We sat down with social innovation guru, Allyson Hewitt, to discuss the power Possibility Thinking has in creating change, and how children are the real innovation gurus.
FPK: Would you starting by telling us a little bit about yourself and what you do here at MaRS?
Allyson: My name is Allyson Hewitt and I am the McConnell Foundation Senior Fellow in Social Innovation at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto. I work with ventures to help them understand how they can create a social impact in whatever they do. These companies are at various stages but they all want to grow and scale not only in making money, but in making an impact. A lot of people work in the corporate sector and a lot of people work in the non-profit sector but we kind of bridge between them and help people see where there are possibilities, like you guys do, that they wouldn’t normally see on their own. We’re huge advocates of diversity and innovation.
In addition to working at MaRS I am also the Social Entrepreneur in Residence for the University of Waterloo for the Master’s in Business Entrepreneurship and Technology program. Those students are mostly in engineering but they are going back to school to do a business degree. I work with them to develop their ventures that could have a social impact, or teach them about social finance, or social entrepreneurship, that kind of thing.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it’s amazing what you can get accomplished when you don’t care who gets the credit. Dr. John Evans, one of my mentors and one of the founders of MaRS, said that all the time. It really resonates so true for me, because when people own something, something they know they couldn’t have done alone, then they’re prepared to be part of something bigger than themselves.
“So when I think about your program, and what you’re doing with the kids, I think it’s amazing.”
FPK: What do you think of when you hear the term Possibility Thinking?
Allyson: I love the term Possibility Thinking because I think we get too limited by our circumstances and by our environment, so Possibility Thinking to me is about opening doors. It’s about giving people a sense of the possible, and letting them know that their existing circumstances are not their future, and that they have choices, and options. We are all limited by many things, but probably the worst thing is by our thinking. The more you can encourage kids, and expose kids, to other ways of seeing, being, thinking, and doing, then all of that will do nothing but open up new possibilities for them.
FPK: And with that, how do you think Possibility Thinking relates to being an Agent of Change?
Allyson: In order to be an Agent of Change you have to believe that you have agency, which means you have to believe that you can make a change, and so they completely relate to one another. I think that young people are much more comfortable with change than we have been historically. They know the only constant is change. People need to know that change is normal, and natural, and good, and you have to be critical of it. Not all change is good, you really have to apply that critical lens, but you also have to have a sense that change can happen. Then you also have the sense that you can have a role in that change. People need to know that they can make a difference. Inspire them, and give them the tools and resources to believe in themselves so they can be those vehicles of change, because that sense of agency is kind of wonderful.
“In order to be an Agent of Change you have to believe that you have agency, which means you have to believe that you can make a change.”
FPK: Can you speak to what motivates you personally, both in your work and in your life?
Allyson: I’ve always been driven to want to make an impact. I think most people are. They want to have some purpose in their life, they want to make an impact. I just don’t know what else to do. The problem is that while people are generally driven by a sense of purpose, they have to pay the bills, they have to pay the rent, they have to pay the mortgage. And so, it feels like they have to make a choice. But I’m really hopeful that we’re moving into a world where people don’t have to make that choice, where they realize they can make money and make an impact.
I’ve always worked really hard to figure out how I can spend my time making other people look good and what I can do to contribute to our mutual success. You need your voice heard, you should be speaking up at meetings, you should be asserting your position, and should not be hiding your light under a barrel. But at my life stage I’m more comfortable giving credit to others. If people take ownership of something that was originally your idea but they now own it, that means you’ve succeeded. When I was younger I thought “Hey that was my idea, why aren’t they giving me credit?” Now I’m like knock yourself out, because you’ve won, you’ve already won. It’s about resting in that, and understanding that that’s the kind of thing that’s needed to make change.
I think at different stages of my life I’ve been motivated by different things. I’m an immigrant kid. I came from Northern Ireland, and my parents left the conflict zones, so I always felt grateful for Canada, and I’ve always wanted to give back and make a meaningful contribution.
FPK: Thank you for sharing. At what age do you think children are capable of being innovative and inspired?
Allyson: I actually think they’re born innovative and we take it away from them. They’re certainly creative, and innovations are about combining things in new ways. A colleague of mine talks a lot about Lego. Kids put things together in new ways and see what happens with it. At the core that’s what innovation is for me, and it means combinations of different processes to get to something that nobody could have imagined. I think kids are naturally innovative and it’s up to the education system not to make them sit in a chair and regurgitate what they’ve been taught, but to be critical thinkers and to really be exposed to new ways of thinking. And give them a sense of themselves. Create an environment where they love to learn. They don’t have to learn just from the textbook, especially these days. I would say that it’s our job to unlock their innovation and their creativity, and validate it.
“Possibility Thinking to me is about opening doors.”
FPK: In one of your articles, you mention a culture of innovation. How do you think that seed can be planted in youth culture?
Allyson: I think we have to stop beating students up when they fail. In school, particularly in some of the more traditional subjects, we’re taught that there’s a right and a wrong, and if you don’t get the right answer then you’re a failure, and if you fail in school that’s really punished. But I’m surrounded by entrepreneurs who fail way more than they succeed. That’s what they do. They learn from those failures. So I think what we can do to create the culture of innovation is change how we view failure, and really make it about lessons.
I would say the biggest thing is to look at how we assess risk, and every time someone “fails,” get them to focus on what lessons they learned and what they’re going to do differently next time. And not focus on being a failure because that just beats people down. That kills their innovation. So I’d say that’s a big problem, probably number one. And the second thing is around diversity and inclusion, and recognizing the value of different perspectives.
I am going through lots of stuff with my family, my son, and his friends. We put so much pressure on kids in post-secondary, and even if we try not to, society puts a lot of pressure on them, but the truth is that most people are not going to take a linear path. They’re going to zig zag all over the place. People think you’re just wasting money, or you’re wasting a year, but none of that is wasted. My son went travelling for a year, so some would say, “Well that’s a wasted year,” but it’s anything but. Anything but.
“It’s about fresh perspectives, it’s about a sense of fun, and it’s about a sense of enlightenment.”
FPK: What power do you think children have in making positive change in their communities that adults might not have?
Allyson: They’re not bounded by the same limitations. Adults are pretty tied down with those kind of responsibilities we talked about earlier; they’re busy. For me, mostly it’s about fresh perspectives, it’s about a sense of fun, and it’s about a sense of enlightenment. They have curiosity which means they’re willing to be exposed to different ways of thinking, and to learn.
I was talking to someone who had an intern at a financial institution, and this company had been working on a problem for quite a while. And when they brought this intern in, within the first three days she was like “I’m just wondering why we don’t do it like this?” And they went “Oh gosh that makes so much sense.”
So it’s about challenging, it’s questioning, it’s having fun, it’s being creative. Kids just need to be honoured, and have the space to have their voice heard. So when I think about your program, and what you’re doing with the kids, I think it’s amazing.
“I would say the number one thing that we can do, if anything, is listen.”
FPK: That ties into the last question of how can we, as adults, empower children to do all of this and be all of this?
Allyson: I would say the number one thing that we can do, if anything, is listen. Listen to what it is that they’re thinking. But also, let’s stop judging. Really try to understand because it’s a privilege to work with kids. The second thing we can do is create space for them to be heard, not just by adults, but by others. The third thing we can do is honour them. And then I would say the final thing is to give feedback to them about what you heard, and how things have changed. They’ll be honoured and, that gives people a sense of agency. They’ll say “Wow those people listened to me and honoured me, and I did make a change”.
Interview conducted by: Sarah Nielsen
Interview conducted on: 01/09/2019