The title is a play on words. Yes, I am completely closing down my nearly 30-year-old company, AtKisson, Inc., and English uses the phrase “for good” to mean “permanently.”
But I also want to celebrate that company’s history, because it truly aimed to be a force for good: aiming to do good things, and to be a good business in the ethical sense.
I started it as a one-man enterprise, “AtKisson & Associates”, founded in late 1992 as a vehicle for the consulting, innovation and change work for sustainability that had become my guiding passion. At that point, the “Associates” were imaginary. But they came.
My dear friends Lawrence Molloy and Lee Hatcher (Lee is now deceased) helped me build the business by offering free rent. Other friends invested time, sweat, ideas and money. Lee ultimately joined as a managing director and worked with me for many years.
By 1997 the business was incorported as AtKisson, Inc., and by 2001 we had offices in both Seattle and Stockholm. In 2009, in partnership with my friend Axel Klimek, we branched into Germany as well (Axel now owns and runs a spinoff from the firm called the Center for Sustainability Transformation, building further on his own extensive experience and client base). At its peak the AtKisson Group never employed more than a handful of people, but we managed a very dedicated network of other firms, university-based programs, and individuals — stretching from the US and Europe to Thailand, Australia and Japan — who could join together for team projects at a global scale.
The “AtKisson Group”, as we called the network, often out-competed much larger firms to win truly amazing clients, ranging from leading nonprofits like WWF to global iconic companies like Levi Strauss. We had a very broad client base: for many years we advised the US Army on how to make its US and European bases greener, while at the same time helping UN agencies to train media people and activist groups on how to spread the word on sustainability.
Our client relationships were very long-lasting. We worked with Levi’s for over a decade. We supported the multi-nation “Baltic 21” initiative off and on, through many changes in its leadership and its structure, for over 17 years.
The workshop and planning tools we developed have been used by communities of indigenous Australians, university sustainability programs, corporate CSR initiatives, and many more — ultimately including hundreds of teachers and schools around the world. (The tools are now owned and managed by Compass Education, a non-profit spinoff from the AtKisson Group.)
I am particularly proud of the reputation we had for doing very high quality work, and for holding high standards of integrity. We never compromised our principles. If I felt another firm’s methods were better suited for the job, I said so to the client. Everyone who joined our network signed our Code of Ethics. If something went wrong with a project, or the client was not 100% happy, we fixed it, at no extra charge.
Of course we had our ups and downs as a business. But we survived 9/11 (half our contracts were canceled overnight), hurricane Katrina (New Orleans was a major client at the time), and the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, among other challenges. We were never a huge success economically. But we were efficient, effective, resilient, competitive, and long-lasting.
And we were extremely mission-driven. Corporate and government work was valuable in itself, but I also used it to help subsidize UN and international development work, some of which was partly voluntary.
Some of my favorite work under the banner of the AtKisson Group involved advising and supporting the United Nations Secretariat over nearly a decade (I did that work as an individual), and also teaching officials in international training programs funded by Sida, where I now work. These were not the most lucrative clients, to say the least, but they were very satisfying to work with because the results were so tangible, and sometimes global in their impact. (In an odd twist of fate, I am now leading the department at Sida that funded some of those programs.)
In 2018, when I joined Sida, I put the company on ice. Colleagues in my network continued on, of course, and they still do; and it was hard to say goodbye to something I had built up over decades. But I felt called to follow the evolution of sustainable development work — which I and my company had helped to pioneer — into the mainstream of government decision-making. Because mainstreaming sustainability had always been the whole purpose of the enterprise, from the beginning.
The Swedish subsidiary was dissolved in 2019, in 2021 I donated most of the company’s assets to Compass Education, and as of 2022, the US company will formally cease to exist.
So, now it is time to say a final goodbye to my wonderful little company, which allowed me to both pursue personal dreams and to work for global goals, and to make that my job. I also want send out a huge thanks to the friends, sponsors and investors who helped build the company, the professionals who worked with me as employees or associates, the advisors who kept us on track legally and financially, and the many clients (285 different organizations) who engaged our services.
THANK YOU. All of you made AtKisson, Inc. — and all the impacts it made, over three decades — possible. I am, and will always be, deeply grateful.
Note: The website of the company will remain online (AtKisson.com) for a while as an archive and as a memory. The website also provides links to organizations in the network, some of whom continue to work as professional consultants, trainers and advisers.
In 1983 I recorded my first demo album, a ten-song cassette of original songs. I was 23, living in New York, just starting out as a singer/songwriter, and I needed this album to start getting gigs. The album, titled “Whitewing” after the title track, was recorded in my friend Darryl Cherney’s bedroom/studio, with his huge white cat often laying beside me as I played and sang into Darryl’s 4-track.
This song, “Christmas Night”, has never been recorded since then, and it was never released on any “official” album of mine. (All my albums are on the independent Rain City Records label.) Buy hey, it is Christmas Eve, and this song is a love story that goes from mad to sad to glad. It has a happy ending. Nice to have happy endings in these pandemic times, right?
The recording quality is pretty awful, as this song was rescued from a decaying cassette copy. Plus, on the vocal track, I am doing my best gravelly country-music voice. But maybe this sweet little song, from back when I was learning the craft, will bring you a little smile. Here is the world Internet premier of my 1983 song, “Christmas Night” (lyrics below):
In 2021 I donated all the copyrights and licensing agreements for the “Accelerator” – a set of tools that I and colleagues created, developed, and used around the world, over a period of nearly 30 years – to the international non-profit organization Compass Education. “Accelerator” has three main parts: (1) the Sustainability Compass for learning about key concepts, (2) an interactive workshop called Pyramid focused on planning for action and doing sustainable development, and (3) a simulation game called Amoeba for learning about making change happen (plus a few other tools). The whole package is now called the Compass Tools, or sometimes the Sustainability Tools.
In this article I recount the story of how the tools came to be – at least, as viewed from my perspective as lead innovator. To my great delight, all these tools have been adopted by many other people and have spread far and wide. So the real story of Accelerator is a lot bigger than my perspective, and a lot longer than this article can hope to cover. That bigger story is also why I believe there is a firm foundation for my hope that the life of these tools, now under new management, will continue for a long time to come, growing, developing, and supporting transformative learning and change for a sustainable world.
It All Started with an Amoeba
The story of Accelerator roughly parallels the birth and development of the modern sustainability movement. We can mark that movement’s launch with the publication of Our Common Future – the report of the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development from 1987, which introduced the term “sustainable development” to the global community. Accelerator was born, or at least began to take shape, just a few years later.
In 1990, I and other friends co-founded a volunteer initiative called Sustainable Seattle. Our focus, at first, was the production of the world’s first sustainability indicators report. Was our city heading in the right direction, or not? Could we effectively combine traditional indicators, like economic growth and unemployment, with environmental and social measures? Could we show how everything had to work together, to ensure a sustainable city in the long run?
We were not aware, at the time, that this idea was pioneering. We had no clue that our process – multi-stakeholder consultation, using a systems-based approach to develop indicators that integrated social, economic, and environmental trends – would become a “standard model” and spread around the globe. We were just passionately engaged in trying to bring these new ideas, sustainability and sustainable development, to the Seattle mainstream. Creating a set of measurements and indicators to chart the region’s progress toward this new, comprehensive vision seemed like a strategic way to get started. And by being very inclusive and participatory, our process was also a strategy, designed to get other people on board and spread the word.
So it was not by accident that we focused on creating indicators, and that we involved a large group of people in that process, and that we were redefining a familiar management concept (“what gets measured gets managed”). Our choice of project focus was influenced by something called the Amoeba.
At one of our first organizing meetings, I passed around an article I had recently published, about a new simulation game. The game was built around the core concepts of “innovation diffusion theory” – the science of how ideas spread. Given that sustainability was a new idea for most people, we needed to learn how to spread it. So I built a roll-playing exercise and workshop around that need, elaborating on research by Everett Rogers, the pioneering theorist of communications and innovation theory.
That simulation game, now called “Amoeba” after the visual model for organizational change that I developed around Rogers’ work (I was also building on an initial inspiration from my boss at the time, Robert Gilman), has since had a wonderful life. People have acted out the Amoeba Game roles of Innovator, Change Agent, Mainstreamer, Reactionary and more, in dozens of languages, using dozens of different scenarios. And they have used the principles embedded in the Amoeba Game to plan hundreds (maybe thousands) of change initiatives.
The Amoeba Game proved to be surprisingly popular – perhaps because the Game itself embraced key principles for facilitating the spread of new ideas: it was simple, short, highly adaptable to different cultures and situations, and fun. The Amoeba made the concepts of innovation diffusion easy to grasp, quickly. It was also useful: as part of the workshop experience, people learned to build more effective strategies for positive change. (You can watch a short TED-talk about Amoeba here.)
How did the spread of Amoeba happen? 1992, I was given the opportunity to present the Amoeba Game to an international network of sustainability researchers, systems thinkers, and simulation designers, at an annual meeting in Europe of something called the “Balaton Group” (after a lake in Hungary). That experience led to a revelation: by linking the power of useful, easy-to-transfer ideas to the power of a global network of highly motivated, influential people, you can accelerate change. Sometimes rather dramatically.
My little game about spreading useful new ideas turned out to be, all by itself, a useful new idea. It started spreading. I started actively using the principles embedded in the Amoeba Game to accelerate the spread of the Amoeba Game. And that led me to wonder: could these same principles help spread the concept of sustainability?
The answer to that question was a resounding yes.
Finding – or Getting Found by – the Sustainability Compass
Parallel to all this work on innovation, the “Sustainable Seattle” initiative continued to grow. We had decided to focus on indicators of sustainability partly because – following the principles in the Amoeba model – it made sustainability quicker to understand and easier to adopt. People were already familiar with the concept of indicators from the nightly news, or from their management jobs. We were making it simple for them to embrace the new concept of sustainability, because it was attached to other concepts they were already familiar with.
We published our first report on sustainable development trends in Seattle in 1993, and the report started spreading around the world, mostly by word of mouth (usually at international conferences). Other cities took an interest. Some began copying us, both our process of multi-stakeholder engagement, and our model of defining indicators that pointed us in the direction of sustainability. I started traveling around myself, teaching people in other places how to do what we had done in Seattle – and of course, I was keenly aware that by doing so, I was in the middle of an exercise in spreading innovation. I consciously used the Amoeba concepts to help make sustainability indicators simpler, more useful, and easier to understand. I also tried to make the process of working on them more pleasurable and attractive.
As you can imagine, the process of defining measurements of sustainability can become quite technical. You have to define what to measure, analyze the data, sometimes commission new research. Then you have to take that data and turn it into effective communications, so that decision-makers and the general public can make sense of it. Complicated spreadsheets and research studies have to be translated into simple symbols: a basic chart, perhaps with some up-or-down trend-arrows (which is what we did in Seattle), maybe a system of green, yellow or red lights (which became more common later).
My work with Sustainable Seattle got me invited back to a meeting of the Balaton Group in 1994. Once again, I saw the power of networking link up with the power of important, easy-to-transfer ideas to accelerate change. Balaton members carried the Sustainable Seattle story with them into other international meetings and wrote about it in their newsletters. Word spread through other networks, too. More sustainability indicator projects sprang up – from Sustainable Pittsburgh to Sustainable Penang – and along the way I built a small consulting firm. I also got recruited to a senior position in a respected think-tank. Both jobs helped me spread the word still farther.
At the same time, the UN’s first global agreement on sustainable development (a document called “Agenda 21” from the 1992 Earth Summit) started stimulating programs at the national and local level. People wanted to translate the ideas in Agenda 21 into action, and they needed tools to do it. A wave was building.
I was part of that wave, and my work on indicators got me into a number of high-level academic and government processes, where leading researchers and officials were wrestling with big questions. One of those processes was led by Donella (“Dana”) Meadows, the famed lead author of the global bestseller Limits to Growth (1972), and a co-founder of the Balaton Group. And one of the toughest questions those researchers and officials were asking was also the most fundamental one: how do we define “sustainability”?
Dana and her colleagues (including me) ultimately decided to embrace a framework developed by a highly respected “ecological economist” named Herman Daly. Daly proposed a hierarchy: first, there is Nature. Without a healthy, well-functioning planet, you cannot have an Economy, which takes resources from Nature and produces the things humans want and need. To organize that process of economic production and distribution, you eventually get a Society: laws and institutions, peaceful ways of living and working together, educational and medical systems, etc. Finally, if all of the things in that hierarchy are working as they should be, the result is Wellbeing: happy, healthy people, leading satisfying lives.
I thought Daly’s hierarchy was a lovely idea. But there were problems. Remember, I looked at the world through an “Amoeba” lens: if you want ideas to spread quickly, you need to simplify them. You need to make them appear useful, relevant, attractive. Daly’s hierarchy might be “right” in some sense, but it looked awfully hard to communicate. I also wasn’t convinced it was fully “right”, because the connections among those four topics were much more complicated than a simple hierarchy. We needed something that would make Daly’s ideas easier to understand, but also give us a more integrated way of seeing how Nature, Economy, Society and Wellbeing all affect each other – how they all work together as a system, not as a hierarchy.
Sometimes you get an “Aha!” moment. You are stumbling around in your mind and you find an idea. Or maybe the idea finds you.
In 1997, in the middle of an indicator meeting convened by Dana Meadows, hosted by the Balaton Group, and sponsored by the Dutch government, someone said the word “compass”. They were referring to how indicators provide us with a sense of direction.
Huh, I thought. A compass.
North, East, South, West.
Nature, Economy, Society, Wellbeing.
I ran to the whiteboard, made a quick sketch, and the Sustainability Compass – using the familiar letters N, E, S and W, but giving those letters new meanings – was born. (See photo.)
Later, I and my dear friend and colleague Lee Hatcher (1949-2019) would create a way to aggregate sustainability indicators into a set of four indices – overall “scores” for Nature, Economy, Society and Wellbeing. Our model of scoring sustainability, using the Compass framework, got picked up by a few cities and has been documented in academic publications.
But it wasn’t the indicator application of Compass that proved to be the biggest impact of my little “Aha!” moment. It was the Compass itself. That simple symbol – with the familiar directions replaced by the four inter-connected aspects of sustainability that Daly originally identified – has truly lived an amazing life. The Compass helps people grasp the idea of sustainability quickly. It links the idea to a very familiar symbol for setting direction. Also, being circular, it supports a much more systemic understanding. The shape of the Compass suggests that we consider how “everything is linked to everything else.”
Today, nearly 25 years later, the Sustainability Compass is still going strong, and still spreading. In fact, a whole educational movement seems to be growing around it. I will come back to that.
How to Build a Pyramid
By the end of the 1990s, there was Compass and Amoeba. Now I want to tell you about the third tool in this toolbox, Pyramid. I confess that Pyramid is my personal favorite, because it combines everything above, and more besides , into one dynamic group experience. And it has the potential to catalyze major initiatives – which it has done many times.
This part of the story does get a bit more complicated. So I will break it into three chunks: the background conditions in the sustainability movement at the time, the open-source method I developed for strategic planning in a sustainability context, and the birth of the Pyramid tool itself.
Then I’ll tell you (briefly) what happened next … and about my hopes for the future
The Background. Throughout the 1990s, indicators were a popular way to start grappling with sustainability. But by the end of the decade, people were more interested in doing things rather than just measuring trends. I and my colleagues – by now I had a growing firm, with offices in Seattle (USA) and my new home in Stockholm (Sweden), and a growing international network of associates and clients – were passionately interested in turning all this new knowledge about sustainability into action.
By the year 2000, there were a number of other systems in place for making indicators, some of them specialized around the special needs of cities or companies. The world was getting very good at developing measurements to tell us whether our cities, companies and nations were heading toward long-term ecological, economic, social and individual health: in a word, sustainability.
The indicators told us that mostly, we were going in the wrong direction.
So how could we facilitate and accelerate the process of moving from indicators to action? What kinds of tools did the world need, to get people thinking together, planning together, doing together? Out of that question grew a few more “Aha!” moments, as well as a shared project.
The Method. In the back of my mind, there had always been a kind of thread running through the work I was trying to do. Indicators were not an end in themselves: they provided an entry point for systems thinking, understanding how different trends were linked together in chains of cause and effect. By studying the trends and analyzing their linkages, through the lens of systems thinking, you could gain insights about where to focus your change efforts for maximum sustainability impact. After you figured out where to focus on making change, then you had to decide what to change.
Then you had to convince people to actually do it.
This thread of thinking finally came together in a speech I gave in 2000 in Portland, Oregon. Doing Indicators – mapping the significant trends – was just step one. Then came Systems analysis, using the linkages among the indicators (which have been selected to describe all the key aspects of sustainability) to find the most powerful points of intervention. The third step was Innovation, choosing the specific ideas and changes to introduce at these “leverage points” inside your company, city, school or university. Finally, you needed a Strategy for successfully introducing and implementing those changes, as part of your sustainability program.
Those four steps – Indicators, Systems, Innovation, Strategy – made a nice acronym: ISIS.
Well, it was nice at the time. Anybody familiar with the history of conflict in the Middle East will understand why we later had to change that acronym. So I added a “Step 0” – having a clear Vision of sustainability – and renamed it VISIS. The “VISIS Method” is now known as an open-source planning process that can be used in any sustainability context.
And it is the method I had in my head when I met Sydney Green.
Designing the Pyramid Tool. My friend Sydney had been leading a sustainability (or “healthy community”) initiative in her home city of Orlando, Florida. She saw me speak at a conference and invited me to come work on indicators for her region. By coincidence, I had grown up in Orlando. So I was very happy to say yes. Sydney and I, together with my business partner Lee Hatcher, worked on producing the first-ever Compass Indicator Report. What a joy to use my new tool for measuring sustainability in my old hometown!
Then a regional initiative in New Orleans hired me and my team to do the same thing there. I asked Sydney to join us in New Orleans, to speak about her experience in Orlando. While there, we took a walk in the city’s natural jewel, Audubon Park, together with my colleagues Lee Hatcher and Sandy Bradley.
Sydney had previously been telling me about an idea she had for her work Orlando. The idea involved engaging community members in a workshop exercise to build consensus on action. She and her colleagues thought it would be fun to actually build a physical, four-sided pyramid model, as part of the workshop, symbolizing the four aspects of community development they were focused on at the time. Perhaps they could build the pyramid in layers during the course of a community workshop. It was a beautiful germ of an idea, but they had not finished it yet.
As we sat in a gazebo in Audubon Park, talking about these things, it hit me: another Eureka! moment.
The four sides of Sydney’s community development pyramid could be replaced by the four “directions” of the Sustainability Compass.
The layers in building up the physical pyramid model could be the strategic planning process of the ISIS Method (from here on out, I will use VISIS Method).
We all got excited about this idea of blending the Compass and VISIS with a physical pyramid. We thought we were inventing a new simulation game about building a sustainable community. (As things turned out, we were inventing something much more interesting than that.)
A few months later, the four of us met again in Sydney’s rustic lakeside vacation cabin, in central Florida, to design the “Pyramid Game”. We worked out how the process would go: teams built around the Compass directions, a sequence of activities built around the VISIS Method, the pyramid growing in the center of the room. Lee, who had worked many years as a professional engineer, figured out how to construct a physical pyramid model using simple wooden ice cream sticks (later we used tongue depressors, which are larger). We added a lot of sticky notes and pens, and some slides to explain the rules. Presto, we had a prototype.
I took the prototype of the Pyramid to the next meeting of the Balaton Group (and a few other places) for testing. To make a long story short, people loved the Pyramid – but they said we had to change it. As my friend Wim Hafkamp, a leading economist in the Netherlands, put it: “This Pyramid of yours is great, but it is too serious to be a game.”
The Final Product. That is how Pyramid became a teaching and planning workshop. Over the course of one or two days, building a Pyramid takes a group of people – students or professionals – on a journey of learning and discovery, or sometimes a process of planning. They envision sustainability for their organization, community, or school. They develop simple indicators to reflect that vision, using the Sustainability Compass. They practice systems thinking with those indicators and look for what Donella Meadows called “Places to Intervene in a System” – more simply known as leverage points. Then they brainstorm ideas for specific things to change, at those leverage points. Finally, they build strategies for how to make those changes happen.
Along the way, they build a physical Pyramid, growing level by level, reflecting the four Compass directions, and recording their journey – everything from their first scattered dreams and visions of sustainability, to their growing consensus on analysis, to the capstone on the top: an agreement about the most effective actions to take.
I tested the new Pyramid workshop a few more times, wrote facilitator manuals, and we launched it with paying customers (like the US Army) and pro bono customers (like the United Nations) in 2001. At last, we had a complete package of tools. Inspired by the success of things like software packages, we even started thinking about turning it into a suite of tools, and licensing it to others.
Accelerator was born.
What Happened Next … and What I Hope will Happen
Using the Accelerator was always, for me, a joy. The package kept improving and growing. It was like having a Swiss Army Knife for professional sustainability consulting and training. And people enjoyed working with it – there were always smiles after an Amoeba Game or a Pyramid Workshop. The Sustainability Compass produced many “Aha!” moments that were always a pleasure to witness.
And the people who began gathering around the tools were a joy as well. There are too many to recount, so I will focus on just two for now: Robert Steele and Gonthong Lourdesamy. They worked with a small NGO that had gotten support from UNEP to run sustainability training programs on a converted rice barge, traveling up and down the rivers of Thailand. In 2001, UNEP contracted with my firm to use the new Pyramid workshop on the barge. Robert and Gonthong facilitated this new workshop over two days, with a group of media people from all over Southeast Asia. And they did it based only on a freshly written manual, sent by email, and a long coaching phone call with me. (At this point, I had only run the workshop myself about ten times.)
That the workshop on the rice barge was a success probably says more about Robert and Gonthong, their skill and patience, than it does about the Pyramid. That the success of that workshop led to twenty years of close collaboration with Robert (Gonthong moved on to other work a few years later), and ultimately to the founding of Compass Education, is one of the best-ever results from the use of Pyramid workshop.
But I am getting ahead of my story.
In 2002, I convened the first “Accelerator Intensive” at a retreat center near my home in Sweden. People came from Sweden, Europe, Japan, India, Australia, the US, and of course Thailand. Robert and others really learned the tools intensively there, and then they carried them – as did hundreds of other people who later went through similar training sessions – out into the world. Over two decades, Compass, Pyramid and Amoeba inspired university curricula, helped cities plan sustainability programs, and nudged companies toward the next step on their sustainability journeys, among many other things.
But it was the Sustainability Compass, sitting there at the base of the Pyramid, that really spoke to schools. It proved to be a powerful tool in the classroom – so much so that it eventually gave rise to a new, spin-off organization, powered by volunteers, and designed to transform the teaching of sustainability so that it could reach millions of teachers and students around the world.
And that is what I hope will happen next.
My fervent hope is that Compass Education – which first grew out of my firm as volunteer-driven initiative, and which then became a non-profit organization formed and nurtured by Robert Steele and his longtime associate Watkana “Nong” Thongrueng, and which has now grown into a global movement of teachers, administrators, and of course students, led by Executive Director Nicole Swedlow and a very dedicated board – will succeed. That the Accelerator will help them to succeed. Because the world needs them to succeed.
But how that happens is a story for another day – and a story for other people to tell, specifically the wonderful team at Compass Education, which now owns Compass, Pyramid, Amoeba … and a significant piece of my heart.
I am pleased to announce that I am donating all the sustainability tools that I and colleagues have developed over many years, operating as AtKisson Group, to Compass Education, an international non-profit with a big vision: reaching 1 million teachers.
Compass Education will also manage all professional and commercial licensing of the Sustainability Compass, the Pyramid workshop, the Amoeba tools for innovation and change, and other elements.
These tools, grouped into a suite called “Accelerator”, have been used by hundreds of companies, institutions, universities, and schools, in so many countries that I cannot count them all. They are described in several of my books, especially The Sustainability Transformation. And now they have found a great new permanent home — a dynamic and dedicated team of people, building a global movement for sustainability, systems thinking, and leadership in education.
Compass Education is focused on schools and teachers and impacting the next generation, but these tools remain extremely relevant for this generation — and for use in many other professional settings. Compass Ed (which spun out of my firm ten years ago) will also be providing professional support to organisations, consultants, businesses, and others who currently use the tools or wish to use them.
This is a big step for me, to give away things that I spent decades creating, developing, and using, in hundreds of different situations. It is also a big step for Compass Education, to take on the responsibility of managing them. But I feel confident that this donation is the best way to ensure that these tools — especially Compass, Pyramid and Amoeba — make the biggest possible impact.
A deep bow to my friends and colleagues at Compass Education, who have spent a decade using these tools and other methods to build a robust “transformation support system” and a huge network around the world. (I helped found the organisation but have largely been a cheerleader since then.) Thanks for taking on the Accelerator tools. Keep building, keep working toward your vision, and I look forward to continuing our collaborations.
There is a lot of advice packed into my books, much of it focused on making change happen. But if I were to lift up just one reflection on leading change in organizations, one that I still both observe and try to practice in my own work, it would be this one.
“Almost nothing is more effective as a means for speeding up the process of change within organizations than simple kindness and generosity.”
There is a story behind this little inspirational poster, the second in my series (and free to share).
Twenty years ago, I wrote a song called “Goin’ to the Top”, dedicated to the people of New Orleans. I had hoped (and in fact had been promised) that Aaron Neville would perform the song at a big event that I organized there, working with local business leaders on their long-term development plan. In the end, Aaron Neville was not available, so I performed the song myself, with a band hired in for the occasion.
Then the song sat on a shelf, for a long time.
Finally in 2014, I recorded and released the song on my album “American Troubadour” (with some great guitar help from Torbjörn Fall, an excellent Swedish studio band, and Andreas Bauman’s expert production). You can find it on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube etc.
I do love this song. It is pure pop, I admit, but also pure optimism, which is what we felt for New Orleans at that time. It’s a song about promise, potential, aiming high. We certainly need that now, across every dimension of global sustainability.
This poster is just one line from the song, perhaps the line that resonates with me most. It’s not about “going your own way”. It’s about creating the path you need, to get where you have to go.
My North Star platform at the Greenbiz.com website is no more. But they still publish columns by me when i send them. You can see the whole archive here. Maybe this column will be my last one — I have been writing columns for a long time, and this one seems a good note to go out on.
Don’t worry, I will still send thoughts to you on this channel. If you want them!
By the way, this article has already been picked up for republishing by an association for optimists based in Australia. Want to republish it? Contact me.
If your principal concern is sustainable development — with a focus on such issues as eliminating poverty, averting climate change, empowering women and creating the conditions for peace — then the current data absolutely does not look good.
So why on Earth would I title this article “Why I am a stubborn optimist”?
Because I still believe, as I have written so many times, in practically every book I have published, that optimism is a choice — indeed, the only reasonable choice we can make if we intend to actually change the world.
This does not mean that I believe everything is going to be fine. Things are not fine now, many things are getting worse, and they are likely to continue to get worse for a good long while.
So why be optimistic? As some unknown scribe once quipped regarding people’s worries about getting older: Consider the alternative.
Choosing a pessimistic outlook, no matter how well-grounded in “the facts” — which actually means current trends, since we are talking about developments over time — is not likely to motivate any effort to turn those negative trends around. “We are doomed!” does not work as a call to action.
A neutral “I have no expectations” or a cynical “What do you expect? Humanity is hopeless” attitude seems hardly better, except perhaps as a strategy for managing near-term disappointment, which we are guaranteed to experience time and time again. We are, after all, trying to move mountains.
Only stubborn, collective optimism, with the sustained energy and effort that follow in its wake, creates the conditions for eventual success. As science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke put it, “I have great faith in optimism as a philosophy, if only because it offers us the opportunity of self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Of course, many believe that a realistic pessimism is the only defensible approach to the crushing scale of our long-term development challenges, and they present reasonable reasons for that view. If you truly believe we are headed into hell, optimism seems foolish. It lures people into wasting precious time, trying to change unavoidable outcomes, when in fact we should focus on preparing for the coming dark age.
In its brightest variety, this philosophy advocates small-scale community resilience and a certain attitude of wise, resolute preparedness. Global collapse is so likely as to be almost inevitable, say proponents. Things such as the current pandemic — or the Ever Given’s recent blockage of the Suez Canal, which demonstrated the fragility of a global economy built on long supply chains — are simply small harbingers of the truly ominous difficulties that lie ahead.
At its most extreme, this philosophy is called “survivalism.”
Of course, even survivalists are optimists of a kind: They have a vision of making it through even the bleakest nuclear winter or riding out the global scorching caused by a climate gone haywire, safe in a bunker or an isolated enclave deep in the mountains of New Zealand.
But here is what I have observed: stubborn, insistent optimism has changed the world time after time, often against seemingly impossible odds. I reflect often on the accomplishments of Gandhi. The end of apartheid. The fall of the Berlin Wall. Changes that once seemed truly impossible — an independent India, democracy for all in South Africa, the end of communist dictatorships in central and eastern Europe (the last two happening in my lifetime) — are now historical facts, decades old.
I have been writing about sustainability and sustainable development for over thirty years. Much of what I have written is outdated — based on old facts, old reflections, and old situations that have changed dramatically. Recently I found myself wondering: what, in all of that writing, might possibly stand the test of time?
So on a rainy Saturday in March, I went through some of my old books and other publications — and I was pleasantly surprised. I found quite a lot of material in those books that was still true, and still useful. I ran across a number of quotes that I still stand behind. So I paired some of these quotes up with photographs, to make them shareable on social media and the web.
Click for hi-res version
Here’s the first one: “Our generation is charged with an unprecedented responsibility: to lay secure foundations for a global civilization that can last for thousands of years.”
The source of that quote is the “manifesto” I starting writing near the turn of the millennium and completed on 31 December 1999. It was first published as a standalone pamphlet by Chelsea Green (one of my publishers), then reprinted several times in magazines and books.
The exercise of writing a manifesto, which I called “Sustainability is Dead — Long Live Sustainability,” was prompted by the worries expressed by a lot of my colleagues at the time: that the concept of sustainability was getting watered down and threated to become devoid of meaning. The manifesto was my attempt to clarify sustainability to myself, since I was dedicating my working life to its advancement. Writing the manifesto was an enormously satisfying exercise. It helped me formulate a number of ideas about the universality of the sustainability vision, and the need to ground it in both absolute and realistic terms, based in our understanding of science and technology, as well as global fairness and intergenerational ethics.
Those ideas are still part of my work to this day, and they inform everything else I have written about sustainability and sustainable development since that time.
I still stand behind these words because I think they are true, and because I believe that we need to take this thought — which I am happy to admit is far from original — much more seriously.
Here are just a few of the things we humans are doing that will have impacts over thousands of years: changing the climate, depleting key resources, allowing species and ecosystems to disappear, creating wastes that won’t go away, leaving behind dangerous technological artefacts that must be kept secure for millennia.
And of course, we are setting cultural patterns in place that will probably have thousand-year echoes. Consider the fact that we still follow patterns of ancient Roman law across much of the world. Many of us work in merit-based bureaucracies first pioneered by the ancient Chinese. Here’s a provocative question: what, from today’s global culture, is also likely to survive the test of time?
Obviously, every era of human endeavor creates things that persist and affect the rest of history. There is, however, a big difference today: we are changing the whole planet, fast, and doing it in a way that we know will have very long-lasting impact. And right now, the balance of that impact is decidedly negative.
Our generation — more accurately, the several generations that are alive right now, as well as several more still to come — has to get this right. We have to put human development on a secure, sustainable course. If we do not succeed, human civilization will not succeed, and the evolution of life on planet Earth will have to recover from a period of rapid and perilous diminishment.
Not an easy reflection to keep in mind. That’s why I thought it was worth making into a small digital poster.
After a year of quiet, I finally published a new column on my North Star platform at the Greenbiz.com website. This column was also published in a Swedish version, here. Plus there’s an afterword, on music, and some news about book translations. Here’s the column:
In 2015, the world, acting through the United Nations, set in place a system of 17 very ambitious goals to guide humanity’s development toward sustainability through 2030.
Now it is 2021. Neither nature nor global politics has been especially kind to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the Global Goals, over the past few years.
Nature’s complex mechanisms have served up a global pandemic caused (apparently) by a cross-species virus together with intensifying fires and storms that can be credibly attributed to climate change; and the global political arena has mightily distracted us with assaults on democracy and global solidarity as well as chronic conflict along multiple fronts.
COVID-19 gets the lion’s share of the blame, of course, for our current troubles. In too many places and across too many dimensions of sustainable development, the pandemic has turned hard-won progress into a backslide whose momentum must first be stopped and reversed before development can again take on the shape of positive transformation. I am thinking especially of global poverty, hunger, health and education — SDGs 1 through 4 — where the latest figures from the World Bank and other centers of analysis paint a bleak picture of years lost and lives threatened.
But the analysis does not stop there. The SDGs are treated as an interlinked system of goals because that is how the world actually works. I won’t bore you with the relevant SDG numbers, but you can easily build your own mental systems map from the following:
Girls not getting opportunities to educate themselves contributes to reversals in gender equality, which in turn affects the quest for long-term economic prosperity, which makes it harder for girls to get educated.
People who had climbed up over the poverty line, but are now falling back under it, are mostly doing so in the cities, which hardly contributes to making those cities more sustainable.
Plane traffic may be reduced, which is indisputably good for the climate, but reduced as well are the investments into the greener economies of tomorrow that can prevent climate change, rescue biodiversity and create good jobs for a sea of unemployed people, especially youth.
Virtuous cycles can turn vicious. That is an undeniably dismal state of affairs for those of us whose professional lives revolve around trying to help the world achieve these universally acclaimed goals (which also inform the more specific development goals set for Sida, the Swedish agency where I work, by Sweden’s government). How is it possible not to succumb to an erosion of hope?
As always: by looking at the big picture, taking the long view and continuing to seek more effective levers of change.
There are no silver linings in a global pandemic. But there are unexpected things to observe and to learn from — such as the dramatic acceleration of digitalization. Profound changes in working methods and styles have been reported wherever decent internet is to be had. Suddenly, meetings and conferences that previously “had to be” held in physical, face-to-face settings are working just fine on screen. Maybe better: You can include more people, under roughly equal conditions, when you don’t have to fly them around and put them up in hotels of varying fanciness.
Necessity has mothered digital invention together with rapid learning advances that have proved to us that we can change must faster than our most ambitious management plans assumed was possible.
Thanks to these advances, work on sustainable development has not stopped. In fact, in some critical areas, it has intensified. Consider finance. In the past year major investment leaders at the global level have pushed themselves and others to take stronger stands (and produced better measurable results) on climate change, diversity, gender equity and corporate responsibility generally. Investment levels in developing countries may be down, but new vehicles for that investment are being innovated and designed, so that when the money flow eventually accelerates again it will have more and potentially more effective places to go.
It is not my purpose here to paint a rosy picture of the future with these short syntheses and personal impressions gleaned from dozens of recent digital meetings, reports, dialogs and conferences. As a world, we have a tough road ahead. People living in rising poverty and oppression have it toughest of all, and I challenge everyone reading this to keep that reality in the forefront of their minds as we continue down that road.
But it is important also to bear in mind that COVID-19 has not made the achievement of sustainable development impossible. It has, of course, made achieving those goals by 2030 a whole lot harder (and it was already very hard). Yet it has also shown us that even in the midst of serious global calamity, when the goalposts are still shifting away from us, we can (and must) keep pressing forward. Working to prevent greater damage where we have to. Making positive change where we can. Believing that the tide eventually will turn again in our favor.
Because that is what will make it turn.
* * *
For those who have read all the way through the “Words” part of this newsletter, here comes “&Music”.
I started playing guitar recently. That might seem a strange statement — I have been playing the guitar for 43 years. Just not recently.
Despite all the extra home time that a pandemic provides, my guitars have resolutely stayed in their respective cases most of the year. But last Sunday, I set a goal of playing all four of my guitars at least once during the day: my workaday Martin D-2832 (which I carried with me everywhere for decades, it has many dings and airport security stickers to prove it), my much-fancier Taylor (the one I use for shows and recordings), the classical guitar I still think of as my “new” guitar (I bought it five years ago, see picture from my friend Gillian Martin Mehers), and my electric, an ESP strat built for me by Mark Dann, the legendary bass-player whom I met during the heyday of Greenwich Village’s “Speakeasy”/Fast Folk era, also known as the 1980s. (Mark is still active, here is a recent YouTube video of him recording a bass track in his studio.)
On that same Sunday, I also drank real espresso coffee for the first time in over a year. Do you think those two things somehow go together?
In any event, I played all four guitars. And then I played guitar every day last week. I kept one by my desk, to pull up during short breaks from all the Zoom, Teams, and Skype meetings. It gave me such joy (and a little pain) to reacquaint my fingers with the strings.
Maybe it was the coffee: I felt it in my system for days afterwards (though I drank not another drop). In between meetings with my colleagues at Sida, the agency where I work, and where we aim to improve the lives of people living in poverty and oppression, I would either pop out for a quick walk in the warming Swedish weather, or pick up my guitar to relearn an old favorite.
Often this one, Moon’s Best Friend, an autobiographical song about what I remember from being two, three, and four years old — with a bit of artistic embellishment, I confess. Listen to “Moon’s Best Friend” on YouTube / Spotify / Apple Music / Amazon From the album “Testing the Rope”, Rain City Records, 1997
The song focuses on my relationship to my babysitter, a teenage boy named Peter. Here’s the chorus:
Will you read me that story ’bout the Moon’s Best Friend
Pick me up — swing me round again
My heart comes all undone
Can I tell you how it feels to be two years old
The embellishment is this: there was no children’s book called “Moon’s Best Friend”. I made up that little detail. But over the years, the fact that such a book didn’t actually exist bothered me.
So a few years ago, I wrote and illustrated a children’s book for two- to four-year-olds, called “Moon’s Best Friend.”
As I wrote in my previous post, Sustainability is for Everyone was my second book to be called a “bestseller” (defined in a leading dictionary as a book “whose sales are among the highest of its class” — the class in this case being popular books on sustainability, which admittedly is a very specialized niche).
With the Swedish edition finally completed and safely launched into the marketplace, including a special website free PDF edition, we decided to do the same thing with JF Fillaut’s wonderful French translation, which had been lying in a digital drawer and waiting for my attention for an embarassing three years.
The beautiful French edition looks a lot like the English, Swedish, and German versions — but everything is in the language of Paris and Sénégal and countless other beautiful places. Including my hand-drawn illustrations.