John Seely Brown
Chief of Confusion

Why Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Change the World

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From an evolutionary standpoint, which traits are most adaptive to a historical moment in which old certainties have vanished and anything is possible? According to Seely Brown, they include bravery, creativity, and a sense of play

John Seely Brown

John Seely Brown is a visiting scholar and advisor to the Provost at University of Southern California(USC) and the Independent Co-Chairman of theDeloitte Center for the Edge. 

Prior to that he was the Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation and the director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)—a position he held for nearly two decades.  While head of PARC, Brown expanded the role of corporate research to include such topics as organizational learning, knowledge management, complex adaptive systems, and nano/mems technologies.  He was a cofounder of the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL).  His personal research interests include the management of radical innovation, digital youth culture, digital media, and new forms of communication and learning. 

John, or as he is often called—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 and of AAAS and a Trustee of theMacArthur Foundation.  He serves on numerous public boards (Amazon, Corning, and Varian Medical Systems) and private boards of directors. 

He has published over 100 papers in scientific journals and was awarded the Harvard Business Review's 1991 McKinsey Award for his article, "Research that Reinvents the Corporation" and again in 2002 for his article “Your Next IT Strategy.”

In 2004 he was inducted in the Industry Hall of Fame.

With Paul Duguid he co-authored the acclaimed book The Social Life of Information (HBS Press, 2000) that has been translated into 9 languages with a second addition in April 2002, and with John Hagel he co-authored the book The Only Sustainable Edge which is about new forms of collaborative innovation. He is currently working on two new books – The New Culture of Learning with Professor Doug Thomas at USC and The Big Shift: From Pull to Push with John Hagel. 

JSB received a BA from Brown University in 1962 in mathematics and physics and a PhD from University of Michigan in 1970 in computer and communication sciences.  He has received five honorary degrees including:  May 2000, Brown University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science Degree; July 2001, the London Business School conferred an Honorary Doctor of Science in Economics; May 2004, Claremont Graduate University granted him an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters; May 2005, University of Michigan awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, and May 2009, North Carolina State University awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Science Degree. 



John Seely Brown: The question of why this incredible set of change happening around us now is really an opportunity or a blessing in disguise I think comes back to kind of a recognition that this particular moment in time I like to think of as a Cambrian moment.  It’s a moment where everything is being disrupted.  Everything is being thrown up in the air.  Something very curious happens when everything is being disrupted -- institutions, technologies, personal lives, governments, so on and so forth.

In this moment of disruption then is a period in which things are filtering back down again and kind of a kneeling to a new state so to speak.  When things are kind of a kneeling to a new state, small moves smartly made can make amazing things happen.  So in a sense, this is a period in which small moves can actually make a huge difference if you’re willing to step back and embrace change rather than just fear change.

It’s more important than ever that we get out of our comfort zone.  I think to ask CEOs, “Tell me something you’ve done that was on the edge, something that you were kind of nervous by.  Did you go to a new type of event?  Did you go to a conference where you weren’t necessarily the expert?  How much time do you spend on the edge of things that you don’t really master and you throw yourself into them in order to kind of experience it more fully?”  I think it’s all too easy to stay fixed in a rut and not get out here and experience.

I think imagination and play actually go hand-in-hand because let’s face it: the game today is, how do you connect the dots?  There’s no one central message.  There are lots of little signs of things happening as we have this kind of explosion.  The catch is, to connect the dots basically you have to be willing to have imagination -- not just what has been but what could be.  So you start thinking about new possible worlds.  What could I now make possible today that I never could before?  So instead of just kind of fighting the old system you can start to imagine complete new worlds.  

You can imagine new forms of education that now become possible with the Internet and all kinds of other types of capabilities surrounding that.  We don’t have to think about just getting educated by going to classical schools.  Now you can get educated in brand new ways.  

So I think that the key to kind of feel really excited or this kind of take this as an adventure is this willingness to say, “Let me connect the dots, but also let me tinker with the system.”  If you’re willing to kind of not just feel like you have to live in the past but look for what are the opportunities to change the name of the game, this is a magical period.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd