Category Archives: Visioning, Dreaming, Imagining

Viridian revisited: An interview with Bruce Sterling

Photo by Pablo Balbontin Arenas (via Wikipedia)

Bruce Sterling made his name in science-fiction, part of the wave of “cyberpunk” writers working in the late 1980s and early ‘90s — other names include William Gibson and Neal Stephenson — whose work seemed more predictive than speculative. I enjoyed his novels (they won a number of awards), but I especially enjoyed being part of a movement he launched in 1998, called Viridian.

Being Viridian, in the way Sterling originally conceptualized it, was like being green, except that “there’s something electrical and unnatural about our tinge of green.” A key aim of the movement was to reinvent products, services, technologies, whole economies, so that they were ultra-environmental — but still resoundingly cool.

“We’re an art movement … an ad campaign, a design team, an oppo[sition] research organization, a laboratory and, perhaps most of all, we resemble a small feudal theocracy ruled with an iron hand by a Pope-Emperor,” wrote Sterling in his launch speech.

The last bit was about himself: Part of the Viridian ethos involved having some high-spirited fun and being less predictably eco-dour. The mix was attractive, and I had the pleasure of serving in the Pope-Emperor’s advisory group, which he called the Curia. (I also ended up running an international Viridian Design Competition, complete with $10,000 in donated prize money, that generated a wide range of prototypes for the world’s first smart electricity meters. But that’s another story.)

The Viridian movement also had an arch-enemy: the Global Climate Coalition, an industry lobbying organization, filled with prominent corporations and business associations, whose sole (and shameful) purpose was to oppose action on carbon emissions reduction. But the GCC went extinct in 2001, “after membership declined in the face of improved understanding of the role of greenhouse gases in climate change,” stated Wikipedia — before tacking on, “and public opposition.”

Viridian persisted until 2008 when, in the throes of the global financial crisis, Sterling decided to shut it down. But he left a great deal of parting Viridian advice, such as “Do not economize. Please. That is not the point.” The point was to reinvent stuff, because “the economy is clearly insane.”

Viridian may be gone, but Sterling is still very much around, still prone to the provocative, most recently in a keynote at the SXSW conference in his former hometown, Austin, Texas (where he urged techies to become more artistic). Sterling no longer lives in Austin because, well, he followed his own advice. He reinvented himself as a futurist (among other things). Married to Serbian author and activist Jasmina Tešanović, he divides his time between cities such as Belgrade and Turin, where he curates an annual tech-art fair.

Personally, I see echoes of Viridian thinking all around me in the global sustainability movement. I can trace a trail of historical impact from Viridian, through various websites and books of the 2000s, to today’s renaissance in sustainable design. But I’m a biased optimist. I was curious about how Bruce saw it. So, I caught up with him by email interview.

Alan AtKisson: Bruce, it’s been nearly 20 years since you launched the Viridian movement. I can personally attest that it was fun and inspiring, and it felt disruptive. What kind of impact do you think it made?

Bruce Sterling: Well, I would cynically say that it had a very modest effect on the culture, but it had a major personal effect on me. I was a science fiction writer when I started it, but 20 years later I’m a lot more at ease with designers, artists, architects, engineers, activists — and not in some speculative, writerly way. I really rub shoulders with them now; we lost the Lusitania, but we’re in the same lifeboat.

AtKisson: So, you’ve been closely observing design and architecture for two decades, in multiple locations around the planet. How would you sum up the direction of change? How much greener or sustainable have they gotten? What’s stopping designers from going full Viridian?

Sterling: I wouldn’t say there was one direction of change in design in 20 years. It’s more like the situation of general change in politics or pop music.

One might imagine all politics would become green politics, and that’s not true at all. Pop music might exclusively be ballads about sustainability, but that won’t happen either.

Most design that’s very self-consciously sustainable and green is packaged for a demographic segment called “lifestyles of health and sustainability.” Its aficionados are all over the place — in Germany, everything that is loudly labelled “bio” is aimed at them. They’re about 7 percent of the U.S. consumer population. They never go away, but they never take over the world, either.

Probably the biggest single change is that, 20 years ago, guys in the fossil-fuel business were uneasy about developments, but they considered themselves normal people who were being maligned. Nowadays, they’re actively evil and they know they are evil, they’re very overt in their depredations. Their global business has been de-normalized, it’s chaotic, criminal and even genocidal in places. They could have designed their way out of that if they’d wanted a soft landing, but they chose to die ugly.

AtKisson: You don’t sound wildly optimistic. What’s your expectation — forecast, not hope — about what’s going to happen in the design world over the next 20 years, relative to sustainability, green, climate-friendly or anything remotely “Viridian”?

Sterling: I appreciate that people like motivational sermons and some pep-talk from a futurist, but I always shy away from “optimism” and “pessimism.” This is 2018, and you’re asking me to talk about 2038. If you asked me to talk historically about what happened in 1998, you would never ask if I was an “optimist” about 20 years ago.

We do best in anticipating events if we understand that 2038 and 1998 are two sister years and that the future is a kind of history that hasn’t happened yet. If we’re optimistic, we’re just putting on rose-tinted goggles so as to ignore half the facts.

Twenty years is a good long time. I’m thinking we’re probably in for some big, black-swan discontinuities that make most design ideas of the present day seem pretty silly. It’s like guys in 1938 trying to outguess 1958, in the style of Norman Bel Geddes.

If I had to sum it up in a bumper sticker, I’d guess that design in 2038 would regard most anything we adore as “digital” as being backward, blinkered, dangerous or corny.

AtKisson: People like me see you as a mover and shaker in the Maker and alternative technology movements, as well as “technology as art” [the subject of Sterling’s talk at the SXSW conference in 2018]. To what degree is Viridian-style thinking — serious engagement with climate and other global sustainability challenges — present in those movements? How does it express itself?

Sterling: You’re flattering me here. I’d say that Viridian was a cultural sensibility that never caught on — it died on the vine something like the cleantech of the same period, which might have made sense but was outflanked by other forces.

The 1990s really were a Belle Epoque, like its sister decade the 1890s, but neither one of them came to fruition. We haven’t had a Great War yet, but we’ve had plenty of war, and now climate disasters have outpaced political response and mass disasters are surprising everybody. We’ll have some cultural sensibilities that respond to this situation, but they’re not going to look or act very Viridian. That opportunity is simply gone with the wind.

[Interlude: Bruce and I briefly debated whether he is actually a “mover and shaker.” He took the last word: “I’d be a mover and shaker if there were fewer glaciers melting and I could put Rex Tillerson in jail.”]

AtKisson: OK, so let’s dial back the timeline to the coming year or so, and shift from prediction to practical advice. Viridian may have “died on the vine” as you put it, but the motivation behind it remains as pressing as ever. We need to aim design — mainstream design, not just the committed-green-lifestyle variety — in ultra-climate-friendly and sustainable directions. Fast. Assume designers are actually going to read this. What are your suggestions to them?

Sterling: If I were a designer I’d worry about becoming a handmaiden to ultra-wealthy offshored oligarchs, tech moguls and sovereign wealth funds, because they’re the guys who have all the money nowadays. Designers are generally “on the side of the user,” but when the user’s broke because there’s no middle class, there’s a real threat that you’re either some kind of courtier to the super-rich or else you can’t get the resources to do anything.

The East Germans of the DDR had some really well-trained and meticulous designers, but boy, did they ever make a heap of ugly rubbish. A bad political environment blights everything.

Personally, I like hanging out with open-source design guys, because there are a lot of them in the academy and in the electronic art scene. But I wouldn’t claim that open source is anybody’s path to utopia; people who are in that scene tend to shrug off the money but then they argue about the prestige. There’s a lot of palace intrigue; it’s like literary politics, almost. But, then again, I’m a novelist.

AtKisson: So, what’s your next book about?

Sterling: It’s a historical fantasy about the glory days of the city of Turin in the remote 1640s. I spend a lot of time in Turin and always wanted to write a regional novel about the city and its strange heritage, so this seems to be my chance.

You can revisit the halcyon days of the Viridian movement through its archived website, ViridianDesign.org. Bruce Sterling’s blog, Beyond the Beyond, is a regular feature on Wired.

This blog post was originally published as one of my “North Star” columns on GreenBiz.com.

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

For 2017: Short video about the long term

short-video-long-term-alan-atkisson-vimeo-thought-leader-tvFor New Year 2017: short video thoughts about the long-term nature of the challenges and opportunities we face.

Five minutes, please watch, and feel welcome to comment.

It was a pleasure to be interviewed by Natalie & Mikkel of Thought Leader Global. They do an excellent job of bringing out deeper issues in a gentle way that works well in modern video format.

Here’s their recent interview of me (from Nov 2016 at the “Framtanker” conference):

https://vimeo.com/194260215

Check out their channel, Thought Leader TV, http://www.thoughtleader.global/

Happy 2017 everyone … an evolutionary eye-blink, but an important one for all of us here on planet Earth.

“Start a New Life in the Colonies …”

offworldI woke up early this morning, pre-dawn. Storm, wind and rain. For some reason, I had a strong urge to watch a bit of the classic film “Blade Runner”. I was surprised to note that the future it depicts so compellingly is dated November 2019 — just around the corner. Fortunately, our world does not yet look the way it was portrayed in that dystopian vision from 1982, full of smoke and flames and killer living robots. But in some ways, Ridley Scott got it right.

This same morning, I read an article about Elon Musk and his plans to send paying customers off in a giant rocket to colonize Mars, in less than 10 years. Link to article & video

“Start a new life off-world, in the colonies!” says a big advertisement blimp in the opening sequences of “Blade Runner”. (See photo) Maybe we’ll be seeing ads like that pretty soon.

And if the Republican candidate wins the US election, I’m betting Elon Musk gets a line of ticket buyers to Mars outside his door, longer than the queue for a new Tesla.

An Open Letter to Future Generations

Dear Future Generations,

I’m sure this is 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. Right now, they’re finalizing a new deal on climate change that looks like it will be 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

Launching 17Goals: Aiming to Scale Up

17Goals_Logo_smallerLet me tell you about our new website and social media channel:  17Goals.

I am feeling very optimistic these days. The world, as I write this, is about to enter a new era. The largest gathering of global leaders in history is assembling at UN headquarters in New York to launch this era. Until today, we called the coming era the “Post-2015” period. Now we can call it by its new, formal name: the era of the 2030 Agenda, and the Sustainable Development Goals — the SDGs.

To celebrate the arrival of these history-making words, I took some action. I gathered (virtually) a number of friends, and together we hatched an idea. That idea went public yesterday.

17Goals is an initiative, a project, a campaign, a program (take your pick, and yes, eventually it will be an app) whose purpose is to make it easier for anyone, anywhere to engage with the SDGs. To learn about them in more depth — from a whole-systems perspective. To share information about them, with their classes or colleagues or communities. And to take action, using a wide variety of tools and resources that we are making available via the website.

17Goals is live now … but it is a newborn, and it has a lot of growing and developing still ahead. Already, you can use the site to take a tour through SDGs and sample over 30 selected websites and tools — the ones we think can really inform you, and really help you make a difference.

In the future, I imagine 17Goals being the gateway to an ample but very selective (“curated” is the word people use these days) library of tools, handbooks, videos, etc. that are all excellent ways to learn about sustainable development — and do sustainable development — in a more integrated way. You will be able to search it easily, find what you need (e.g., by combining various goals), and put it to work.

Much of the current messaging around the “Global Goals” attempts to simplify them, sometimes to as few as “three key messages”, or “one overarching goal.” That’s useful for communicating, but my personal belief and experience is that many people want to engage with the complex reality of our world. And they — as well as their students and colleagues and friends — can handle that complexity. They don’t need it always boiled down and simplified.

That’s why 17Goals has its name: it puts the emphasis on the 17. These goals were arrived at through an incredibly intensive and delicate process of international negotiation (hats off to the UN for facilitating that!). And they are all inter-connected.

This new initiative — which is a not-for-profit venture hosted (to start) by my firm but with the named support of many other partners — is going to be a very active and exciting place to be, virtually, for the coming months. We’ll be building it, fast. We’ll be sharing what we find, and what we are building, in real time.

It’s also going to be a fun place to be physically … in just a couple of weeks, at the Gribskov Culture Hall in Denmark (about an hour north of Copenhagen). Partnered with our new friends at Transition World, led by Bente Milton, we have attached the launch of this initiative to a fabulous conference with young people and adults on Accelerating Change — so it has now become, also, the “launch event” for 17Goals. I’ll be keynoting that conference, and then over 500 students will spend much of the day doing 20 or of our “Pyramid” workshops — linked to the SDGs. (You can find out more about Pyramid here.)

Now, the following might sound a bit “over-the-top” … but I’m personally putting my whole “bag of tricks” on the line for this event, because I think the SDGs deserve our all. In addition to the keynote, I’ll be debuting a new song that I’ve written about the 17 SDGs — and I think you’ll be a little surprised by it, once we release it publicly. (If you want to hear it early, you have to come to Denmark.)

And then in the evening, I will be performing my one-man show: “Sustainability is for Everyone: the Musical!

Actually, the Accelerating Change event is a lot bigger than anything I have to offer, as it also brings in big names in Denmark’s cultural/entertainment world, and some serious psychological depth as well, thanks to the very thoughtful people with whom I have the good fortune to share the stage. Plus, all that youth energy and brilliance from the students!

But to sum this up: from now on, it’s all about “Accelerating Change”. Scaling up. The SDGs are here, now. This global vision of a sustainable world — specified in 17 goals and 169 targets, signed by nearly every head of state on Planet Earth — is “official.”

As someone who’s been in the business of promoting sustainability for over 27 years, this time that we’re living through is just amazing — the realization of a lifelong dream. The dream of sustainable development truly becoming “global”, “mainstream”, and “normal” … while still retaining its essential qualities of being a big “stretch goal.” A vision, around which all of need to unite, in order to make it real.

That’s the motivation for creating 17Goals. I know: it is just one of many initiatives to engage with the SDGs. And that’s great: in fact, that’s the point. We need many initiatives. But I am going to work with our wonderful partners to make 17Goals … well, one of the coolest places to do it.

See you there!  17Goals.org

Flummoxed About My Music (plus, a free song)

Update 12 Apr 2013: I wrote this about six months ago, but now, I am no longer feeling so “flummoxed.” The musical path forward is getting much clear. See What Music Means (to Me).

I confess: I am flummoxed. (Translation: deeply puzzled about what to do.) Why? Because I don’t know how to reach my audience. I’m a family man, and a working sustainability consultant, and those are my highest priorities, in that order. But I’m also a writer, a poet, a songwriter, a musician. I don’t have the time (or the energy, or the drive for attention) required to run around tooting my horn and selling my creative products. But this world doesn’t notice you if you don’t.

So why am I making a new album, full of new songs? And what should I do with my old ones?

[Keep reading, or scroll down, and find the free (very old! 1983!) song to listen to, in MP3 format.]

Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I imagine that my potential audience is somewhat bigger than the Twitter followers (833) and the Facebook friends (642 “friends” + 318 “likes” on my public page).  Or the average 500 per month who visit my blog. Or the 500 or so who actually open my company newsletter (out of 2,700 on the list).

Evening performance for Northwest Earth Institute, Portland, OR, 2003 (photo from the NWEI newsletter)

In fact, I am pretty sure my audience used to be bigger, back in the good old pre-Twitter days. My first book sold something close to 20,000 copies. My essays on the now-defunct blog Worldchanging were probably read by many more, and occasionally got noticed by the news media. My music … well, to be honest (with myself), not that many people know my music. My greatest “hit” is a YouTube video (my song “System Zoo”) that has been watched 7,757 times. Yes, my albums are available on iTunes and Amazon … and I have sold a whopping 107 songs and six albums through those channels, generating $118.

That doesn’t much bother me. I write songs because it pleases me to write them, and play them, and record them, and occasionally even listen to them. If no one else ever listens to them … well, that’s fine.

Like any artist, I would certainly prefer that other people listen to my songs, read my books, etc. But — again — I deeply dislike tooting my own horn and doing self-promotion. And the older I get, the less energy I’m willing to spend on self-promotional activity. Hence I am flummoxed.

So, for example:  what to do with my music — old and new? Here is that free song I promised, the opening title track from my very first album, a 10-song cassette demo, produced in 1983, in New York, on a 4-track reel-to-reel system engineered by Darryl Cherney, in his studio/bedroom. He was living with his Mom in those days, and a big white cat whose purring was so loud it could be heard on the tape if we didn’t throw it out of the room. The song is called Whitewing, and it retells the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus (click the link to open the song in a new window):

AtKisson_Whitewing_1983DemoVersion

When I made Whitewing, I was just starting to dream of a career in music. A few years (and a few bands) later, I was finally offered the management contract of my dreams … and I turned it down. Cut my hair. Changed careers. Headed toward what we now call sustainability. The reality of succeeding in a career in music — endless touring, smoky bars, playing the same repertoire every night for months — was, when I finally looked that possibility in the face, far less appealing than the dream.

And yet, today I go into the studio again. I’m in the process of recording my sixth album — after a break of twelve years. You probably never heard of most of my albums — “Fire in the Night,” “Testing the Rope,” or the twelve Rilke poems I set to music on “Falcon, Storm, or Song.” (I recorded that one in the year 2000, but did not release it until 2006.) Three of them — the Rilke album, plus the humor album “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On,” and the more serious singer-songwriter collection “Testing the Rope” — are available on Tunecore.

This new album is a return to the troubadour-style ballads of “Testing the Rope.” In fact, I’m thinking of calling the album “American Troubadour,” which is one of the song titles, and also a good description of how I feel these days in relation to music:  American.  You see, living in Sweden — which has a long troubadour tradition, yet not a lot of places for troubadours to play, and even less opportunity for 52-year-old, family-man, American-origin troubadours to play — has further complexified my situation, and made the whole music thing an even more private affair. On top of that, Sweden is not a country where you stand up and say, “Oh, by the way, I’m not just this, I’m also that, and I’m actually this other thing as well, and please listen to my songs and read my books.” Sweden feeds my natural inclination to not draw attention to myself, even though I am in a profession — author, speaker, performer, etc. — that requires drawing attention to oneself.

Then there’s the issue of mixing your professional identity (which I’ve written about in my books). I do quite a lot of work that falls into a category that one might call “serious” — advising companies or UN agencies, writing reports on global economic issues, moderating high-level panel discussions, etc. But my best-known songs (as anyone reading this probably knows) are humorous. Singing humorous songs, especially live, puts one automatically in a sort of “clown-entertainer” role. “Serious” work and “clown” work do not mix together very well.

People tell me, “Oh, but your songs are so effective at getting these messages across!” (I heard this just yesterday, at lunch — and I say thank you very much to the person who said it!) It’s often true that when I give a keynote speech or do a training, people remember what I sing — when I do sing, which isn’t always — more than what I say. I know that because I meet people who heard me years ago, and the first thing they say is, “You’re the guy who sang that song!”

So, I’m flummoxed.

Flummoxed or not, I’m going to keep doing what I do. Maybe more so. All of it. Including music. I’m going to start putting more of that music here, on my blog, so you can access it (for free). And I’m making a new album. (It’s not a funny one.) I have no idea how I’m going to promote that album, or even pay for it — but there’s a decade worth of songs that are just demanding to be recorded. They won’t let me alone until I do.

And then … I’ll put the work out there. On Facebook, Twitter, the Blog, the Amazon, whatever channels are available.

And see what happens.

Pyramid 2012: The Story of Building a Shared Dream

This is the personal “back story” on the origins of the Pyramid 2012 campaign, which published its final report on 18 June 2012. For the official story of this two-month-long “global workshop,” in which well over a thousand people participated, spread across twenty countries, please visit the campaign website to read the press release, 14-page final report, and the individual workshop reports that were sent in from around the world.

http://pyramid2012.net

Fifteen years ago I raced out of a seminar room near the shore of Lake Balaton, in Hungary. I needed to think. I needed to sit very still, alone, by the lake’s edge, and ponder this vision that had popped into my brain.

Was I really going to do this? Was I serious?

I really was. I went home and reorganized my life to make the realization of that vision possible.  Resigned from my job. Simplified my life. And began planning a global art project for sustainability.

A few delays and complications popped up, which kept me in that job, but I was exceedingly determined. One year later, I was finally on a sabbatical year, which involved traveling around the world and visiting sustainability initiatives, most of them in cities. I had saved funds to support myself for the year, so I offered free workshops to the sustainability groups I visited, on indicators and change strategy. I played benefit concerts. While traveling, I was also planning my global art project for sustainability. I studied a number of similar global art projects — and noticed that most of them had a difficult time getting financed, and making an impact.

So I made small change in plan.

The vision of the art project was terribly important to me, but its purpose was more important:  to generate inspiration and facilitate real change. And there was a very strong possibility that by doing it as an art project, it would not result in much change.

So at the end of that sabbatical, I did *not* launch a global art project. Instead, I wrote a book, and re-invigorated my consultancy. I decided to grow my consulting company … and make *that* my art project. By calling the work I was doing consulting, instead of art, there was a much greater chance that the work would result in concrete changes.

Much of the content of the work — dealing with global trends and visions of a positive future — would be the same. But framing it as “consulting” and “training” instead of “art” meant that people would relate to it very differently. To me, it was still my “global art project” … but that was a kind of secret.

Now I fast forward, skipping over the serendipitous co-creation of the Pyramid workshop in 2000 (the story is told in my book The Sustainability Transformation), the steady spread of the Pyramid and other Accelerator tools, the expansion of AtKisson Group … and we come to another moment, in the middle of 2008, when the AtKisson Group gathered for a strategy retreat in Barcelona, in connection with the IUCN global congress (I was doing a Pyramid there). In Barcelona, we hatched a plan to try to catalyze hundreds — okay, actually thousands — of Pyramid workshops around the world. The goal was ten thousand, to be exact. We called the idea “10kP,” meaning, 10,000 Pyramids.

It sounds a bit crazy now. But we were inspired by Barcelona. And these were also the last months before the 2008 financial meltdown. Anything seemed possible then. Also, my team-members at the time were very enthusiastic — it was one of them, not me, who had formulated the 10kP concept (I tip my hat to Shawn Westcott). They understood this whole “consulting firm as secret art project” idea. So we decided to just go for it, think big, and seek sponsors.

In fact, I was on a fundraising trip to the U.S., looking for sponsors for our grandiose 10kP Pyramid plan, when Lehman Brothers crashed. You might say that the collapse of one “pyramid scheme” — the U.S. subprime mortgage market — killed our very different sort of “pyramid scheme”:  our plan to get thousands of groups around the world active on sustainability, through Pyramid workshops.

As you can imagine, the fundraising visits went very poorly indeed. After the big banking crash made headlines, every funder I met just shook her or his head ruefully. Almost immediately, money for big, global programs became a logical impossibility. After a few days, I stopped asking.

And the dream of lots of Pyramids — which was nearly the same dream I had had at Lake Balaton a decade earlier, even though Pyramid was not invented yet — went on ice.

Then an email arrived in mid-2011, from Tom Mclean, a teacher at the International School of Manila. Tom had participated in a very short little Pyramid workshop we had offered at a teacher’s conference in Malaysia. That Pyramid had been just a couple of hours long, a “speed” version to introduce teachers to the methodology. Tom was hooked. He was also organizing an international “Global Issues Network” (GIN) conference for 400 high school students. He sent me a two-part invitation:  come to Manila to keynote the conference; and help them run 20 parallel Pyramid workshops with the students.

Of course I said yes. As it happened, when the conference finally happened in Feb 2012, the students were perfectly capable of running those workshops by themselves. All that I — and Robert Steele, who really deserves a *lot* of the credit for everything that’s happened with Pyramid in recent years — needed to do was watch. The students framed the workshops, trained each other on how to do them, created YouTube video demonstrations, produced policy insights worthy of global negotiators … It was truly wonderful.

But something else also happened at the GIN Manila conference.

We launched Pyramid 2012.

Pyramid 2012 was a scaled down, volunteer-driven version of the older “10kP” idea. Using the 20 student Pyramids as an inspirational springboard, we invited lots of other groups, of all kinds — educational, professional, civic — to do Pyramids of their own. There were no sponsors for Pyramid 2012 (except my little company). Instead, there were just volunteer workshop leaders … using a free “Pyramid Lite” manual … and a low-cost WordPress free website … and a lot of love and goodwill. I hired a wonderful part-time coordinator, Cristina Apetrei, to help spread the word and organize the participants.

And then friends, colleagues, strangers … people signed up.

During February and March, and into April and May, probably somewhere around a hundred Pyramid workshops happened. We could only document 65, because not everyone manages to go to a website and upload a report or a picture, etc. But we know that well over a thousand people participated, in twenty countries or more, from Moscow to Manila, from Iceland to Zimbabwe.

And, oh, those Pyramids.

It was so beautiful, wonderful, inspiring to see the reports and photos of all those Pyramid workshops coming in. Students learned. Officials planned. Citizens collaborated. Messages were sent to the Rio+20 summit:  we called our final report, “Building the Future We Want,” because we dedicated the Pyramid 2012 campaign to supporting that global summit, by creating local action. And indeed, a number of new action projects were born … and have started to grow.

And Pyramid 2012 keeps going. NGO groups in India, teacher trainings in Indonesia, farmers in Colombia … notices of continued activity keep coming in, via email and Facebook and blog comments. Pyramid 2012 has taken on a life of its own.

So, that’s the personal story, the dream, behind Pyramid 2012. It took fifteen years for my dream of a “global art project,” involving groups around the world engaging with sustainability trends and visions, to be realized. But the feeling of satisfaction at finally doing it — and seeing other people get engaged, make discoveries, hatch initiatives, and build pyramids — was quite profound.

During the process of being realized, the dream of Pyramid 2012 became something much better than I had originally imagined. Because it became a shared dream. I watched with amazement and gratitude as my colleagues and friends, and indeed everyone participating, just grabbed this thing and made it their own. Made it better. Got passionate. Made it work. And wanted it to continue, and to grow.

Now, we’re trying to figure out how to make it grow. We don’t yet know how … but we’re dreaming.

I will end this narrative with an excerpt from an email I just received (while writing this) from a Pyramid 2012 workshop leader in Colombia, Julia Andrea Osorio Henao. As her words reminded me so beautifully, this campaign, or initiative, or art project — whatever it is! — it is no longer “mine”. It is many people’s, including small farmers in the Colombian countryside, with whom she is using Pyramid, to help them manage their resources more sustainably.

“As I told you,” wrote Julia, “I continue doing Pyramids in my doctoral research work. So count me in to continue your dream, that is also mine … building together the future we want!!!”

If you are interested in being part of the planning for any future extension and expansion of Pyramid 2012, please let us know. You can either send an email to coordinator [at] pyramid2012.net, or go to this link and sign up for our newsletter:

Link to Pyramid 2012 Newsletter sign-up page

Reflecting on Life, Sustainability, and Star Trek

How different would my life be if I had never seen Star Trek?

The question occurred to me because recently — in a fit of nostalgia, or out of a simple desire to have something to watch on the TV at 11 pm, when I’m too tired to read, and not quite sleepy enough to close my eyes — I bought the latest, and last, Star Trek series on DVD.

The series is called “Enterprise,” and it is a “prequel” to the original Star Trek series that I grew up watching as a child and teenager. A couple of hundred years from now, Humanity sends its first starship out into galactic wilds. There is no “United Federation of Planets” yet (this was presumably a human invention that came later), the Vulcans are not fully to be trusted, and Captain Archer has even brought his dog on the “mission.”

I write that word “mission” in quotes, because it seems that Humanity’s new starship has no mission except to fly around looking for something interesting to do. They’re like teenagers who just got a driver’s license:  they’re cruising, out for trouble. It’s hardly great television, but it makes me chuckle, and somehow warms the heart.

Never a “Trekkie” or even a “Trekker,” the original Star Trek series nonetheless had a deeply formative influence on my teenage life. I watched the show, in re-run then, every day after school for who-knows-how-many years. Televisions took a while to warm up back then (1970s), the sound usually coming on before the picture. It happened often that I turned on in mid-episode, heard about 5 seconds of background music … and knew exactly which episode was on. I dreamt, often, that I was Captain Kirk.

I know that to a modern ear, my youthful immersion in Star Trek lore sounds a little, well, pathetic. But back then, it was not so nerdy, especially in Florida, in eyeshot of the moonshots. Saturn V rockets used to make our windows rattle. Half the boys I knew dreamt of becoming astronauts, during some phase of their young lives.

Which brings me back to my question: would my life be any different, had I not grown up watching Star Trek and dreaming about travel between the stars, meeting alien cultures, exploring an ever-expanding horizon of scientific and cross-cultural mystery?

Contrast that question with, say, a similar one about James Joyce’s Ulysses:  how different would my life be if I had not read this masterwork of 20th Century literature? I did love the book, particularly its closing section, but I cannot say that it has had any formative influence on my personality that I can detect, other than contributing to a vaguely modernist (and post-modernist) worldview and love of language that more properly belongs to the whole of literature, rather than any specific work.  But Star Trek … well, that was more like Ulysses of the Homeric tradition. It was a formative myth. It captured, and amplified, a deeply felt longing, one that had nothing to do with spaceships. The myth of Star Trek had to do with learning, growing, expanding one’s consciousness and capability, overcoming adversity, taking chances, making your own destiny by sheer force of will and imagination.
These have all been central themes in my life, as they are in most people’s lives. In my case, they have been tightly coupled to a life-long quest to make a positive difference, and a contribution to the changes we call “sustainable development.” I have no idea whether watching Star Trek made me more predisposed to travel off to other countries, early in my life, and try to learn about those cultures by immersing myself in them. I don’t know how much it added to my seemingly in-born desire to make change, promote innovation, facilitate improvement. But it is not an unreasonable question to ask, if I hadn’t watched Star Trek, would I have made the same choices in life along the way? I’ll never know the answer to that question for sure — life has no counterfactuals, as they say — but I have my suspicions.

Watching Star Trek now — whether the Enterprise series, or the J.J. Abrams’ relaunch film of a few years back, which seemed aimed at twenty-somethings — is still fun, but it’s fun in a nostalgic sort of way. It’s like looking at a family photo album:  it helps me remember how I got here. My own Ulysses adventure ultimately led me to a very different life, in Sweden.

While I still enjoy traveling and exploring, in connection with my work on sustainable development, I no longer long for it. There’s a home, hearth, family and children in my life now. These fully claim all my capacity for longing, whenever I’m away from them.

But that sense of mission persists. In the end, the Humans of Star Trek are really just trying to make the Universe a better, safer place for kids to grow up in.

Sounds like sustainability work to me.

What I loved about S. Korea

The shock of the car accident I had in Seoul (see previous post), and the more ordinary shock of being in a new country, have settled down a bit now, and I find myself thinking more and more about the week I spent in S. Korea. What am I thinking about? Not the car accident. Not the amazing pace of growth, either. These were first impressions. I have more lasting impressions of …

– The food. Spicy, varied, lots of vegetables, lots of small dishes …

– The kindness of nearly everyone I met. The taxi driver, for example, kept calling the hotel to make sure I didn’t want to go get an x-ray. My professional colleagues treated me to wonderful meals and free-flowing conversation. Pub owners practiced their English in relaxed fashion, people went out of their way to help me, etc.

– The subway trains. Still amazes me that most people didn’t even hold on. They are that smooth. They go on time. They just work!

– The Indonesian coffee that my colleagues served at the office I was visiting (what I loved was that they had a coffee culture, generally!)

– The fabulous curvy creativity of the architecture in Incheon, and the fact that they had planned for green space everywhere.

– The fact that the nation as a whole seems to have a dream, and is amazingly focused on realizing it, quickly.

– The fact that you could walk around at night without even a thought that you were in any risk.

– The incredible seriousness and industriousness of the people I was working with … what long hours! And yet, they had time for hobbies and interests … music, gardening …

… and I think about so much more. Yes, my first impressions were certainly affected by that car accident. But as time goes by, I think less and less about it, and more and more about the wonderful people I met …

Seemed important to publish that, too!