How universities are using our tools to accelerate sustainability

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

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

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, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. 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 its 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.

Knowledge and Sustainability: The Global State of The Art

Recently I had the honor — and the amazingly complex challenge — of preparing a report for the new United Nations Office for Sustainable Development (UNOSD), based in Incheon, Korea. The title of the report signals its state-of-the-art global breadth:  “Knowledge, Capacity Building, and Networks for Sustainable Development: A Review.”

This report has been published on the web by the UNOSD, and you can download it from their website, free, in PDF format, from this link:

Download the report (1 MB)

This consulting assignment was one of the most challenging I have taken on, because the subject was so huge and so, well, meta. “Meta” meaning one level up from the usual focus on content:  it wasn’t just about all the things we need to know regarding the implementation of sustainability. It was also about “what we know about knowing.”

It wasn’t just about how to build capacity for doing sustainable development. It was about building the capacity to build capacity. Learning how to learn. And also about the networks where people learn about sustainable development, and share that learning with each other.

But of course, the report also reviewed what we need to learn — and just cataloging the list of relevant knowledge domains, using UN global agreements as the source, took up a full page, in three columns, small type.

One-third of this report consists of recommendations specific to the new UNOSD (for an upcoming expert meeting on knowledge for sustainability transition); but the other two-thirds should be of interest to any sustainability practitioner.

Here are the main conclusions. Note that this is a very brief, top-headline summary: the full report is 35 pages, full of analysis; and it included an additional spreadsheet, not published here, with a review of 200-300 global sources, programs, organizations etc. that are relevant to SD knowledge, capacity building, and networks.

“The main conclusions of this report can be summarized in four general statements:

    • The *nature of knowledge* is changing, and with it the nature of sustainable development knowledge, driven by the accelerated production of knowledge and by rapid advances in the technologies to access it.

    • This change in the nature of sustainable development knowledge has profound implications for the practice of sustainable development, and for the process of building capacity to implement it. Among other effects, the change forces a shift in emphasis from individual experts to multi-disciplinary groups, and from vertical hierarchies to horizontal networks.

    • The new knowledge and capacity-building environment, combined with the emergence of *networked governance* and the increasing importance of *boundary work*, requires that governments (in an SD context) increasingly adopt the role of *facilitator*. (The *italicized* terms are defined below [in the main report].)

    • All of these developments strongly underscore the need for the UNOSD [in its role as a hub for knowledge and capacity building especially to national governments] and provide suggestive guidance to the development of its knowledge sharing, capacity building, and networking activities. These recommendations are noted throughout the report and are summarized in the Executive Summary.

We now consider the basis for each of these statements in some depth. [… End of Excerpt …]

The public release of this report now gives you the opportunity to have input. If you read the report, and have thoughts or comments to share, please feel invited to leave a comment here (or write to me through the Contact link). I’ll carry that feedback, as best I can, into the global meeting process.

I simply could not have completed this report (or even dared to do it) without the help of many people, including my research assistant at the time, Dana Kapitulcinova, and many friends around the world who contributed content and insights (they are named in the report). I hope others find this report as interesting and useful to read as it was for me, and my colleagues, to produce it. My public thanks to the UNOSD for giving me such a challenging, and wonderful, assignment!

What the Master Class is like …

dec2012coverphoto[Note: The Center for Sustainability Transformation used to be called ISIS Academy. We changed the name in 2014, when “ISIS” became associated with a very different approach to change.]

In February, ISIS Academy will be coming to the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University for our next Master Class in Change for Sustainability, and our first such course in the United States (click here or click the image to download the brochure). What is that? you may be wondering. What is a Master Class?

These days, the term “Master Class” has become a common way to describe a sort of high-level workshop, of any kind. But the origins of the term were (to my knowledge) in music and dance. Talented and experienced performers would study with people who had become well-known for their work. Such classes were short and intensive and designed to help the students — who were themselves already professionals, often with students of their own — lift their abilities to a new level.

When we launched the first ISIS Academy Master Class, in 2009, the phrase seemed natural. Master is exactly what these classes are designed to do: to help sustainability professionals, from newly minted to highly experienced, master a new set of tools and skills quickly, while also deepening their own sense of personal mastery over their own capacity and development path.

We who teach the class are under no illusions that we know everything. Sustainability has grown dramatically in recent years, in both breadth and depth. There is too much information and knowledge for anyone to master. That’s why having good tools, good habits of mind, and a good sense of one’s one edges — whether polished or rough — is so essential to success.

What we do have is experience. A lot of it. Our purpose in these classes is to use our experience to help participants make better use of their own experience and wisdom … and other people’s as well.

Of course, there are some technical things to learn. We go deep into both the theory and practice of ISIS, and show how virtually any sustainability process can be understood and improved by looking at the indicators, systems analysis, innovations, and strategies that are in play.We do this with a mix of presentation, discussion, case study, interactive exercises … even games. There are lots of ways to learn, and we try to use all of them!

We also make sure everyone there feels comfortable not just with our tools (Compass, Pyramid, Amoeba and the like) … but with the whole concept of what it means to use a tool. Any tool. How to choose the right tool for the job, regardless of whether its ours, or someone else’s.

We take frequent pauses to point not just what we are teaching, but also how we are teaching it. We want participants to be able to take home as much as possible, including the methods we use … so that they can use them too. And teach others with them.

And of course, we spend ample time making sure the participants are learning from each other. We take a good long look at the interpersonal, and inner/personal, side of sustainability work. A key skill we try to impart is the skill of coaching, that is, being able to help each other with good listening, great questions, and insights that build the other person’s strengths.

One of our participants once called the Master Class “the missing piece in my sustainability education.” We don’t know if that’s true for everybody, but we do aim to help people achieve that feeling of completeness:  that they are full masters of what means to tackle the joined-up challenges of designing and envisioning sustainable systems, and moving the people and organizations in that the direction of that vision.

Finally, while I have been writing mostly about what a Master Class is like from a participant’s perspective — because that’s what a Master Class is all about — I have to confess that for us who to teach these classes, they are pure joy. To spend some days with a group of people who care a great deal about improving this world we live in, who are working very hard to both advance themselves, and to advance the great issues that we group under this word “sustainability,” is such a privilege. Indeed, it’s inspirational, and we tend to leave these classes just as recharged and reinvigorated to do the work as are the so-called “participants.” Truly, we all learn from each other.

Actually, we have three Master Classes coming up in early 2013: India in January (with Axel Klimek and CEE India); in Arizona in February (see brochure); and in the UK in March. There will will likely be another one in Germany in June, as well. Interest has grown since that first Master Class gathered in Stockholm in 2009 — and that is a very good indicator indeed.

“Changer pour Durer”: Change to Endure

“The French think differently,” said nearly every one of us who was not actually French. Of course, we said this to each other in French, so perhaps we were thinking differently too.

Patrick Viveret presenting at Cerisy-la-Salle, Sep 2009

Patrick Viveret presenting at Cerisy-la-Salle, Sep 2009

Last week (19-24 Sept 2009) I attended an inter-disciplinary colloquium at a castle in Normandy called Cerisy-la-Salle. The central massive stone structure (see photo at the end of this article), constructed in the 1600s to defend a Protestant family’s farm against the local Catholics, is complemented by newer buildings converted to bedrooms, work areas, and exhibition space. Since the 1920s, it has been host to series of cultural meetings and discussions — a series that is now decades old. The list of those who have been there is impressively long, and includes names like Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, André Gide …

At Cerisy, for one week, 30-50 people live on the castle grounds and basically talk all day. This summer, the week-long “colloques” have apparently covered everything from the poetry of Rilke to the way science fiction affects the present day, to weightier social themes. Our colloquium, organized by researchers Nils Ferrand of the French institute Cenagref and Diana Mangalagiu of Reims Business School and Oxford University, was called “Changer pour Durer.” The word “durer” is the closest equivalent to “sustain” in French. Sustainable development, for example, is “développement durable,” which sounds like durable development in English. Which is pretty much what it sounds like in French, too.  “Durer” also carries the meaning “endure”, but without the same level of slightly negative overtones. “To last” might be another cut at it. With all these inexact searching for translations, there appear to be good reasons that French researchers — like Swedish ones — sometimes just use the English word “sustainability”. Perhaps the word durable leaves a less-than-satisfying feeling in the mind.

For to be satisfied in the mind, much as a good meal satisfies the palate, appeared to me a very French and lovely thing. Everyone takes a year of philosophy at the high school level in France, and philosophy is (by comparison to virtually any other Western country) astonishingly popular here. There is a popular philosophy magazine. There are hundreds of “Café Philo” meetings around the country, something like an open mike night for thinking, in local brasseries and coffee shops. Philosophers are almost nowhere in sight at most sustainable development seminars I attend; here, they were a major presence. It helped create the feeling that we were approaching familiar topics from an entirely different angle.

Of course, inter-disciplinary dialogue among philosophers and scientists and practitioners and computer model-builders etc. is not an everyday occurrence anywhere, not even in France, and in this way the dialogue at Cerisy on change and sustainability felt rather unique. Ideas that were not new to me still somehow felt new, because they were being expressed in French, and because they were being challenged and questioned by people in disciplines (like philosophy) that are usually not represented in the other meetings I attend — not even the very multi-disciplinary ones like the Balaton Group.

And there was a kind of clear and interesting tension, intellectually speaking, between the philosophers and the model-builders. The former essentially questioned the very premise of doing the latter — that is, building simplified models of the world using equations and computers. The model-builders seemed to think it was because the philosophers just did not understand what they were doing (“it’s as though they don’t *want* to understand” grumbled one scientist). The philosophers seemed to think the model-builders were remarkably and even naively uncritical of the potential impact of simplifying the world in this way, and then actually using the results to guide action in the world. It was not a tension that anyone tried to resolve; the French tradition emphasizes debate, not consensus. Good food and wine in the evening were the closest anyone came to a consensus.

Then there was the art/science debate, which was less tense, and more filled with something like envy or desire. Rosa Casado, a Spanish performance artist, presented some of her work and some carefully sought-out thoughts about her approach to it. (“I don’t usually talk about my work, I usually just do it.”) The scientific model-builders admitted, in the “debate” which followed, that they were increasingly wondering if they were doing science or art these days — for example, when they worked on-site in Sénégal with local farmers and a very participatory process. There was a great deal of intuition and empathetic feeling that had to go into making such a project successful; did this make it less “scientific,” and more “artistic”? “I have to confess I just don’t know anymore,” admitted one researcher.

Another polarity was around age, for this mostly middle-aged-to-elderly (at 49 I was at a sort of median) group of French-speaking thinkers was greatly enriched by the presence of a group of very engaged students or younger researchers. Why, these younger folks wondered in the evenings, are all these older folks speaking about the future so pessimistically? This, I heard from others, was very disconcerting to them since, after all, it was *their* future the older folks were talking about.

For me, personally, the whole experience was enormously enriching. It was the first time I’d presented my work in French (a scary trial for me, probably a chore for the listeners, but a challenge in which I took enormous joy for some reason). The interest in things like the ISIS Method among these new colleagues was gratifying. But it was also the first time I was attending such a seminar, since I don’t know when, without having any organizational responsibilities. I could just sit, and listen, and learn, and think, and occasionally ask a question. What luxury. Oh, and one evening I was invited to play the guitar and perform my songs; it turns out that French-speaking professionals working on sustainability also like to hear English songs with titles like “Exponential Growth” and “Dead Planet Blues.” I brought out some new songs too, like “Damn the Discount Rate” and “Set the World Right Again,” both of which had never been heard outside of a Balaton Group meeting. And with help, I managed a translation of my song “Balaton” into French as well.

In addition to the general learning and some improved French capacity, I came back with two new songs in the works (both in French), a huge new professional project clearly framing itself in my mind, a great deal of inspiration for my next book-writing project … and most importantly, some new friends and colleagues.

I note that I have reported at length here on Cerisy, but have not even written a word yet about the annual Balaton Group meeting in Hungary a few weeks ago — which was also a terrific high point, the best meeting experience we’ve had in a few years perhaps. Many important things happened there. But at Balaton I have, as I note, organizational responsibilities. I have (and happily share now) the role of President, so my experiences and reflections are necessarily group-oriented ones to a large degree. At Cerisy, I could indulge myself, individually, as a mere participant-learner-listener-writer-singer. It was a like holiday for mind, with excellent company in a wonderful, stimulating environment. I felt “changed” in ways that will help me to “endure” as well — for we must endure if we are to keep making change. To the organizers of Changer pour Durer, Nils Ferrand and Diana Mangalagiu, I publicly extend my warmest gratitude.


[Photo: Coffee break at Changer pour Durer, Cerisy-la-Salle, France, Sept 2009]