Above: Masters students at University of Iceland completing an AtKisson “Pyramid” workshop.

This article was originally published in my “North Star” column series on Greenbiz.com

Just how central are universities to advancing the practice of sustainability? Most professionals would say, “Very.” Universities create knowledge relevant to sustainability, they train sustainability practitioners and they often act as beacons of sustainability leadership in their communities or even nations. A good example of this would be the ambitious climate commitment, to which more than 90 colleges and universities in the United States have signed on, facilitated by the nonprofit organization Second Nature.

Given that universities play such a central role, how much do we know about how universities pursue sustainability, in a whole-systems way?

The answer: Not much.

But now we know a little bit more, thanks to a new academic research paper on sustainability in higher education, co-authored by myself and three colleagues, and published in the Journal of Cleaner Production this summer. Lead author Dana Kapitulčinová, a researcher from Charles University in Prague, led a two-year process that involved a broad literature survey on tools and methods being used in university sustainability programs, followed by a deep dive into the use of one specific set of tools for integrated sustainability planning: AtKisson Group’s Accelerator suite. (The other two authors were Joanne Perdue, chief sustainability officer at University of Calgary in Canada; and Marcus Will, a researcher at the University of Applied Sciences Zittau/Görlitz in Germany.)

To continue with full disclosure, we initiated this study first and foremost to find out how universities were using Accelerator — in their sustainability program offices as well as in their classrooms — so that we could improve it. We surveyed university-based users from 17 institutions in 13 countries across four continents. We crunched the numbers on their answers and looked for patterns we could learn from.

But one thing led to another and soon we also found ourselves broadening our research. We wanted to understand the tools and methods being used to affect every dimension of sustainability in higher-education (HE) institutions, including teaching and learning, research, campus operations, outreach and administration, including assessment and reporting. We wanted to put our specific findings about the Accelerator tools into a general context.

The fact that no one else had performed this type of general review before is what ultimately got our study published in a major international journal.

TFMAs in the SCATs

We started by highlighting the documented importance of key individuals — “change agents” — in university sustainability processes. These processes usually involve significant organizational transformation, which means they require careful planning and facilitation. Then we asked, how were these change agents — who typically operate with very limited resources — approaching the challenge of facilitating a transformation, especially given the extremely complex nature of large higher-education institutions? What tools and methods were they using?

To deal with our results, we had to invent a new acronym: SCAT — the “sustainability change agents’ toolbox.” But just one new acronym was not enough. People promoting sustainability in universities come at this daunting challenge in so many ways, using so many terminologies, that we invented another acronym: TMFAs, for “Tools, Methods, Frameworks/models and Approaches.”

When we catalogued all the TMFAs in the SCATs that we could find, in the context of higher education and sustainability, here’s what we found:

  • So many TMFAs were in use — from various kinds of footprinting, to formal sustainability management and reporting systems, to tailored processes with complex names such as “the Cleaner Production Infused Academic Program for Sustainable Development” — it was impossible to list them all. Some TMFAs were used in just one institution; some were used in hundreds. We could provide only examples for illustration purposes, otherwise our very long academic paper would have become a multi-year Ph.D dissertation.
  • Most TMFAs we looked at were single-purpose, focused on just one dimension of university life, such as teaching or reporting. They usually did not get applied across multiple dimensions in an integrated way. But we did find a few exceptions, including environmental footprinting methods (carbon footprints and ecological footprints) and participatory assessment and reporting methods (such as the widely used STARS program of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education). Fortunately for us, our Accelerator training and planning tools also made this list.
  • The choice of TMFAs in the SCATs were all over the map, meaning it was difficult to find any simple recurring pattern. HE institutions tended to develop their own tailored toolbox of TMFAs, depending on the kind of institutions they were, as well as on the specific change agents who were driving sustainability. The choice of TMFAs also seemed to be influenced by the institutions’ participation in various national or international initiatives. Here’s how we summed it up in academic language:

Integration of sustainability principles in higher education therefore happens on different levels and along various pathways including via international as well as national channels (sustainability-specific projects or programs), via sustainability-aware university leaders (establishing sustainability leadership positions within institutions) or via committed individuals (including faculty, researchers or students).

After describing this rather turbulent marketplace of tools and approaches, our research article moved on to the question of how people were using our tools, known as the Accelerator. The Accelerator is an integrated toolset that includes the Sustainability Compass for orientation and assessment; the Pyramid Workshop for planning and teaching sustainability; the Amoeba Model for training and supporting change agents; and a 360-degree strategic planning module called StrateSphere. The tools are undergirded by a generic sustainability methodology that we also developed called VISIS, which stands for Vision, Indicators, Systems, Innovation and Strategy. The VISIS method is open source, and it has been used by the U.N. Secretariat as well as being included by the U.N. Development Group in a new, recommended catalog of tools and methods to support implementation of the SDGs.

Accelerator, based on VISIS, has been around in its current form for 15 years, but we never actually had gotten around to documenting these tools, as an integrated package, for the academic press. The toolset is proprietary, but we make a simplified free version available to educators, NGOs and individuals for non-commercial use.

Despite this long history, we did not have a clue about what people in universities were doing with the Accelerator tools once they acquired them. We especially wanted to know if they were using the tools as intended: to support an integrated approach, infusing sustainability throughout management, operations and classroom teaching, using similar tools, methods and symbols (such as the Sustainability Compass).

Why did we think that universities might be using our tools this way? Because a number of primary and secondary schools — mostly in Asia, and mostly associated with the prominent International Baccalaureate (IB) network — already had been doing so. The Sustainability Compass formally has been integrated into the IB’s global curriculum for middle-year students. Demand among IB educators for our integrated approaches to sustainability had proven strong enough that a new organization had formed and spun off from our commercial enterprise. Compass Education, a non-profit based in Thailand and the United States, provides training on the Accelerator tools (and other systems-based approaches to sustainability) to hundreds of teachers and administrators from dozens of countries every year. The program has spread from Asia to other continents as well.

But success at the primary and secondary levels of education did not automatically imply that the tools would work similarly at universities. Compared to secondary schools, universities are much larger and much more complicated. Universities also have a culture of individual autonomy that touches every level of institutional life.

Compasses, pyramids and amoebas

Secondary schools, in sharp contrast, are quite regimented organizations. There is often a specific curriculum that all must follow and a relatively tight command structure that flows from rectors to teachers, administrators and operational staff. It is quite possible for schools to adopt our “Sustainability Compass” as a framework at the management level, use our “Sustainability Pyramid” workshop to plan action at the operational level, then mirror that process all the way out into the classroom and even into the early grade-levels, supported by “Amoeba”-trained change agents.

We know that it’s possible, because it has already happened.

But that scenario is decidedly not a description of how a university works. In the academic culture, models are meant to be questioned. Pre-packaged tools and methods are met with skeptical criticism. The idea that a university president or chancellor simply could instruct professors, administrators and operational staff to use a common sustainability framework is unlikely in the extreme.

The deeply democratic and inherently critical nature of university culture creates special challenges for sustainability change agents. They cannot rely on a chain of command. They must convene, convince, facilitate, instruct and lead people in highly participatory and inclusive ways. Our Accelerator tools are designed to support such inter-disciplinary, participatory processes. But were they helping university change agents achieve their goals? Additionally, was Accelerator being used in the integrated fashion we intended, across multiple parts of the institution?

The answer to both questions was a resounding “sometimes” — and certainly not as often as we would like. We were gratified to receive a lot of positive feedback on the effectiveness of the tools. In the situations where Accelerator tools were being used, they clearly worked. But we were surprised to learn that classroom teaching was the most common setting for the use of our tools (we had expected to see planning and operations dominate). At the same time, in those institutions where tools such as the Sustainability Compass or Pyramid Workshop were being effectively used in management, they had not spread much into teaching.

Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, they had not spread very quickly from one type of use to another. There were exceptions to the rule, and the cut-off for our data gathering was 2014 (that’s an indicator of how slow the process of getting academic papers published can be). We know anecdotally that in several institutions, use of these tools has continued to spread into other dimensions of those universities — out of the office for sustainability setting, for example, and into student engagement programs or graduate research applications.

What’s next? First, given the importance of universities, our paper concluded that — brace yourself — more research is needed in this area. We think there is a general need for better knowledge about change processes within institutions of higher education, and about how their integration of sustainability can be accelerated — with a special focus on the challenging role of change agents and on their ability to master key skillsets. We are not likely to be the ones who take up that research challenge, but we have done the first survey and introduced some useful analysis concepts (TMFAs and SCATs). We hope others will be willing to carry the ball forward.

Second, in our study, we barely touched on the role of students in this process — and as everyone who works in universities knows, students are very often the most effective drivers of change in those environments. Numerous Ph.D dissertations and masters theses could be written around this question.

And finally, we concluded that our own tools need some updating and improvement, if they are to meet the needs of the rapidly changing sustainability movement. Accelerator is still one of the few options available for integrated and inter-disciplinary orienting, engaging, mobilizing, training and planning work around sustainable development. But if the aim of these tools is to accelerate transformational change in complex environments, we will need to “accelerate the Accelerator.”

We look forward to seeing what others do, to carry on this research. Understanding how people can change universities, so that universities can help change societies, might turn out to be one of the most powerful leverage points we have for advancing sustainable development.

Here are the texts from all my Instagram posts from “Almedalsveckan”, the famous Swedish week of political and (increasingly) marketing activity focused on current social issues — a “festival of opinion” as some call it. For the pictures, visit my Instagram page.

In fact, Almedalen reminds me of the New Orleans Jazz Festival, with talk instead of music as the focus. One wanders from hotel seminar room, to theater ship parked in the harbor, to outdoor stage. Famous faces are everywhere, talking live from outdoor TV studios, passing by on the street. People stage “pop-up” seminars, the offerings are overwhelming in their diversity. “Almedalen” is a park in the tiny city of Visby, on the island of Gotland, in the middle of the Baltic Sea — an idyllic spot famed as a pearl of medieval architecture, with an ancient wall, ruins, cobbled streets, the works. A series of annual summer political speeches delivered here by Olof Palme in the 1960s has grown into this mega-happening of over 4,000 events, generating complaints by some that it has turned the first week of summer vacation in July into a working week. But a pleasant one.

My original Instagram posts are sometimes augmented with later commentary in brackets.

*  *  *

Almedalen! I’m attending Sweden’s famous “political festival” – thousands (literally) of seminars etc. this week. I’m on vacation, here purely out of personal interest, no “assignments”.

Starting the day with a topic close to my heart: water. Lots of friends and colleagues at this opening event, including my wife Kristina. (As head of NMC, Sweden’s leading network for sustainable businesses, she’s working. Note: website mostly in Swedish.) Ingrid Pettersson, who runs one of Sweden’s largest research organizations, FORMAS, has just noted that according to the SDG indicators, Sweden has achieved the goals. But dig just a little deeper, and the light is not green, but blinking red. Action on water = essential for the future, even here in Sweden.

*  *  *

Listening to a debate on Sweden’s cultural politics – always a hot issue, and always guaranteed to be discussed in sophisticated terms, supported by rhetorical gifts. “Grab art by the bleep” is the name of this session. [It turns out that this title was the invention of moderator Alexandra Pascalidou, and a reference to Donald Trump’s recorded boast about being able to grab women by the bleep without negative consequence.]

A worry expressed here: when politicians can’t or won’t talk honestly or deeply about serious issues – growing social problems, climate, etc – then “culture” is expected to deal with it. If you don’t include “social sustainability” in your grant application, you don’t get the money. Real dialogue is outsourced to theater, dance etc. But art should be free to lift the universal, not be expected to function as an opinion article in the newspaper.

Then the conversation gets tougher. Culture should be like the stand-up comedy branch, says actor-comedian Öz Nujen: if you’re not funny you disappear.

Another voice: art – expression of oneself – is a human right, the state must pay for it, and only when marginalized voices start to (finally) find a place and a voice, that is when other political forces start arguing against state support.

Tough debate. Laughter, and anger. But the best, most lively and “real” conversation I’ve heard so far. #riksteatern

*  *  *

Ministers in blue jeans: welcome to #Almedalen where Ardalan Shekarabi & others present govt’s new action plan for #SDGs.

[Shekarabi, the guy with the t-shirt and beard in the middle, is “Civil Minister” in Sweden and a lead promoter of the 2030 Agenda, especially at the local level. He’s a charismatic presence, though when I saw him later in the day, he seemed thoroughly worn out. That’s why I felt compelled to stop him on the street a few minutes later and just say “thank you” for his hard work to promote the world’s most important agenda.

Almedalen reminds me of the New Orleans Jazz Festival, with talk instead of music as the focus

Sweden’s government picked Almedalsveckan to release its new action plan for the SDGs, focusing on six key areas: 1. An equal and equitable society, 2. Sustainable cities, 3. A circular economy that contributes to the wellbeing of society, 4. Strong industry with sustainable business models, 5. Sustainable and healthy food, and 6. Strong knowledge and innovation.

FYI, they were a bit upstaged by Volvo Cars, which simultaneously released news that all its vehicles would have electric motors by 2019 — which landed the company on the front page of the Financial Times. Of course, Volvo didn’t mean electric-only: their cars will be mostly hybrids for some years to come, and still dependent on fossil fuel to go serious distances. But it’s still a major global first for a car company, and a great indicator of where things are going.]

*  *  *

At #Almedalen watching IBM’s Watson recommend treatments for breast cancer. Maybe in the future, the supercomputers and robots will meet here instead?

[This session was basically a presentation by an IBM representative of the Watson medical application. It was impressive. Watson, a self-programming supercomputer famous for beating humans at Jeopardy, can crunch through the vast flow of new research coming out in the scientific press and find treatment options that even the best human doctors just haven’t managed to learn about yet. This was one of several sessions I attended — or tried to attend — on how artificial intelligence is changing our society. They were popular and often over-subscribed.]

*  *  *

72% of Swedish companies say they have “upgraded their business model” as part of their sustainability work, up from 65% 4 years ago. The percentage of those who find profit in sustainability is also up by a lot. This I learned while sitting in the auditorium of a theater-ship at Almedalen, listening to a who’s who in Swedish sustainable business.

It’s great news, of course. But panelists say that in 10 years, most companies will realize that this was “a first recalibration in a much longer journey” of transformation.

*  *  *

Now I’m in a basement – on a suddenly sunny day – listening to a seminar on the 2030 Agenda and the #SDGs at the local government level. @IdaTexell who serves on the national delegation for the SDGs is describing the 6 priority areas that were chosen by the delegation, and why the municipal is critical.

The big news? How popular this topic is. The cellar is bursting with folk, out the back and up the stairs. The person beside me works on sustainability in Malmö. When I noted that things have changed a lot in 30 years of sustainability work – from a lonely few to millions and millions of people engaged – she says, “it’s certainly better than if the process had gone in the opposite direction.”

*  *  *

Getting out of classic sustainability issues, to defense. American Chamber of Commerce in Sweden (“AmCham”, my firm is a member) is sponsoring a seminar on US-Swedish cooperation. What I’ve learned so far: 50% of SAAB’s JAS Gripen fighter jet is American components. (That was a surprise.) Technology exchange is important for both countries, as well as intel. Sweden’s military is small, but professional, and strategically important. There is no formal military alliance – Sweden is not a NATO member, and is officially neutral – but the country cooperates with NATO and the US, not only in the Baltic but in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Then the talk gets real and a bit tougher. The US “would have to do the job” if Sweden were attacked (presumably by Russia); and Swedish airspace is so important to any defense of the Baltic states, that Sweden is a likely strategic target in case of crisis or war. Hence, cooperation.
And of course, there is a significant business aspect. Boeing and SAAB are building a new fighter jet together.

Everyone on this panel is “optimistic about Swedish-American cooperation. It’s happening, it will continue.” Not to fight a war, they are quick to point out, but to avoid one.

The risk level? Higher than one might think, because of a “drastic” build-up of Russian military capability, the huge gap between that buildup and the current state of Swedish capability and EU readiness, and of course the risk of surprises. (And, I would add, accidents.)

*  *  *

I pounded the ancient pavement all day at #Almedalen, attended 7 seminars and a mingle, met many old friends, made some new ones, bumped into a couple of clients, and personally thanked a minister (Shekarabi, I bumped into him on the street) for his untiring efforts to promote the SDGs. (In Sweden we defer to Agenda 2030, in English it’s called the 2030 Agenda and/or the SDGs.)

What a thing: a “festival of opinion”, real democracy in action. And everything worked smoothly, on time. I didn’t see a glitch anywhere. And #sustainability was clearly the dominant theme, it’s thoroughly mainstreamed, the transformation is well under way here in Sweden. Hooray for Almedalen!

*  *  *

New topic: biohacking. Transhumanism. This seminar is called “The perfect human: no longer science fiction.”

We can design life, redesign ourselves genetically. Should we?

“We’ve gone from theory of evolution TO intelligent design,” says a famous YouTuber and proponent, and this claim sets the stage, in a provocative way, for the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden (waiting in the wings). We can design life, redesign ourselves genetically. Should we? Who decides? In China, studies have already started, on live human subjects, to modify genes in stem cells (if I heard right) in order to treat cancer. Should Sweden do the same?

Now comes the Archbishop herself. She’s surprisingly positive about all this. Humans are “co-creators” with the Creator, and the church can help with the “really long-term questions”, such as who should get access to these new technologies, and who should pay. “We have 2,000 years of experience to lean on” in tackling complex ethical issues, she reminds us.

After the church comes the state. A government representative tells us, “Swedes are very positive to technology generally.” Sweden is the first country to offer complete genetic sequencing of all newborns, as a way to check for genetic diseases that might need treatment. But the state wants to make sure that the technology is used to help people – cure disease etc – and that all have access, that we don’t create class differences based on economic access.

Risks? Oh, my, yes. Not least, the “slippery slope” to racist eugenics. But the YouTubing transhumanist says, wait: it’s not a slippery slope, but a rocket ramp! We can create incredible human diversity with help of technology – people who fit into all kinds of environments. Presumably bearing all kinds of colors on their skin etc.

Finally, a little philosophy from the Archbishop (whose belief in God and eternal life has been gently questioned by the government official, who is clearly nonreligious): “Of course we strive for perfection, “she says. “But if everyone at Almedalen was perfect, how fun would it be to have this discussion?”

*  *  *

Sunset in Visby. The #Almedalen tents are being taken down. Actually there are a couple days still to go, but somehow it feels over.

Main message: sustainability is thoroughly mainstream.

Sustainability was the hottest topic here – hundreds of sessions (out of 4,000 total events), followed by digitalization. That’s right: sustainability “beat” digitalization. Of course, not everything I heard was interesting, relevant, “serious”. There was a lot of crowing and taking credit for the dawn. A lot of pure marketing and salesmanship using the S word as buzzword.

But that’s what happens when something goes mainstream. You get the good, the bad, and the cynical (the ugly). As I try to remind others as well as myself: this is what victory looks like. Institutionalization. Normal. The highs and lows – and long slogs – of real life.

“Sustainability is for Everyone”.

(FYI, an updated 2nd edition of my 2013 bestseller with that title will be released shortly.)

From my Instagram account … Follow me there, http://instagram.com/alanatkisson

This is all the the plastic garbage I collected from the beach today, on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, in 45 minutes. I’ve arranged it as an Instagram square, for easy sharing.

The “Out to Sea” exhibition we sponsored in Stockholm has closed now, but the impact lives on: I simply cannot enjoy time on a beach until I have cleaned the plastic off it. Here, on the beach, I recreated my own little “Out to Sea” exhibition.

While collecting it, people asked what I was doing and were appropriately appalled when I (briefly) explained the problem. One family noted, “that issue is getting more attention now, isn’t it?” Yes, thankfully, it is. I’d like to hope we – and all our contributors and crowdfunders – helped a little. The world is finally waking up. Plastic waste is terrible, and #Oceanisthenewclimate

From my personal Facebook page today:

Dear Friends,

As you know, lately I’ve been investing a lot of my time on raising ocean awareness (together with many thousands of other people). My firm sponsored the “Out to Sea” exhibit on ocean plastics (also known as the Plastic Garbage Project). We launched SDG14.net. I keynoted European Maritime Day. And we’ve been supporting WWF on its Blue Economy and related ocean strategies. I’d like to believe, on this World Oceans Day, in the middle of the UN Ocean Conference now happening in NY, that it’s all having a positive effect — that all our actions in concert, including the big pushes by some governments (like Sweden & Fiji), the work of countless NGOs, and a growing number of folks like us have started to lift the oceans up to greater visibility.

Continued action on this is essential. I keep repeating “Ocean is the new climate,” but really it’s more than that. The atmospheric climate system is an essential, fateful thing, but it is inanimate. The oceans are full of life, they are the *cradle* of life, and that life is literally dying away. When we say, “save the planet,” usually half ironically, what we really mean is, save and protect the Earth’s living systems, and the non-living systems that are essential to all of us. #SaveOurOcean as the hashtag goes, but also, save life on land, save the life-sustaining balance of gases in our atmosphere, save the possibility for everyone, everywhere to have what they need. And in this, there is no room for modern irony. It really must be done, in all seriousness and earnestness. Sometimes this involves a confrontation with grief. But also, the work can bring a satisfying sense of joy and purpose.

Which is why I can close with a heartfelt: Happy World Oceans Day.

For politically centrist, ethically minded people, who prefer serious debate to trolling and twitterstorms, these are challenging times. As Frank Bruni recently wrote in the New York Times (see link below), extremism and outrage is the order of the day. We need antidotes. Here’s one: would you like to see (and hear) an example of principled, eloquent, ideologically balanced political leadership in action? I urge you to watch this 20-min video of the speech delivered by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, marking the removal of the last of four statues originally erected to honor the leaders of the Confederacy and promote their awful and resoundingly defeated worldview. These monuments to inequality are finally gone. [Commentary continues after video]

New Orleans is one of the cities I have called home. I was partly educated there, I worked as a social worker in its French Quarter, I became a professional musician singing on the city’s stages (and sometimes on its streets). Later, I returned as a consultant to the region’s bi-partisan business leadership, and helped them develop a strategy for vision and action for sustainable development. The implementation of that strategy (2001-2005) was starting to work — until Katrina hit.
Regretfully, I have not been back to the city since (though I have wanted to go). But I have followed the rebuilding process, including its social rebuilding, and I have been deeply moved to watch the courage and bravery of the city’s political leadership in bringing down these monuments to racism, slavery, and the “cult of the lost cause.”
Mayor Landrieu’s speech has rightly been lifted up by Bruni and others as a timely landmark. For me, as someone who has lived in and loved New Orleans, and for a time attempted to serve the city as a “change agent” (I’ve written about this experience in my books), this speech also puts on display an inspiring example of true change leadership in action. Landrieu has held the vision, but he has also led a large, participatory process — city council, judicial system, public hearings, all of it. This success in overcoming one of the most reactionary pockets of resistance to progress in modern America (how does one honestly defend monuments to the champions of slavery?) is an inspiring case study worthy of continuing study, and support.
In these sometimes discouraging times, we need examples like this, to remind us of what true progress looks like. Watch, listen, and rejoice.
Also worth reading: NY Times article about Landrieu’s speech, by Frank Bruni:

Welcome to my website. If you are looking for a bio and background on my work, click here.

I work as a consultant and advisor on sustainable development. That work takes many different forms, from giving keynote speeches, to facilitating or moderating large events, to developing strategic plans, to managing small teams of researchers to produce reports. The topics I focus on change as the priorities of the global sustainability movement evolve. I always aim to work on the leading edge of that movement — and help accelerate that movement as a positive “wave of change”. For me personally, building knowledge and expertise on the science, economics, and politics of sustainability is tightly linked to work on change, strategic planning — and inspiring people to engage with this work and to persevere. For me, sustainable development is the greatest challenge of our generation.

Here is a review of some of the topics I am actively working on, right now, either with clients, or as part of internal AtKisson Group projects:

Promoting the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Promoting the SDGs is currently at the core of everything I do, because the SDGs are now at the core of the global sustainability transition. Within AtKisson Group, I manage the 17Goals partnership, which runs a website and social media channel providing news and free resources on the SDGs. In the coming months I will be doing a number of keynotes and presentations where the SDGs (Better Cotton Initiative, European Maritime Day, Club of Rome Europe, Design Management Institute, CSR Greenland …). All of my talks and keynotes have some kind of link to the SDGs. As does the rest of this list.

Raising the profile of the oceans in the global sustainability movement. I’m working on this topic through several different initiatives, in partnership with many other people and organizations. “Ocean is the new climate,” I keep telling people (I keynoted European Maritime Day using that title, and published an article about this general topic here). The ocean is just as important, just as global — and its sustainability just as threatened. Current projects include:

Working with WWF on their strategies to promote a more sustainable approach to the ocean economy, also known as the “Blue Economy“. I’ve also been helping them develop an initiative around ocean investments.

Raising awareness on the urgent, enormous problem of plastics in the ocean, through our globally crowdfunded exhibition in Stockholm “Out to Sea“. We are also running a number of evening programs in Stockholm, in connection with that exhibition.

Building a web and social media channel, SDG14.net, to help promote and support the coming UN Ocean Conference (which is the first summit of its kind) on 5-9 June. The aim of that conference is to advance “Global Goal” (SDG) #14, to conserve the oceans and ensure that we are using them in a sustainable way.

Supporting the United Nations secretariat as they work on helping developing countries build their capacity to implement the SDGs. I’ve been working in this area for a few years, since before the SDGs were even formally agreed. Working with the UN — specifically its Department of Economic and Social Affairs, UNDESA, in New York, but also other pieces of the UN, like the UNECE in Geneva — seems especially important now, with political winds blowing as they are. UNDESA, which is comprised of numerous divisions (such as Sustainable Development, Statistics, Policy & Analysis, Population, Forests and more), is increasingly focused on advancing a more integrated approach to policy making. I am happy that I can play a role in facilitating that process.

I pursue a similar goal in my work with Niras, a company that has a large contract with Sweden’s development agency, SIDA. As a guest lecturer and occasional advisor to the program, I work on helping to train officials from governments in Africa and Asia in sustainable development, systems thinking, integrated planning, and how to be better agents of change.

Assisting the countries around the Baltic Sea find new ways to collaborate on the SDGs. The Baltic 2030 initiative, which is part of the Council of the Baltic Sea States (a kind of “mini-UN” for northern Europe), used to be called Baltic 21. Baltic 21 was my first client in this region, many years ago, and has been a client numerous other times over the years. It’s a privilege to be helping the international officials, national officers and experts frame a new way forward together on the SDGs.

Helping people see the Arctic in a new way, and respond to its rapidly changing circumstances with sustainable economic solutions. This relates to a project I’ve been working on with colleagues and clients in WWF’s Arctic program for over a year now — a report on the “Blue Economy” of the Arctic. Since 2/3 of the Arctic is ocean, and so much of the accessible land is coastal, The Blue (marine-based) Economy is a huge piece of the overall Arctic economy. As the region melts (faster than anyone thought possible), larege investments are moving in, and larger ones are expected over time. Is the region ready for that? What will it take to guide economic development in the Arctic in the direction of increasing sustainability and resilience — economically, socially, and ecologically?

Helping designers and architects embrace the SDGs as a design challenge. This is an internal project, connected to our 17Goals initiative (above). And we have a wonderful partner in that work: Design and Architecture Norway, a government agency that is the main sponsor of the Oslo Manifesto, a document that translates the SDGs into design language. The SDGS need to speak to designers, and engage them. The Oslo Manifesto document (which people and institutions can sign), and the accompanying inspirational web platform, together with the strong position of DOGA in the global design community, are helping to spread the word about the SDGs into a crucial professional community.

Working with leading companies to help them refine, advance, or develop their sustainability strategies.  Most of this work happens within the boundaries of confidentiality agreements, but all of it remains closely tied to the science of sustainability, and to the promotion of the global consensus on the world’s future which we call the SDGs.

Promoting books to empower change agents. As an author, promoting books is a necessary part of my job. But like most authors, it’s not the part I do best. The most recent little book I wrote, together with my friend and business partner, Axel Klimek, is called Parachuting Cats into Borneo. It is full of tips, tools, advice and experience related to making systemic change happen, especially in large organizations. The reviews and endorsements have been excellent, but we want the book to reach more people. So here comes the promotional part: Please read this book, tell your friends, write a review on Amazon, order a box for a class or training group …

Making music continues to be an integral part of my work. Sometimes, I still add a song or two into a presentation (the informal presentations, anyway). Sometimes, I even put on a whole musical show. But I’m pleased to report that other people are now using my music, in their work. For example, my pop song and music video about the SDGs (We Love the SDGs) now has a choral arrangement which was first performed by a choral group at Arizona State University, as part of their Sustainability Solutions Festival. They have made the sheet music available to choirs and other vocal music groups (click here for more info).

Finally, if you are interested in how I think about the work I do, you can hear me talking about it (and singing a bit) in this live stage interview with GreenBiz founder Joel Makower. And you can follow my regular column about sustainability issues on the GreenBiz platform, North Star.

In January, I launched a “lightning challenge” crowdfunding campaign to bring a noted international exhibition on plastic garbage in the seas to Stockholm. It was successful, and the exhibit will open this week. Here is the letter I just sent to everyone who contributed, in amounts that ranged from $10 to $3,000. You can get the full background here.

Dear friends and colleagues who became “Crowdfunders” for Out to Sea in Stockholm,

First, a very big THANK YOU again for choosing to invest in our little initiative. As you know, if you have followed our social media, we succeeded in funding the exhibition OUT TO SEA on ocean plastics, and it will open in Stockholm on March 22 (and to the public on Mar 23).

Tekniska-out-to-sea-splash-pageYour funding triggered, in turn, a wave of funding from others — The Swedish government, the City of Stockholm, WWF, and a few other organizations saw that this was a “happening thing” … and they jumped on the bandwagon to fill in our financial gaps.

Crowdfunding donations covered about 40% of our total budget. A few larger sponsors (AtKisson Group is one of these) covered the rest of the “essential” budget (exhibition fees, insurance, that kind of thing), and others came in to support the educational programming.

Let me tell you more about the impact of your donation below, but first some basics:

There is a website in English about the exhibition in Stockholm here:

The main website for the global project that created this traveling exhibition is here:

And there is a main Facebook page associated with the exhibition, where notes from the Stockholm showing will be posted regularly:

But there is more. Because of your support, the local version of the exhibition in Stockholm is starting to do what I hoped it would do: raise more awareness to this issue both locally, and globally.

We already know that we will get TV coverage etc. to the opening here in Stockholm. But also, thanks to you again, the exhibition has been noticed by the United Nations. It was too late to bring the exhibit to the UN Ocean Conference for June of this year … but the exhibit will keep going for several years after this, in an updated form. And it is now on the UN “radar” thanks to the Swedish government (which told the UN about it). We’ll see what happens there, maybe it will be brought into the next major oceans meeting.

Also, we (my firm) have decided to launch a new website/blog/social media channel, partly to help amplify the message of this exhibition, but also to just promote attention and action related to the oceans, the UN goal for the oceans (SDG14), and upcoming UN Ocean Conference. We are just building this channel now, but you can already see it — and follow the social media — at the links below.


So .. your investment is already multiplying.

If you would like to be more directly involved with us in our efforts to promote SDG14 and ocean awareness through these various channels — as a content contributor, a continuing funder, and connection-maker, whatever — please let me know.

And again … thank you. I yelled for help with short notice, for something that wasn’t obviously relevant to people in other parts of the world, and you responded, with great generosity. That matters a lot to me personally, and won’t be forgotten.

Warmest regards,


Dear friends:

We need your help. I’ve never tried crowdfunding before, or asking for donations for a project. But now I am.

exhibition1v3I and my friends in Stockholm are mounting a major and powerful exhibition here, on the problem of plastic garbage in our seas. But we need your help, otherwise it just won’t happen.

As I wrote earlier on FB, we tried hard to find corporate sponsors in Sweden. Shockingly, not a single one said yes. (Yet.) Our friends in government, NGOs, and small sustainability firms are now scraping their budgets, but money is tight. That’s why we are also coming to you.

We need to raise SEK 300 000, which is about $33,000, in a week. Otherwise, the exhibition is off.

Are you willing to help? So that we can give this monumental problem the attention it deserves? Any amount welcome, we are seeking contributors & sponsors from all over the world (including Sweden of course!).

Three ways to do it:

For Global Sponsors, you can make your sponsorship contribution via PayPal, here:

If you are in Sweden, you can SWISH a donation:
123 024 63 06
Please put “OUT TO SEA” in the message line.
Hemsida på svenska:

If you can and want to make a larger contribution, contact me. There are nice benefits for large sponsors. (Corporate sponsors are still welcome, even those who said no before.)

Everyone who contributes will be warmly invited to the opening! And publicly thanked as well (unless you wish to remain anonymous).

Note: If you pay by PayPal, you will be purchasing a “Sponsor packet”. In Sweden, if you want to purchase a sponsorship (instead of just making a contribution) let me know, we can invoice you.

We’re not a charity, so it’s not a tax-deductible donation we are asking for. It’s an investment … in a remarkable public event.

Here’s the link again for info and to make a contribution.

English >>

Svenska >>

And … thank you. If you’ve read this far, at least I know you care! Likes and shares will also help.

In hope, and with gratitude in advance,
Alan AtKisson
For the exhibition team

This is the original Facebook post from Jan 9, 2017, that made us realize we should try crowdfunding for our exhibit on ocean plastic waste. UPDATE 25 JAN 2017: WE ARE HALF WAY THERE! THANKS TO SWEDISH, JAPANESE, USA AND OTHER SPONSORS. Can you help? Click here to read more and contribute …

[Translation of original post in Swedish]  Right now, I am feeling very disappointed with Swedish business. Not a single company has agreed to sponsor an exhibit that we are trying to bring here, to Stockholm, about plastic garbage in the oceans. Not a single one! I won’t name any names but we have asked many of the most well known, including those who have profiled themselves on this question.

Image may contain: one or more people and foodThe problem is huge. The opportunity is also huge. Sweden’s government has stepped forward and sponsored the world’s first UN summit meeting on the oceans and SDG 14 [on the sustainability of the oceans and seas], in June 2017 in NY. The exhibit — which is very dramatic and educational — would be timed with World Water Day and would raise the profile of ocean issues in Sweden. Government agencies and others were ready to help with content for seminars etc. But the corporate sponsors we approached said, “We can’t prioritize that right now,” or “We don’t have the resources,” and such.

You know me. I don’t usually complain. I am, at bottom, an optimist. But this is truly a deep disappointment. This wasn’t huge money we were after. I expected more from Sweden’s private sector, as a land of sustainability leadership.

If you know someone with resources (company, foundation, private individual) who could imagine sponsoring a fantastic exhibit on how we can save our seas from the plague of plastic, please get in touch with me. [Time is of the essence, the window is closing.]

Thanks for reading this letter of complaint, Facebook friends!

I spend a lot of professional time reading about the Arctic (for an upcoming WWF report that my firm is developing). Conclusion: the media is practically ignoring one of the biggest stories on the planet.

arctic-and-antarctic-sea-ice-31dec2016Consider the first graph, and the red line at the bottom, which combines the data for all of 2016 on global sea ice (Arctic + Antarctic). The second graph is the size of the temperature anomaly in the Arctic year on year. This is “graphic” evidence that 2016 was the weirdest of weird years. And yet, as documented by a blogger (!), major English-language newspapers were still publishing articles in 2016 talking about a “hiatus” in global warming. (See links at the end of this post.)

Frankly, it’s far too late to stop the melting of arctic-temperatures-2016the Arctic sea ice, or the northward shift of fish species, or the opening of newly ice-free zones to ship traffic, or the new mining or tourism development. And also, frankly, many people living in the Arctic (e.g. on Greenland) welcome the new opportunities. So the report we are working on will focus on how to steer the inevitable economic development in the Arctic Ocean more sustainably.

But this does not mean we should give up on reducing CO2 emissions: quite the opposite. The melting of the Arctic tells us that truly anything is possible — including, for example, the spreading of deserts northward, the deadly acidifcation of the oceans, the creation of a truly hot world. We have come to grips with this, seeing the Paris Agreement of 2015 not as the last word, but as the first hopeful step in a process of continuous and increasingly ambitious action.

We also need to get serious about removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Greens often don’t like this fact, but when you run the math, there is no way easily around it: we need to do everything we can, from drawing down emissions (Paul Hawken & colleagues have a great book on “Drawdown” coming out in April) to cleaning up our already-tossed-out atmospheric garbage (I support the work of Klaus Lackner & others on this).

For people like me, and those senior to me, who have been working in this field a long time, this moment is looking more and more like the “day of reckoning.” The Arctic is doing just what was predicted decades ago, but it’s doing it faster than even the most dour analysts thought possible.

And hardly anyone seems to be paying attention, because it’s barely getting reported. Where are the big headlines?

Follow the links below to check the data, the sources, and to start building this story for yourself. Especially if you are a journalist, or someone with access to an audience of people who need to know.

Because everyone needs to know.


Original data from National Snow and Ice Data Center:

The website of Wipneus, the researcher who graphed this data:

The blogger (Tamino) who documented media mis-reporting that painted a picture of a “hiatus” in global warming in 2016:

New York Times story on spiking temperatures (21 Dec 2016) — covers sea ice, but buried in the article:

New York Times story (30 Dec 2016) on northward moving fish species — focuses on the economic challenge this creates for US fisherman:

Paul Hawken’s forthcoming book, Drawdown, is previewed here:

The Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, run by Prof Klaus Lackner (who invented the concept 20 years ago):

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