Category Archives: Sustainability

The science and philosophy of maintaining human and natural systems

Letter to Future Generations (2015)

Above the clouds / photo by Alan AtKisson

This was originally published in 2015 on my personal Facebook page just before I launched my North Star column on GreenBiz. If anything, the situation I attempted to describe three years ago in this popular-audience piece (written while on a trans-Atlantic flight) has continued to intensify, so I am republishing it again now.

Dear Future Generations:

I’m sure it’s obvious to you — you can see things better than we can, in hindsight — but I want to report to you that we are living through a time of dramatic change. Historic change. The kind of moment where everything seems to be balanced on a knife edge, and it could tip either way.

I am writing to you from Stockholm, Sweden. I’ll start with what is happening here, then I’ll paint you a global picture. Because it’s all connected.

Not long ago, this was a quiet little corner of Europe, a place where everything “worked.” There was essentially no poverty. No homeless people. There was a shared belief in something we called “solidarity.”

We don’t use that word much any more. In a few short years, we now have beggars on every street corner. There are people here who have fled from poverty or war, only to wind up living in tents, or sports halls, or outside on the street. Many thousands more war refugees, after traveling thousands of miles, are knocking on our door — so many that our government just decided to close that door. This is a pattern being repeated in many other countries, too. (Though one country, Canada, just decided to open their previously closed door. Good for them.)

Meanwhile, our “Western” part of the world is reeling from a series of small but extremely violent, deadly, and scary attacks — we call it “terrorism” — whose purpose is to strike fear into people’s hearts, ratchet up tensions, and provoke us into global war. The strategy is almost working. Our extreme right wing political groups are gaining strength, countries are rattling swords, and demagogues reminiscent of the 1930s are rising up amongst us. (Unfortunately, these populist rage-baiters have access to technologies far more powerful than the microphones used by Hitler and Mussolini.)

Meanwhile, it’s warm this winter — again. According to global data, this year is the warmest our modern, industrial civilization has ever measured. And we (as you well know) are the ones warming things up. That’s not all we’re doing to the planet, either. Huge alarm bells are ringing for Nature, everywhere. Some of us are trying to wrestle down our overall “footprint” on this Earth. But so far, humanity’s “foot” keeps pressing down harder and heavier, pinning us to the mat.

We’re also struggling to leave a bit of wildness for you to enjoy, but it’s extremely hard work. All it takes is a small number of uncaring or greedy or needy or ignorant people to destroy wild Nature — by setting fire to Sumatra, say, or poaching African elephants. I’d like to be able to say about these people, “They know not what they do.” But in fact, they know exactly what they are doing. And there are global markets ready to absorb the “profits” of their illegal activities. They are extremely clever about getting past our increasingly desperate defenses, too. It’s starting to seem obvious why the mammoth, the dodo, and the passenger pigeon are no longer with us: it only takes one of us to kill the last of anything.

That sounds like a pretty bleak picture, and it is. A dismal thought crosses my mind at least once a day: we could all too easily tumble into an abyss of war, political dystopia, and ecological catastrophe.

But that’s the bad news, one side of the knife edge. The other side — the good news — is, well, surprisingly good.

Despite dangerous and viral pockets of poverty and war, our human population is overall getting less poor, and less violent. We have made amazing strides in providing people with education, better access to food and energy and health care, a sense of hope for their children’s future. We have far to go — hundreds of millions are still living in misery — but many trends are moving rapidly in the right direction. We just need to figure out how to keep those positive trends going, while not destroying the planet’s ecosystems, and before social instabilities make the challenge insurmountable.

But there is good news on the action side, too. This year, the world’s governments completed an unprecedented series of global agreements. Recently, they finalized a new deal on climate change that was better than most of us hoped for — even if we know it is still not enough and will have to be improved later. We also have, for the first time, a truly global vision and a set of global goals for where all of humanity should be heading. You probably take the idea of “SDGs” (Sustainable Development Goals) for granted by now. For us, they were an unprecedented historic breakthrough.

We are even starting to understand the fundamental principle that “everything is connected to everything else” — and we are starting to build that principle into our government policies, corporate strategies, and community development programs. It’s not just talk, either: I am watching serious change happen, with my own eyes, every day.

Given everything happening now in our world — the good, the bad, and the ugly, to borrow an old movie title — I find myself thinking about you more and more.

It seems like this time, this specific time, is really going to be decisive for you. Our descendants.

So I just want you to know: things are really, really shaky just now. We’ve had global war before, kicked off by similarly unstable conditions. So we know, unfortunately, that it’s all too possible to fall into that huge and deadly trap.

We also know what it’s like to fudge and hedge and not do what is necessary to secure the health of Nature, and the wellbeing of People — because we are seeing the consequences of insufficient action, on the global scale, right now. We are finally waking up to the fact that these two things, human happiness and ecological integrity, must go together. When they don’t … well, among other things, we get the conditions we are struggling with in Sweden, and many other places, right now.

Basically, we know what failure looks like. And we can see all too clearly that failure, when it comes to managing our presence on planet Earth sustainably, is still a possibility.

But we also know — because we are starting to experience a little of it — what success feels like. Setting clear goals. Working together to achieve them. Maintaining an optimistic vision and intense effort, no matter what. Tackling problems head-on, intelligently, compassionately. Working on making systems better, not just symptoms.

I just want you to know, dear Future Generations, that many of us are working very, very hard to try to make things better. More and more of us, all the time. Working for you, for ourselves, and for all life on this planet. And I believe we are starting to tip that balance in the right direction.

But please — if you can — let me know how it turned out.

Love,

Alan

 

Save a Woodpecker, Save the Planet, Save Your Soul

I wrote this essay 13 years ago. One change: my daughters are a bit older now. The woodpeckers, however, have not changed a bit. First published 26 September 2005 on Worldchanging.com. Reprinted in Because We Believe in the Future: Collected Essays on Sustainability 1989-2009, by Alan AtKisson. Note: On Amazon.com, this book received a one-star review because my dear friend Bob Meadows (the reviewer) was trying to help me and he thought one star was good, and five was bad. The text of the review was quite positive. So, if you feel like helping out with some more positive reviews on Amazon, I’d be grateful. — Alan

Hackspettshona.jpg
Photo: Wikipedia

I was taking a break from thinking about the great problems of the world. Not just pondering them at leisure: thinking about the problems of the world is, weirdly enough, part of what I have to do for a living. For most of the past few months, my thoughts had been more global than usual, as my current client was a global initiative, and the project involved evaluating its impact worldwide. Conversations with an extremely diverse range of sustainability leaders, from Greenland to New Zealand, had left my head spinning.

So I was taking a break from global thoughts, and drinking a cup of organically-grown, fair-trade coffee, with a dollop of “ecological” milk, as we call it in Sweden. I was thinking, you know, it would be nice to slow down a bit, spend more time just watching and listening to the natural world around me. I used to do a lot more of that; lately, between work and parenting, it feels as though I “never have time.”

About a minute after that particular thought flitted through my mind, on my way out of the kitchen and toward the computer, I heard a raucous uproar outside.

“Magpies,” I said out loud. They are not terribly popular birds, but I like them for their iridescent green-blue trim feathers, their inquisitive intelligence, their “tough-bird” image. Not even the crows mess with the magpies. This was a much louder chorus of magpie-screech than usual, one that kept going and stayed around. Still, it was just a bunch of magpies. There was no compelling reason to go back to the window. I had work to do.

And yet I hesitated. What was that thought I just had? The natural world was screaming at me from just outside the kitchen window. What was it trying to say?

The natural world was screaming at me from just outside the kitchen window. What was it trying to say?

First I saw the magpies, easily a dozen of them. Very unusual for them to band together like that with any kind of common purpose. But they clearly had one.

It was a woodpecker. From the window, it looked dead, or nearly. Why a dozen magpies had ganged up on a woodpecker, I’ll never know, but the beating had been thorough. It lay there spread-winged on the grass, belly down, motionless. And Pelle the cat — whom I call Pelle the Conqueror because of his remorseless attempts to rule our community — was just a meter away, and closing slowly. He looked amazed at his good fortune, and he was taking his time. The magpies were hanging around to jeer and watch.

It’s just natural, right? The cat gets the bird in the end. But woodpeckers are beautiful creatures, possessing, to this observer, a certain dignity. My daughters have learned to recognize their sound, with pleasure. I had to do something.

By luck, there was an empty cardboard box nearby. I shooed away Pelle, folded back the woodpecker’s wings, and lifted her into the box, very delicately. How remarkable! To hold a living wild bird — something I’ve done only three or four times in my life — is like being offered a peek into the tabernacle. And this bird, though injured, was very much alive. It shivered with shock. It scrabbled a few awkward steps, and stuck its sharp beak and head through a too-small hole, cut through the cardboard for human hands. I took hold of the bird again, slowly pulled it back, disengaged its claws, released it again in the center of the box.

My tiny girls would be home soon, and while I was excited at the thought of showing them a woodpecker up close, I was not so eager to have them witness its death, which still seemed quite possible. So I stood there for a moment, pondering the woodpecker, and the feelings of my small children (our 3-year-old is just starting to ask tough questions about death), and fates much smaller than the world’s.

And then the woodpecker flew off. An explosion of wing and feather. “Not dead yet,” as they say.

All because I had a thought, “I should pay more attention to the natural world.” All because for once, I had actually acted on that thought, immediately.

What was nature trying to “say”? I don’t presume to know … nor do I believe that “Nature” was trying to “say” anything, at least not to me. Nature is full of sounds and signals. Whether we listen or not is entirely up to us. But it’s hard to imagine any scenario for “saving the planet” that doesn’t include paying closer attention to those signals than we do now.

Nature is full of sounds and signals. Whether we listen or not is entirely up to us.

Had I saved the woodpecker? I’ll never know that either, of course. But I had the distinct feeling that I had saved, or at least retrieved, a small piece of myself.

I do know that I saved one woodpecker from the ignoble (and rather unnatural) fate of being eaten by a domestic cat, after being marauded by magpies. Perhaps I even saved its life. I doubt that it noticed, and Nature tends not to express gratitude. But who needs gratitude, when your reward is an immediate and deep pleasure?

And the pleasure is likely to continue. Since the woodpecker had flown straight as an arrow toward a venerable old tree, from which we often hear the characteristic rat-tat-tat, its continued survival was likely to result in many more adorable outbursts from my delighted daughters:

“Papa! Listen! The woodpecker!”

The Sustainability Change Agent’s Job Description

This year, 2018, marks a decade since I first published The Sustainability Transformation* — the 2nd book in my planned 3-volume “Optimist Trilogy.” I’m now working on volume 3. But the “job description” from vol. 2 that appears on the first page of the first chapter is still highly relevant. Enjoy … and spread.

JOB DESCRIPTION

World development is making most people richer and healthier. It is creating enormous new opportunities for human learning and self-expression. But it is also creating a dangerous set of conditions and trends – climate change, a stark rich/poor divide, an erosion of community and social capital, depletion of both non-renewable and renewable resources, conflict over resources, degraded ecosystems, disappearing species, and many other problems – that are increasingly likely to cause collapses and catastrophes, small and large. These growing dangers are greatly diminishing the long-term prospects of both people and nature. Our current course is not sustainable.

Your job is to help change the world, by changing the systems in which you live and work. Your objective is to prevent collapse or catastrophe – in both human and natural systems – and to increase the prospects for a more sustainable and even beautiful future.

To assist you in accomplishing your assignment, you will be given access to current research about the trends shaping that future, as well as up-to-date news about important breakthroughs, tools, technologies and change processes. You will be linked up to other individuals and groups who have accepted the same job and who are spread out across the planet. This global ‘conspiracy of hope’, combined with the latest in communications technology, will make it possible to work in both physical and virtual teams, and to find help and support, almost anywhere.

Your prospects for success are better than they might appear, because slow changes can suddenly become very rapid, and because humanity has a long history of rising to overcome great challenges. But you face a number of daunting obstacles and limitations:

  • You will be given minimal resources to pursue your mission – indeed, an extremely tiny amount when compared to the resources currently spent to fuel your community, company or government on its current course. You will have to find ways to create large-scale changes with small-scale budgets using high-leverage intervention strategies.
  • You will be largely invisible to others, and it will sometimes be difficult to explain to other people what you are doing. Phrases like ‘sustainable development’, ‘global transformation’ or ‘a systems perspective’ still leave most people scratching their heads. You will have to communicate your intentions in ways that speak to people’s immediate and local needs while also convincing them to participate in longer-term, larger-scale changes to solve increasingly global problems. There is not enough time to wait for people to ‘wake up’ or ‘get it’ on a mass scale.
  • You will have limited access to centres of power. If you achieve access, you will often discover that many people sitting in those centres of power feel surprisingly trapped by the system that they are supposedly controlling, and relatively powerless to make change. If you are not able to convince them otherwise, you will have to find other ‘leverage points’, other places to start change processes that can then spread through the system.
  • Meanwhile, the momentum of change in the wrong direction will be immeasurably huge, and will probably continue to accelerate, in ways that seem unstoppable. It is imperative that you resist tendencies to despair and cynicism, in yourself and others, and that you find effective ways to spread a sense of hope and inspiration. For without hope – the belief that change is possible, that your vision of a sustainable world is attainable – your chances of success fall dramatically.

Good luck.

 

* The original title of The Sustainability Transformation was “The ISIS Agreement” (2008) — referring both to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and to our planning methodology, which is introduced in the book (Indicators, Systems, Innovation, Strategy). The hardback version from 2008 is still available under the old name. We had to change the name of both the methodology and the book, for obvious reasons. The methodology is now called VISIS (we added “Vision”, because it was always part of the methodology anyway).

How Oslo launched a new design revolution

Once in a while, a conference actually changes the world.

In this case, I refer to a series of conferences in Oslo, sponsored by Norway’s National Center for Design and Architecture (known as DOGA). In 2015, a couple of sustainability visionaries there, Jannicke Hølen and Knut Bang, had the brilliant idea to focus on the “Outdoor” business sector — makers of skis, boots, tents, gear and all the outdoorsy tops, jackets, pants and socks that people tend to wear when they head off to the mountains and fjords. Or the local mall, for that matter.

Then DOGA invited a who’s who of people working in design and sustainability to come talk to the assembled designers, suppliers, marketers and students. People such as Vincent Stanley, Patagonia’s in-house “philosopher,” and Paul Dillinger, head of design at Levi Strauss, helped kick it off. The event took place in a re-purposed church, with great veggie food, edgy multi-media and the ultimate in mood lighting. A surprising number of CEOs turned up — even when they were not invited speakers. Over two years and three annual events, these “Framtanker” (“Forward Thinking”) conferences became a real happening.

Because Framtanker made real things happen.

Jens Petter Ring at Framtanker 2017 (photo courtesy DOGA)

Example: At the first conference, Jens Petter Ring, a young outdoor professional, listened to presentations on global challenges, the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and the special responsibility of designers, and realized: “I have to do something.”

So, he decided to start a new company, dedicated to making the most sustainable outdoor clothing possible. And at the third Framtanker conference Nov. 28, he presented the story of “Greater than A,” or just “>A,” created in partnership with Norwegian skiing legend Aksel Svindal and others. Their first products, which push materials choice to new sustainability and performance limits, while aiming for “timeless” fad-resistant design, aren’t even hitting the stores until January, but are already a big hit with the buyers.

That’s just one story. Hundreds of people, companies, even whole design institutions have been affected by the “Framtanker” conferences — not least because of one its major spin-off “products,” the Oslo Manifesto. This design call-to-action, based on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, has attracted several hundred signatories, including architecture and design schools, and spawned a website full of inspirational projects and resources to help designers turn the SDGs into reality.

Alan AtKisson speaking at “Framtanker” in Nov 2017, Oslo, Norway, photo courtesy DOGA/Sverre C. Jarild

Obviously, I’m biased here: I had the privilege of keynoting the first Framtanker conference in 2015, and closing the most recent one. Hølen and Bang, together with a co-conspirator of theirs from the design world named Kjersti Kviseth, have gone from being clients to initiative partners to friends. We cooked up the Oslo Manifesto together (on my side, it’s been a volunteer project) — but the idea emerged from a live panel discussion at the first Framtanker in 2015.

Sitting in the moderator’s chair at the end of the conference, I asked Victor Stanley, Paul Dillinger, Kviseth and other panelists whether the SDGs could be turned into a “design brief.” (See photo, top.)

Screenshot from the OsloManifesto.org website

Absolutely, they said. So, we did that — and we launched the resulting Manifesto and website at the next Framtanker, in 2016. Since then, we’ve presented the Oslo Manifesto to graphic designers, maritime industry representatives, design management executives and many others.

Mingling around at the most recent Framtanker, I chatted with over a dozen professionals and executives who noted, with sincerity, that these conferences in Oslo had been an important source of inspiration and ideas for them, while serving as a serious wake-up call about the scale of the global sustainability challenge — and the essential role that design must play in accelerating solutions. Some people had changed jobs. Others had just pushed harder to make change in their current jobs.

Many repeat attendees were jolted again by this year’s opening speaker, legendary eco-entrepreneur Gunter Pauli, who reminded them that “polluting less is still polluting” and that the ultimate goal is not just zero impact, but restorative impact. “I’m going to have a long think about that,” said one outdoor design leader, whose products already are hailed as green. “Gunter made me realize that we still haven’t gone far enough.”

Of course, engaging designers in sustainability is hardly a new idea. Many of sustainability’s early and highly visible pioneers were green designers and architects. Green buildings are the norm now. And yet, the process of engaging the broader mainstream of professionals in areas such as clothing, industrial and product design has been a strangely sluggish process — even in the outdoor sector, which one would expect to be full of super-green nature-lovers.

But having worked with numerous relevant firms, I can report that designers and design departments are often declared off-limits to the sustainability folks. Don’t talk to them, is the message we often hear (sometimes quite directly). Designers shouldn’t be distracted by the troublesome demands of sustainability. They should just focus on what the market wants, and on creating good design.

Fortunately, that’s fast becoming a very old-fashioned approach. Good design is, increasingly, sustainable design. The number of companies embracing Net Positive and FutureFit and other new, highly ambitious, regenerative sustainability frameworks is growing fast. Most of us sustainability nerds have been declaring that “the revolution is here” for over a decade.

And yet, the companies in the spotlight are still, in many ways, the usual suspects representing a very small percentage of world production. Even the circular economy movement often ends up focused more on repurposing waste than on redesigning the products that create waste in the first place.

Which means the sustainable design movement — in which GreenBiz also plays a key role, by the way, with its own conference programs — is nowhere near finished. In fact, it’s still coming out of starting blocks.

Think I’m pessimistic in my assessment? Just walk into any big store, selling any kind of product. Look around. How much of what you see has been designed for true sustainability? The astonishing amounts of just one highly unsustainable material type — plastic — will keep a generation of designers busy redoing their products.

But thanks to efforts such as Framtanker, I’m optimistic. Many of Scandinavia’s outdoor companies are more ambitiously on the move. And the good folks at DOGA are moving on to some new sector.

Their strategy works: Three years of excellent conferences, focused on one sector, helps to get sustainability much more firmly embedded in design thinking, in one concentrated place.

And then the impacts ripple outward.

Originally published on GreenBiz.com as Alan AtKisson’s “North Star” column, 19 Dec 2017

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 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, 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.

Instagram Diary from Almedalen 2017

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.)

A mini-exhibit on plastic waste, in honor of “Out to Sea”

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

Happy World Oceans Day … Seriously

From my personal Facebook page today:

Dear Friends,

http://SDG14.net

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.

What I’m currently working on

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.

Crowdfunding Success: a Personal Thank You and Update

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:
https://www.tekniskamuseet.se/en/discover/exhibitions/out-to-sea-an-ocean-of-plastic/

The main website for the global project that created this traveling exhibition is here:
http://www.plasticgarbageproject.org/

And there is a main Facebook page associated with the exhibition, where notes from the Stockholm showing will be posted regularly:
https://www.facebook.com/PlasticGarbageProject/

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.

http://SDG14.net
http://twitter.com/sdg14net
http://facebook.com/sdg14net

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,

Alan