PUSH The Future, an ongoing effort by Cecily Sommers and the PUSH Institute in Minneapolis to gather various perspectives, elements and dynamics of what goes into creating “a” future, was held June 10-12 at the Walker Art Institute in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. The result was a dynamic and challenging experience—a black-room theater performance with lots of plot, but no neat resolution.
Sommers has the kind of eclectic background (read: restless intellect) that serves futurists well. She comes across as one who is steadily seeking to divine meanings and connections beneath and between the various and often disparate puzzle pieces that, at some point in hindsight, can be identified as having gone into creating whatever future is being discussed. Knowing what pieces are relevant, and what connections are meaningful, of course, is the art of it. Other futurists deal with algorithms, statistical methodologies and their own black boxes. Sommers offers a different paradigm: a stew of dynamics, data, perspective and potential that attendees must, in many ways, assemble themselves. It is less definitive and intentionally less predictive than other models. For linear learners, it offers a less coherent content organization to ‘connect’ with, but is more intellectually challenging in its open-endedness.
For those attending this year’s conference (number 6) it was also the most explicitly personal. Sommers’ role through the conference was as a kind of docent to insights and questions about the different puzzle pieces she brought to the attention of conferees. In a post-conference interview, she indicated that there is a dynamic tension between PUSH wanting to respond to some whose interests are in hearing more of these personal messages from her, and some whose interests are in hearing less. “Ultimately,” she asserted, “it’s not about me, and we will explore new ways to get more engagement from those attending next year.”
Sommers clustered her presenters into groups: Power Train/A Shifting World Order, Power Surge/The Energy Revolution, Power Players/Exceeding Numbers and Expectations, and Power Tools/Cultural Narratives and Media Mixes. Presenters ranged from performance artists Sally Rouse and Desdamona to Clyde Prestowitz, founder and president of the Economic Strategy Institute and Grzegorz Kolodko, director of TIGER at the Warsaw School of Economics and key architect of post-Soviet Polish economic reforms, icons of social conscience such as Alan Greig and Amanda Jones, to media docents Amy Mitchell and Scott Rafer, formerly of Feedster and MyBlogLog, and now CEO and co-founder of Mashery.
PUSH also ushered in a new feature this year, the Emerging Leaders contest. Four individuals who had applied to present ideas on products and concepts that could change the future gave short presentations to the conferees and a panel of judges. The winner was Dale Rosendahl, a principal in a corn-byproduct fuel technology that seemed particularly relevant to a futures conference crowd. Mr. Rosendahl won a $10K prize from Fish and Richardson, an intellectual property law firm, as well as a notice in Fast Company and a speed-dating set of contacts from the judges’ rolodexes ( ‘rolodice’?). Sommers noted that this feature, while valuable, took a large amount of conference time, and its value and initial form were to be re-evaluated for next year.
Attendees mirrored the program, with a diverse mix of professional backgrounds, for-profit and non-profit organizations, consumer-facing interests and broader policy perspectives. The advertising strategy that included Fast Company’s sponsorship and advertising seems to have pushed market awareness of the conference to a new level. Attendance was almost 300, and the size of the crowd and the conference venue made it a very comfortable event. The reach of the conference is still pretty regional; approximately 62% of the attendees reported they were from the Midwest.
Unscientific polling of some conferees produced a range of responses, from the effusive enthusiasm of those at ‘an event’ to more considered and reserved thoughtfulness about the lack of clarity on the ‘takeaways.’ Nobody interviewed thought poorly of the conference, however, and the extent to which PUSH succeeds in engaging attendees next year in more of a sense of content coherence and social community will probably strongly influence the conference’s own future.
The focus for the next several PUSH conferences was announced: the focus in 2008 will be on “The Great Divide,” and will seek to ‘study those realms of human society experiencing the deepest fissures and widest gaps: Economics, Politics, Religion and Technology.’ Those interested in more information can go here.
The bottom line: PUSH 2007 was an extra-ordinary event, as conferences go. It’s different in quality, content, orientation, and attendance than most of what else is out there. If the Institute is successful in addressing some of the weaknesses in this year’s event, PUSH 2008 should be a time to remember.
At some point in the future.
- Stephen Bolles
Open Health Media