Alan AtKisson is a senior advisor and author in the field of sustainability, sustainable development, and transformative change, with nearly 30 years of international experience. He consults to governments, leading companies, global NGOs, and the United Nations.
In recognition for his many contributions as a leader, innovator, and communicator, AtKisson was inducted into the international Sustainability Hall of Fame in 2013. He was also elected a Full Member of the Club of Rome in 2015.
Alan AtKisson is well known as an inspiring keynote speaker, conference moderator, and executive trainer. He has extensive experience in translating the science, economics, and policy dimensions of sustainable development into strategic action — and into clear language. His books include the bestseller Believing Cassandra: An optimist looks at a pessimist’s world, The Sustainability Transformation, and Sustainability is for Everyone, which have been translated into multiple languages and widely adopted by companies, universities, and professional training programs. His most recent book, Parachuting Cats into Borneo (co-authored with Axel Klimek), was recommended by global business leaders such as Paul Polman (CEO Unilever) and offers both philosophical and practical practical advice on the process of leading change.
AtKisson is President and CEO of AtKisson Group (founded 1992), an international consulting network with representatives in Asia, Europe, Australia, Latin America, and North America. He also previously served as President of the international Balaton Group (2006-2012), Executive Director of the international Earth Charter Initiative (2006-2007), and as a member of the President’s Science and Technology Advisory Council of the European Commission (2013-2014). Since 2009, he has also consulted to the UN Secretariat and multiple UN entities, in his role as an Independent Advisor.
Leadership, Innovation, and Experience
Beginning in the early 1990s, Alan helped to establish the practice of developing sustainability indicators, working with cities and other entities around the globe. He also introduced and spread the concept of being a “sustainability change agent” — someone who drives change towards sustainability in organizations or communities — and he developed a set of tools and methods to support schools, institutions and companies in developing systems-based sustainability strategies and plans. He was among the first to frame a comprehensive, open-source methodology for doing sustainable development, a planning process now known as the VISIS Method (VISIS stands for Vision, Indicators, Systems analysis, Innovation, and Strategy).
Alan has given hundreds of inspirational speeches and training seminars and has consulted to over 250 organizations, in over 50 countries. He also founded or co-founded a number of sustainability businesses and volunteer initiatives, including: the pioneering city-level NGO Sustainable Seattle (1991), the AtKisson Group of consultancies (1992), the Center for Sustainability Transformation GmbH in Germany (2008), the 17Goals partnership for promotion of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (2015), and the Oslo Manifesto, which engages the global design community in making the SDGs a reality (in 2016, together with the Norwegian Center for Design and Architecture).
A dual citizen of the USA and Sweden, Alan lives in Stockholm.
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A Trusted Source of Ideas, Advice, and Inspiration
Alan provides in-depth strategic and analytical support to global companies, NGOs, and governments that are working on implementing sustainability, sustainable development, and corporate responsibility. A number of his client relationships have endured for more than a decade — an indicator of trust, quality, and commitment to continuous innovation.
Alan’s keynotes and seminars are known for providing a unique combination of intellectual content and creative inspiration, and his thinking has been influential in a wide range of substantive areas, starting with the development of indicators for sustainability in the early 1990s. He has helped to advance the general application of systems thinking and knowledge management in planning processes, and contributed to sustainability thinking in climate and energy, corporate social responsibility, water management, regional development, the “Green Economy”, the “Blue Economy” of the sea, and many other areas. His books on sustainability have sold over 50,000 copies and have been used in university classes and professional training programs in several countries. President José Manuel Barroso of the European Commission appointed Alan to his advisory council on Science and Technology in 2013; he was the only member of that council who was not formally a scientist or engineer.
Alan is the inventor and lead developer of the Sustainability Compass, the VISIS Method, the Pyramid workshop for sustainable development planning, the Amoeba model for accelerating innovation and change, and other Accelerator tools and methods now used around the world. His work has influenced thousands of people who use these tools to learn the principles of sustainability and systems thinking, convene stakeholders, train change agents, manage CSR programs, and facilitate other aspects of modern sustainability practice. (For an intro to this approach, see Alan’s TEDx talk at Uppsala University in Sweden.)
As founder and president of the international AtKisson Group, a unique social enterprise established in 1992, Alan has developed a professional network of sustainability-dedicated Affiliates (organizations) and Associates (individuals) in a dozen countries. Members of the AtKisson Group include leading university centers of sustainability expertise in Sweden, the US, Russia, Thailand, and Australia, as well as non-profit foundations and private consultancies. In addition to training people on the use of AtKisson tools, members of the Group also advise companies, governments, cities, and educational institutions on sustainability strategy, policy, research, and initiative design.
In recent years, AtKisson Group has sponsored or spun off several other enterprises and initiatives. In 2008, Alan and his colleague Axel Klimek began the process of establishing the Center for Sustainability Transformation GmbH, an international program of advanced training, consulting, and professional development support, based in Germany. Working with partner institutions around the world, such as the ASU School for Sustainability in the US and the Sasin Graduate Institute of Business in Bangkok, CforST has provided numerous “Master Classes” in change and sustainability while also developing new workshop models, coaching programs, and simulation games that engage executives and students alike. A book by Axel and Alan, based on the Center’s highly integrated approach to change, was published in 2016 with provocative title Parachuting Cats into Borneo.
Starting in 2011, working with colleagues Robert Steele and Lister Hannah, Alan helped the Compass Education get started, with an initial focus on Southeast Asia. Offering a “whole school” approach to sustainability, Compass Education has now spun off from AtKisson Group and established itself as a separate, not-for-profit organization. Its dedicated trainers provide professional development and empowerment programs to hundreds of teachers, students, and administrators throughout East Asia (with a special focus on international schools).
In 2015, AtKisson Group launched a new multi-stakeholder partnership and social media campaign called 17Goals, with the aim of promoting the adoption and implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 17Goals, which involves over 20 organizations in a dozen countries, is officially registered with the United Nations, and the free tools and resources that it makes available are being used by governmental, business, and educational programs to help introduce people to the SDGs, deepen their understanding about them, and get them engaged on implementing the SDGs in their local context.
Educated in science, philosophy, and language at Tulane University (US) and Oxford University (UK), Alan was deeply affected by early sustainability books such as The Limits to Growth. He first worked as a social worker and counselor, in both New Orleans and Southeast Asia; and he was selected to the Henry Luce Scholars program in 1981. In the mid-1980s, he was a singer-songwriter and rock musician in New York City. He also co-founded and managed a small designer clothing company, selling to department stores and boutiques in New York and across the US.
In 1988 Alan changed gears dramatically, moved to Seattle, and began his career in sustainability by editing the award-winning journal In Context, which took a whole-systems approach to the newly emerging field (1988-1992). In 1990, he co-founded the Sustainable Seattle initiative, a volunteer-based program that created the world’s first city-wide sustainability indicators report, using a broad stakeholder engagement process. Sustainable Seattle (still going strong today as a community organization) became a model recognized by the United Nations and copied in many countries. In 1992, Alan founded the consultancy that grew into AtKisson Group and he began to work internationally, eventually relocating to Stockholm, Sweden, in 2000.
When Alan was inducted into the Sustainability Hall of Fame by the International Society of Sustainability Professionals in 2013, he joined a list of honorees that included many of his own role models and inspirations in the field, including Ray Anderson, John Elkington, Hunter Lovins, Karl-Henrik Robèrt, and Hazel Henderson, among others. In response to being inducted, Alan wrote a reflective “letter to my colleagues” that became a very short (50 pages) bestselling book. Sustainability is for Everyone, first published in 2013 (and updated in 2017), has since been translated into several languages and has often been given out by companies or university programs to all their employees or alumni. Alan’s other full-length books include Believing Cassandra (1999), The Sustainability Transformation (2010), and Life Beyond Growth (2012); and a collection of essays, Because We Believe in the Future (2012). His Collected Poems were published in 2009. His latest book, Parachuting Cats into Borneo — written to be a supportive companion to anyone promoting positive, transformative change, and co-authored with his long-time teaching partner Axel Klimek — was released in July 2016.
Alan is a long-time member of the Balaton Group, an international network of sustainability researchers and practitioners founded in 1982 by Donella Meadows and Dennis Meadows (the lead authors of The Limits to Growth). He served as President of the Balaton Group (also known as the International Network of Resource Information Centers, or INRIC) from 2006-2012.
In 2009, Alan was asked to serve as an independent advisor to UNDESA (the United Nations Secretariat in New York), initially working on scaling up renewable energy in the developing world. He then helped the UN to plan and launch the UN Office of Sustainable Development (UNOSD), a knowledge and capacity development center based in Incheon, South Korea, in 2011-2012. He subsequently provided internal strategic support on planning for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), supporting “pilot countries” on national planning processes, and providing strategic and analytic input on a wide variety of other topics, ranging from knowledge management to partnership development and national progress reporting. He also directly supports UNDESA in the development of new strategy for advancing both internal and national-level capacity to implement the SDGs.
Alan has also served as a transitional Executive Director for other organizations, on two occasions, first with the pioneering US-based think-tank in economic policy Redefining Progress (1996-1997, the organization is now dormant); and with Earth Charter International, a global NGO focused on the ethics of sustainable development (2005-2007). In 2014, he was elected a Full Member of the Club of Rome, the original publishers of the Limits to Growth study.
In the early 1990s, Alan began experimenting with the use of music and song in his keynote speeches, to bring stories to life and to help explain complex concepts. This creative approach was widely appreciated, and as a result, Alan’s parallel career as a singer-songwriter — which he thought he had left behind in 1980s — began anew.
Alan has since released six albums and two singles on the independent label Rain City Records. His music video “We Love the SDGs” has been viewed over 26,000 times. His music has been featured by the United Nations and been adopted for use in UN-sponsored training and national education programs. When expressly invited to do so, Alan continues to mix music into his keynotes. He also does small concerts, and he occasionally performs a full-length, one-man show — mixing music, story-telling, and visual imagery — called “Sustainability: The Musical.”
A dual citizen of both Sweden and the United States, Alan lives in Stockholm with his wife, Kristina AtKisson, who is also a highly experienced sustainability professional (as well as the reason he moved to Sweden). They have two children.