John Seely Brown: Rethinking Public Policy at Pardee RAND

Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

Donor Profile: John Seely Brown

John Seely Brown wants the students at Pardee RAND Graduate School to shake the world, to reimagine the very meaning of public policy in the 21st century—to become “productive thorns in the sides of the sage.”

John Seely Brown calls himself the Chief of Confusion. He spent his career seeking answers as the chief scientist of Xerox Corporation and the director of its vaunted Palo Alto Research Center. Now he makes his name with questions, probing for hidden patterns and weak signals, welcoming the confusion that comes with never knowing where they might lead.

He got his start in the early days of California's tech industry. “RAND was Mecca to a lot of us,” he said. “It was famous for radically reframing the solutions to pressing problems that no one could make much progress on. It was truly cutting edge—thinking the unthinkable.”

That kind of research—of asking the right questions—has become more important than ever in this era of dizzying technological change, Brown said. It's what brought him to Pardee RAND, the graduate school founded at RAND more than forty-five years ago to train the next generation of cutting-edge thinkers and policy analysts. RAND's president and CEO Michael D. Rich has called it the organization's “engine of innovation.”

Brown has been steadfast in his philanthropic support of Pardee RAND, and has served on its Board of Governors since 2013. The school, with no traditionally tenured professors tying it to old ways of thinking, is almost uniquely positioned “to craft an honest-to-God 21st-century approach to the kinds of policy questions we're walking into,” he said.

“It's a new game,” he added, “and we need a new public-policy tool set.”

He points for an example to home-share apps like Airbnb, which have transformed neighborhoods before local planning boards could even schedule a hearing. Or to ride-hailing apps like Uber, which have muscled out taxis in some cities before local regulators even had time to set the ground rules.

The public policies of tomorrow will have to account for machines that can learn, for banking transactions and currencies that exist only online, for autonomous cars navigating the split-second hazards of a drive through town.

“Pardee RAND has the chance to completely revise how students get trained to think about public policies … for the 21st century.”

“They are going to encounter problems that the designer never thought about,” Brown said. “It's a state of confusion. We're changing stuff every six months. We may need to completely rethink what is public policy.”

Brown has a metaphor for this new reality that he attributes to his colleague Ann Pendleton-Jullian: It's like a white-water river, fast and ever changing, requiring a careful reading of the currents and some hard paddling to stay off the rocks. Or to the evolutionary surge that transformed a barren Earth into a world of life, the so-called Cambrian Explosion.

“This is a Cambrian moment,” he says. “This is a time when Pardee RAND has the chance to completely revise how students get trained to think about public policies—thinking these things through for the 21st century. In a world of radical change, I think that's a damn good question.”

“Tell me any place better than RAND,” he adds, “to think the unthinkable.”