambidextrous.

Colin: I hear a lot of conscious ambidexterity, and iteration between different modes. So it's not just a mushy middle, with a little bit everything, but it's rather just being conscious about what you're doing in that moment, or the kind of approach you're taking.

Ann: And being able to move between the two. You know, as an architect we iterate a lot. And the more we do it, the smaller the intervals. So you do something, and then you subject it to rigorous analysis, against: "Well, what does it do for this person? What does it do for that person?" And then you do something, and they go, "Oh, but now I have a new idea." And you keep iterating back and forth. It's that absolute kind of blend. Ambidexterity: two hands. There's still two hands, it's just that you're using them both. And you're not using one one day and one the other day. You're using them in lockstep.

Henry: So I think this has a lot of implications for educational policy. I think since Sputnik, American educational policy has tended to be driven by STEM science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And occasionally I hear people talk about STEAM, which is when you put A for the Arts in the middle of STEM.

But my argument has always been that when you put A in the middle of STEM, you're simply putting the forms of arts that fit in the midst of context already created by science, technology, engineering, and math. Whereas what I'm hearing you saying is that imagination supersedes them. That the arts need to be more central to the process – the arts and the social sciences, the humanities, the ways we can imagine and conceptualize the world. Science and engineering become one resource we draw on as we do world building. But if world building is to become a core competency for the society, we need to take arts and humanities and social science education much more seriously than most schools are doing today.

Ann: Absolutely. As you know, if you're doing world building as prototyping something, or at least playing out possibilities, you're actually wrestling with things up against other things. You know, in Minority Report, you've got the security, but the security has bad sides to it as well. But it also affects the cars. And then there's the drug habits.  And this idea that you play it out through so many things, coherently, so that you can look at implications in situations that don't yet occur.

My problem with the A is that it, again, feeds right into the dialectic that imagination is for the arts side of the spectrum. As opposed to, imagination is the way we reason, is a cognitive function. You go into an fMRI and you can see it happening, right? It's a cognitive function through which we can also reason, as well as imagine way-out things and then test them against reality. So I 100% agree with you. And part of the biggest problem is that everything is in packages, is that it's STEM, or STEAM, when it should be <mashed together sound> you know, like, all just mashed together.

Henry: Yes.

Colin: So I'm realizing that you have to catch a plane in a few moments, and I just want to ask, is there anything else that you'd like to talk about in those few moments? Do you want to say anything about the upcoming books, publications where people can dig into this more? Any parting shots? Because otherwise we'll keep you here all night, and very happily, but–

ANN: Well, Pragmatic Imagination is both a good and bad place to start. Pragmatic Imagination, as you know, is one chapter of 19 chapters, which all of them are their own books. And so someone's called it a system of books, which I love. The idea that you could throw the cards down on a table and mush them up, and then you'd come out with a different reading. Rayuela, which was Cortázar's book, where you could read it different ways, was really different depending upon how you read it. But Pragmatic Imagination is on one hand the most esoteric, but maybe even the most useful of the chapters.

And the really, really cool thing is, like all design problems, which is what this book was, is that it took the entire book before I wrote Pragmatic Imagination. And we conversed and wrote over it with John Seeley Brown. But it was always there. It was the baby. It was the DNA. It was the genetic material.

But no, the big work is this 19th chapter of Design Unbound: Designing for Emergence in a White-Water World. "White-water world" being a story of my own kind of coming to terms with how the world changes from being a steamship, to being a sailboat, to being a white-water kayak. It's meant to be a toolset. It's very much a toolset for working, for agency in this world. And so it gives you a frame to think of the world differently, moving beyond reductionism and Darwinism. And then some tools that– it begins in architecture, but it marries architecture with complexity science and these humanities– these human, I'm gonna call them very human tools, of which world building is one.

Colin: Well, I'm totally looking forward to the rest of these works, to all the singles.

Ann: October. October!

Colin: In addition to being really happy that you joined us here today. I'm just so happy that you're on the case, and you haven't given up on higher education. That you're in the trenches fighting, and helping to facilitate that process of change, which is so needed and has so much potential.

Ann: It's the only real profession or whatever where you have a tangible effect on the future. It's the students. We are building the future when we educate people.


Colin: So for me, the connection between Alex and Ann was him sort of coming in – and obviously, part of the connection is them together co-creating this new space of world building, and the use of world building for taking on wicked problems, and exploring social cultural and practical dimensions of the worlds we live in, or might live in, in creative ways – but was Alex's, you know, coming from this production-design perspective, and having to do the research, and imagining, and creating this vibrant, realistic thing that held together in a coherent way, as an entertainment vehicle.

And I thought, Henry, your comments on how we're moving from stories to worlds, were really telling. So if you have Alex kind of starting in that point, from a more traditional Hollywood perspective, and then Ann kind of picking it up from an architectural perspective, and really leaning into the problem-solving aspects of it, to me it's a pretty remarkable trajectory, that gives us a sense of the art and the process. And the different ways that these skills and practices can be deployed and engaged.

Henry: Yeah, I think it struck me watching Ready Player One that Steven Spielberg is expressing a certain amount of ambivalence about the virtual. And about maybe his own role as the producer of blockbuster entertainment across the 80s and the 90s. Which is not an original comment, a lot of people have picked up on it.

I think what's coming out of the conversations in this [podcast] series is that the techniques that Ready Player One represents, that is the creation of virtual and augmented reality, the notion of immersive worlds that are richly detailed, games as a site of education – that these are things that in our time, are not used simply for escapism. That when Nonny de la Peña does virtual reality, it's to get us to pay more attention to the physical world, not less.

When Alex McDowell and Ann Pendleton-Jullian are attentive to world building, it's not to create a world that we want to escape into, and avoid our own, but to use that analytic skill of world building as a tool, to shift and fix problems in our real world. And we'll hear next week as we think about games, that educators are using serious games, the mastery that serious games create, as a way of encouraging learning, and getting deeper inside domains of knowledge.

So I think part of what we're trying to do in these conversations is puncture this myth of escapism, and the sense that we need to turn the computer off twice a week in order to engage in the real world, and instead say these people invested in these technologies and these techniques are already very concerned with the world we're living in, and what we can learn about the world around us by engaging through these virtual technologies.

Colin: Yeah, and I think it's more realistic, in the sense that the more we're connected digitally, the more that we want to be connected physically – I don't think for most of us it's one or the other. You know, we send lots of email, but then we want to meet in person. And I don't think it's also realistic, you know this idea of– Nonny was apoplectic about turning it off twice a week.

I do think it underscores that escapism is a problem, and that addiction and the way that these devices are designed and rolled out is not necessarily with our best interests in mind, and they're not helping– technologies are not designed for us to help manage our technology use. Because the business models and the attention economy and so on, they're designed to get you to want to touch your phone more times. And that's how many of these things are deployed.

So I think there is a there is a legit critique in here that says technology, in my view isn't working the way that we would want to work, it where it enhances human interconnection, and it goes away when you don't want it, and it's vibrant when you do want it. So I think there's work to be done there.

But my clear takeaway is in alignment with yours, which is that it's not one or the other, it's both/and. And it's figuring out how to make them work for us appropriately, and when to be deployed, and when to be using which, and how to get the technology to fade away when appropriate, and to come front and center when that's what we want.

Henry: So yeah, I'm struck watching the film that, you know, much of the evil side of it is invested in the evil corporation, which is willing to cheat and use armies to try to win the competition, but also has a vision of a online world that's completely dominated by advertising, where there is no net neutrality, where everyone works for the Evil Corp.

Colin: And it's a terrible user experience to boot. [laughter]

Henry: Yeah, exactly, right? It's that, and then we have the benign designer, who somehow is exempt from that critique, but still also is seen  as kind of socially isolating, as in his shell, too shy to really engage with the world around him. So we see a negative side there, of being too invested, as a fanboy and a geek, in the virtual world.

And what's buried just beneath the surface, there, are some other images, I think, of what we could do with the technology, right? We see some hints in the film – much more developed in the book – of a political underground that's resisting power through the use of tracking tools and digital technologies. We see some signs of modding and creating new content, or recreating iconic content on the gamer side. We see some sense of playing with avatars and shifting our identities in order to forge new kinds of social relations.

The educational uses of the technology are completely left out of the film. But, you know, the film gives us a range of models, but it tends to simplify it down to a world where most of the media is corporate media, and there's relatively little space for grassroots media or expression in the digital terrain as described there.

Colin: And that's even before the Evil Corp is taken over, right? That's like, the current state of affairs is bad, and it's at risk of getting worse. And that's under the ostensibly benevolent creator.

Henry: I like the film better than I expected, given my low expectations going in. I think some of it is the ways in which it implicates us in the nostalgia that it is simultaneously critiquing. And I find even the harshest critics of the film find something – begin to see, say, some aspect of pop culture that it references as sacred. One of the critics who was blasting the fans for being overly invested in 80s and 90s nostalgia, still used the term "blasphemy" to describe what the film did with The Shining. And by the  time you are using the word blasphemy to describe remixing practices, then I think you're probably invested pretty heavily in a nostalgia for the 80's and 90's pop culture yourself!

Colin: Yeah, I mean, I remember really enjoying the 80s and 90s pop culture in the book, because it was just sort of reminding me of pieces of my life that I had forgotten, and somehow offering legitimacy and connection and so on. And the movie wasn't– for me, I didn't have as palpable an experience. Perhaps because there was less of it, or because the things in there didn't connect to me as much. But I don't feel like the nostalgia-ness was fully developed – or it was developed, as you say, differently in the book from the movie.

Henry: Well, I think I noted in my conversation with Alex that I was struck that, in the book, the knowledge – what we're interested in is the designer's knowledge and the fans' mastery over that knowledge, in order to understand conceptually what's at stake in that culture. In the Spielberg film, it's the emotional life of the designer, as expressed through the culture that he's invested in. So in one we're trying to understand his head. In the other we're trying to understand his heart. And there's a kind of implication about what we think fandom is, that's built into those things.

I think throwing the educational part out the window, as the film does, further devalues the kind of knowledge, skill, communicative capacity, that the fans display in the book, that are lost in the film. We really are about intuiting and having an empathetic relationship to this one man, as opposed to mastering the complex domains of knowledge that are going on. In the book, the characters, for example, have to recite whole scripts from memory, right? They are involved– they have to recreate the dialogue of some of their favourite films. Here, when we get into The Shining, at best you need to navigate the physical space. But it's all in the service of finding our way to the dance that the designer never went to.

So it's ultimately not about mastering the intellectual, but about getting inside the head of this one person. Alex seemed to think that was better storytelling. It's certainly more what Spielberg is associated with. He's a filmmaker of the heart. But I think it reduces a lot of the complexities of what Ready Player One as a novel was trying to do.

Colin: Yeah, I mean, my very unsophisticated way of describing was it felt a little more juvenile to me. And I have no problem with films that aim at the heart. I'm a sucker for those. But it didn't it didn't engage me in the same way as the book, for sure. But I also wonder, to the conversation you had with Alex, is around the gendered nature of that, and how that plays to different fans differently, and how that how much that aligns with gender.

Henry: I think one of the big things that happened between when the book came out and when the film came out was Gamergate. So almost all of the critical response to the film I’ve seen, particularly the negative response, has been shaped by the sense that this male-centered fan narrative of mastering pop culture and proving your mettle by solving problems is a kind of toxic masculinity, right? There's that there's a pathologization of fanboy/gamer masculinity right now.

That's not necessarily undeserved, because there have been some really harsh things going on within that community. I hate to see that speak for the entire community, because I know that there have been many male and female gamers who abhor what happened with Gamergate, who are outraged by that particular perspective, see themselves closed out of the gamer world by those attitudes. And I don't think we have to associate the kind of connection to pop culture that the book represents to that Gamergate ethos that has so coloured our sense of what gaming means as a cultural phenomenon in recent years.

But I think stepping away from mastery, toward empathy, is maybe in part a response to the backlash on Gamergate, and the anxieties that have surrounded their kind of self-proclaimed "rationality" on the part of these angry white male fans that have gone after women and people of colour as they've been involved with gaming. I think that the film struggles with how to how to tell a story that isn't caught in the tar pit of that post-Gamergate attitude, and is looking for a way to reconnect us as fans to the story about– that unabashedly celebrates our relations with popular culture.

Colin: I appreciate attention to Gamergate, but if it is as you say, that's sort of unfortunate that it came out that way. I'm eager to talk more with our colleagues at UC Irvine about it this Friday, so that'll be a chance to dive in. Is there anything else that we want to say about world building, and more about Ann and Alex's other set of practices?

Henry: Well, I think these tools are proving to be really incredibly useful in a wide variety of contexts. And I think where I ended my conversation with Alex, was thinking of world building as a kind of social literacy, that in fact we need to think about more fully.

People have talked about visualization as a social literacy. People have talked about design literacy, or systems thinking as– but world building combines all of those things. It's a way of thinking in a multidisciplinary way, a multi-axial way, about a complex set of problems, and seeing how they're connected with each other. But also moving beyond the current state.

So the work we've been doing in the Civic Imagination is precisely about using world building to think about the future of social problems, and get us outside of the what Steven Duncombe calls the tyranny of the possible, the sense that we can't do anything at the current time. That by extending the horizon, by thinking into the future as we think about what it is to build a new world, we can think more creatively about those problems, and can imagine them with more depth and more dimensionality than we normally think about the future.

Colin: And for me, where the world building becomes so compelling is just, in that, you have this environment in which you can tell, in some sense, how things work, right? You can understand the interaction among these many different forces, which are otherwise sort of abstract, or disconnected, or harder to think about how we might respond to.

So that all-encompassing and in a different space – because of whatever discontinuous action happened, or whatever assumptions we made to create this world – to me feels like it taps into your work, and so much of what we talked about with Ann, the pragmatic imagination, and these other skills that we have, and that we're essentially, we're running low on, but we really need to develop, as we take on ever bigger and more complex social challenges.

Henry: And I was inspired was excited to hear Ann talk about the Rilao Project, which I had a chance to be part of that process several years ago. Alex had organized a two- or three-day weekend where hundreds of experts and different disciplines got together and made literally 300, 400 artefacts of that culture in a weekend. Creating mini-narratives, using game-like tools to spark the creative juices. People designing menus for restaurants in that imaginary world, describing what the theatre looked like, what funeral rituals look like, what a rail timetable might look like.

All creative ways of thinking together about the environmental and urban-design problems that were posed by that merging of Rio de Janeiro and Los Angeles into a single imagined geographic space. And seeing the scale in which world building could take place, and seeing the ways people of such different expertises as could find common ground by imagining a world together, was truly inspirational. And both Ann and Alex have inspired a lot of the work my research group has been working on lately.

Colin: I love that, as you point out, the connection between the sort of micro thing of that restaurant menu with the macro world, you know – that it can kind of you can go from the one-foot level to the 50,000-foot level, and trace those threads, pull those threads together.

It does bring me back to a conversation that Nonny and I had, or part of our conversation, and maybe we also talked about it, how the world in Ready Player One, the actual, the real world, was not really very well built. Right? [laughter] It was kind of  weirdly under-built – the set, his trailer looked to me right out of 1970s something, right down to the Doritos bag, almost though– I assume that was very much on purpose. And the rest of the world didn't really feel like a world. As opposed to the in-world, in-Oasis world, where each of those was vibrant and had its own feel and rules and so on.

Henry: I imagine one of the implications of the film is that people have stopped growing and imagining in the real world as they become deeper immersed in the virtual world. And that would account for why we don't see any pop culture references for anything in the present or the near future in that film. There no contemporary pop culture references in that film. This is a  sense of nostalgia closing things down.

But I think the problem of that world goes beyond that, right? It's not that it's simply static or turning inward on itself. It's not just that it's decaying and the stacks are collapsing. It's that it's just not well fleshed-out. Where you see it is, the parts that should feel new, the corporate headquarters sequences, there's not a lot of detail there. There's not a lot of fleshing out of what the elites live like in that society. I think the book does a much better job of describing people with different class backgrounds, how they live, the contrast between them, gives us some detail of what their lifestyles are like apart from the virtual world. And that's I think all the stuff that just gets cut out of the book as we streamline to tell a fairly simple Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory kind of story.

Colin: Yeah, he says at the beginning, people just stopped caring about the world. They stopped doing anything about it. But I agree  with you wholeheartedly. I mean Nonny was also pretty frustrated by how lame the goggles looked. They kind of looked like ski goggles from the 70s. And the suits, the haptic suits, also sort of looked cheesy. I felt like they were designed basically to make the main bad guy look bad in a suit, wearing that thing. But it was that sort of production design element – they seemed a little funny.

Henry: Especially given how rich Spielberg's production design work frequently is. Including a couple of films done by Alex McDowell.

Colin: Well, we'll have to get Steven in here to talk about that, or whoever did the production design.

Henry: We probably should allow equal time. [laughter] So, Steven, if you're listening to this, you can come in and we'll give you a little more airtime to defend your film on our podcast.

Colin: All right, I think that's a wrap.

The name of our show is, " How Do You Like It So Far?" So, how do you like it so far? Let us know! Write us at

Thanks to our producers, Sean Meyers and Andrea Allicot, and our colleagues at the University of Southern California. 


For more on Ann Pendleton-Jullian's thinking and design practice, check out her TED x video, "Power and Ecosystems of Change".