Ranulph Glanville

Ranulph Glanville (13 June 1946 – 20 December 2014) was an Anglo-Irish cybernetician, design researcher, theorist, educator and multi-platform artist/designer/performer, who was professor of research in Innovation Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art, London, professor of research design in the Faculty of Architecture Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and adjunct professor of design research at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University, Melbourne. He was known for his contributions in the field of design research, and cybernetics.[1][2]

Glanville maintained a small art practice including music, video, architecture, publishing, writing and installation/land art as well as design and architecture. He has organized international conferences, exhibitions and performances, as well as taking part in them. He was internationally regarded as a lecturer, keynote speaker and consultant. He held several other professorial posts in a variety of specialisms, at universities around the world. He was Vice President of the American Society for Cybernetics for one term, from 2006 to 2009, and President of the American Society for Cybernetics for two terms, from 2009 to 2014 inclusive.

He was the PhD advisor of Leon van Schaik, Ted Krueger, and Ben Sweeting.


Family and education

Glanville's father, George Grosvenor Glanville (who died when Glanville was 8), was a mechanical, civil and electrical engineer, soldier, barrister-at-law, patent officer and inventor. His mother, Cecil Tindall, was a musician, teacher, gardener and home maker, who later married John Rodie Peters, a school music director, another significant personal influence.

Glanville’s education was persistently liberal, as was the education he offered others. He was particularly influenced by the individuality and assumed personal responsibility in Froebel’s kindergarten movement and the great British liberal school, Bryanston. He attending the radical Architectural Association School in London from 1964 to 1967 and 1969 to 1971, where he gained a diploma.

In his final year, cybernetician Professor Gordon Pask arranged a fellowship so Glanville could study for a doctorate (PhD) in cybernetics at Brunel University with Professor Heinz von Foerster as examiner in 1975. He followed this with another PhD, also at Brunel, in human learning under Professor Laurie Thomas and Professor Gerard de Zeeuw as examiner in 1987. Brunel awarded him an examined higher doctorate (DSc) in cybernetics and design in 2006.

Working life

Finding little work in cybernetics in the UK, Glanville worked in the general field of design education (including architecture) over the majority of his life. From 1971, the Architectural Association employed him as difficult but passionate. In 1978 he moved to Portsmouth University, then Portsmouth Polytechnic School of Architecture, where he taught all aspects of architecture and associated subjects until 1996. He became a freelance academic, working in a variety of jobs around the world also holding part-time regular posts.

Glanville’s approach to research and practice was often multi-disciplinary and usually avantgarde and cutting edge. For instance, with colleagues Dr Richard Bunt, John Pitchford and George Woolston, he was in the mid 1960s a pioneer in pre-synthesiser live electronic music performance, and the action collaging and montaging of partial recordings made during an event to provide a cumulative piece at the conclusion of the evening’s event. He created sound installations as an early form of acoustic VR. He is both true to his different areas of interest, and crosses subjects seeking analogies that reveal hidden, shared structures. His engagement has been very wide and he has worked with many colleagues, helping develop and support their work, and the fields they work in.

Amongst the most significant are the 8 years he worked with Professor Gerard de Zeeuw as co-director of the Dutch Government research programme in social action at the University of Amsterdam, “Support Survival and Culture” (1985–1993); and the dozen years working with Professor Leon van Schaik AO (1996–2008), at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University in Australia, and later with Professor Johan Verbeke at Sint-Lucas School of Architecture in Belgium (from 1997 to his death), developing doctoral programmes based in architectural and design practice itself, rather than shaped from outside the field.

Glanville’s working life involved extensive service: on the committee of festivals; society boards; chairing and organising conferences and competitions; collecting and editing conference proceedings, festschrifts, collections, commemorations and so on. A selection of about a third of his (more than 400) publications has been published as the 3 volume set, “The Black Boox”. For 21 years from 1994 until 2015 he wrote a regular column as well as other articles (totalling 60) for “Cybernetics and Human Knowing”, a journal of second order cybernetics. He has come to see cybernetics and design as “opposite sides of the same coin”.

As outgoing President of the American Society for Cybernetics (a subject he saw as both a subject in its own right, and a subject that—like mathematics—can throw light on other subjects), he commented on and brought together other, different subjects mainly through establishing analogies. The American Society for Cybernetics recognised the contribution made by both his wife and himself to the society in a Special Award (2014). He was the first non-North American officer of the society. Major changes were achieved during his terms in office. He was also (founding) vice-president of the International Academy for Cybernetic and Systems Sciences.


Ranulph Glanville has a son Severi (born 1974) with his first wife Finnish architect Tuulikki Leskinen (born 1948). He was married to the Dutch physiotherapist, Aartje Hulstein (1950-2016), and lived in Southsea, on the south coast of England.


Glanville’s lifelong and continuing concern was to design frameworks that support many different understandings and interpretations. He did this in the arts, in education, and in creating cybernetic systems that support individual interpretation as their sine qua non. He explained his approach using the analogy of creating a sports ground, rather than playing, refereeing or viewing (in whichever way) the sports the grounds facilitate.

However, he also liked to play: this is where (metaphorically) his own practice shone and his own voice was heard most clearly.


Glanville’s work in cybernetics covered a wide range, in part because his approach was to abstract and distill but also because of the opportunities that arose in writing his regular column. Special areas of interest included his “Theory of Objects”—a theory he argued, second order cybernetics cannot properly work without—and Black Box Theory. He developed connections between cybernetics and design, being credited by some with the creation of a new (sub-) field. His main interest was to design frameworks that support many different understandings and interpretations.

He characterised cybernetics as “the art of balancing complementarities in circularities.”


Glanville’s attitude to research was somewhat purist: that it should originate in the field being researched, itself—rather than as a series of approaches and techniques imported from fields outside. He saw theorising as a practice and argued against the dominance of pre-fabricated methods. He placed practice on the same level as theory, arguing that understanding is shaped as much by action as action is shaped by understanding.


Glanville developed an understanding of the act of designing that is in contrast to the engineering approach of specifying problems to create solutions. He saw design as primarily concerned with the creating of novelty, meaning (in contrast to the dominant Western approach, but in accord with Rittell’s understanding of “Wicked Problems”) that the solution specifies the problem. His primary metaphor was design as a form of cybernetic conversation, which is where he located the “coin” of which he sees design and cybernetics as being opposite sides. He saw one important aspect of this way of thinking to be the preservation of a variety of approaches to thinking, a sort of maintenance or even growth of an intellectual ecology. Turing held a similar view concerning the relation of human thinking and machine intelligence: you would not expect a computer to think in the same way as a human, but that does not mean it is not thinking. Glanville believed we should curate our different modes of thinking, rather than moving towards uniformity.

Science studies and philosophy

Glanville understood science as a system of viable (and delightful) man-made explanations. Truth, he saw as lying in this viability. He argued an unashamedly constructivist position. Assuming a second-order cybernetic epistemology based in circular causality and observer involvement (he later changed the word observer for composer). Amongst the advantages of this position is the room left for novelty, and the genuine dependence on testing viability. Science also becomes more transient, more “in the flow” (Glanville claimed all research is designed); and the philosophical position becomes more one of interaction and engagement than of objective fixity.


In spite of his abstract, distilled, purist streak, Glanville mixed and brought together material, approaches and understandings from many different fields, allowing those thinking within the structures he designed much room for individual manoeuvre and interpretation. This is not a science of absolutes, but a science of enquiry and of development. The world as Glanville saw it is no longer clockwork but ineffable, though its explanations and frameworks should be deeply mechanistic and logical.

Selected publications

Glanville wrote more than 170 articles and papers about both architecture, cybernetics and psychology.[3] A selection:


  1. Hallnäs, Lars, and Johan Redström. "Slow technology–designing for reflection." Personal and ubiquitous computing 5.3 (2001): 201-212.
  2. Downton, Peter. Design research. RMIT Publishing, 2003. p. 54; p. 125-7
  3. List of Papers, publications and Writings by Ranulph Glanville.

External links

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