A wider worldview

Cecily Sommers, founder of The Push Institute, a futurist think tank, speaks with MWP about stamping out shortsightedness and making change

Cecily Sommers, founder of The Push Institute, a futurist think tank. Photo by Amber Procaccini.

Cecily Sommers, founder of The Push Institute, a futurist think tank. Photo by Amber Procaccini.

Stamping out shortsightedness and spreading change literacy is the purpose of The Push Institute, a futurist think tank based in Minneapolis and headed by Cecily Sommers. The organization aims to understand forces of change. The Minnesota Women’s Press spoke with Sommers in late April.

How did The Push Institute evolve? Where did the idea come from?

I perceived a need to give people some time out-to take a wider view of the world-so that they could be more effective. The general principle is that we all do a lot better when we can pick our heads up from what occupies us on a daily basis in order to get perspective. Our lives are so crowded. To let that [wider perspective] in is really not a privilege we take very often.

You call yourself a futurist. What does that mean to you?

Someone who studies forces that shape the future and makes them come to life. Futurists are people who are trying to see out a little further than their noses. It is a tricky title. I also refer to myself as a global trends analyst-looking at ideas that are pushing the future in new directions.

How do you think humans make change? Why are we not always so good at it?

We imagine the future based on our memory. We can only conceive of a future that is as big or as wide as our memory sets are. One of the things that is really critical for our ability to invent or imagine new possibilities is to actually start pouring in new memories. We have to take in new experiences, new information and new ways of seeing and thinking. It is the mash up of all those things that make for really good problem solving.

How do you spark people to think in new ways?

What we want to do is to go to museums, play with things physically, to have delight and to laugh. There is a state of play that really enhances insight.

And, we really, really respond. Our brains fire best when there is some kind of sensory input. You need to feel your way there before you can put language on it. The neuroscience is such that the part of our brain that we use as language shuts down the right side of our brain. It is hard to do both at the same time.

We need to pour in new experiences and stir it up-new information to get new ideas.

Change can be hard. How can we be more comfortable with change, to welcome and embrace change?

Change is hard. We are wired for comfort and security. Our brains and instincts will choose certainty over ambiguity every single time even if certainty is a bad choice in the long run. We like things that we know even if it works against our best interest.

One way to entertain change is that we just have to experience more new things. We are all busy. And our worlds get increasingly tight. We have to take care of the household and work life and immediate relationships and that is about it.

So whatever we can do to loosen it up and continue to be intentionally pouring in and stirring allows us to see new possibilities.

“Newing” is a big part of the answer of how we can get better at change.

You work with “but busters.” What is that?

As soon as we go into unfamiliar territory, what comes out is: “But it won’t work.”

We need to give ourselves permission to completely go into fantastical imagining like, what it would be like if? … if we could have it all? Or, I wonder what it would be like if the sky really did fall? What would I make of it?

[A person really needs to] entertain the possibilities fully and then when it gets to planning, factor reality back in. Ask how does that happen, how do we get there, how much money, how would we know?

Do you see gender trends in your work?


Globally-there is so much more attention now on economic development through empowering women and the recognition of the book, “Half the Sky,” and so many others. Give women a little bit of resource and they are very powerful engines of economic growth, social wholeness, all kinds of things.

That has never been supported to the degree that it is now. There is a real awareness now. We have to bear in mind however-another trend in the development community-is to say that we can’t solely focus on women and children alone. When we talk about gender equity we have to support the men as well.

Where do you find hope and where do you get discouraged?

The balance of human nature is where I find both of those. We are capable of tremendous passion and ingenuity. Examples are in everyday life.

We have small-mindedness that runs the short term.

Creature comforts. Power. We tend to do that with little regard for the impact elsewhere.

We have to apply 5 percent [of our energy] to “newing,” to wondering and really exploring how does the world work, what should we be thinking about, what are some of the best questions we can ask? I am curious about … I am thinking about …

That exploratory activity is really, really important. We have to apply as much structure and rigor and reward to that as we do to our get-it-done task list.

The combination I see is a great amount of curiosity and courage. I think optimism, too. There has to be a sense of drive and energy, a little bit of “Yes we can,” which is not to override any real obstacles, but if we are going to enact change in our own lives we’ve got to have that driving force.