Alan AtKisson has been working professionally in sustainable development since 1988 and has been recognized internationally as a pioneering innovator and thought-leader in the field. He currently serves as Assistant Director-General of Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, where he leads the Department of Partnership and Innovation. Alan is a musician and an author whose books include bestseller Believing Cassandra: How to be an Optimist in a Pessimist’s World.
Alan addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with insights including:
- That sustainability concepts and the sustainable development sector are moving from cutting edge to mainstream.
- That the recent increase in digital meetings has made sector conversations more accessible and inclusive. “We both arrived through the same digital fibers, into the same digital space, speaking to each other on the same terms.”
- That the “entire financial system is at this tipping point moment of really embracing a sustainable development perspective, where the most influential leaders in the world are making public statements about diversity, environment and climate change.”
- That there’s power in long term institutional change, driven by good people who work in government bureaucracies.
- Sustainable Seattle www.sustainableseattle.org
- Book – “Believing Cassandra: How to be an optimist in a pessimist’s world” by Alan AtKisson www.routledge.com/books/details/9781849711722/
- Song – “Dead Planet Blues” by Alan AtKisson Apple Music
- Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) www.sida.se/en/
- Parachuting Cats into Borneo: And Other Lessons From the Change Café
Connect with Alan AtKisson
I believe in the power of long term institutional change. One of the few really accurate predictions I’ve ever made in my life was that this was going to take decades, this work, and it has, but by taking decades it built up that momentum that you’re talking about.
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right? a project of the Post Carbon Institute, and we’re glad you’re here. Today, we have a special treat. Every one is a special treat, but this is very special for me because today’s interview is with Alan AtKisson. Alan and I met around 1988 and sort of grew up together in the new field of sustainable development, just hot off the presses then. Together, we started Sustainable Seattle, a citizen led group that developed one of the first comprehensive indicators of sustainability. We said at that time that our goal was that sustainability would be considered in every decision in the city of Seattle. That was sort of a bodacious goal, but that goal is being met many times over in many, many places. Alan’s book, Believing Cassandra, is still poignantly relevant. It was a plea for decision makers at every level of society to take the data about our deadly direction seriously. I was there also when he wrote a song “Dead Planet Blues”, roundabout 1989. His life is dedicated to never getting to that dead planet blue state.
A little bit about Alan. The official biography is that he has been recognized leader and innovator in the sustainable development movement for over 30 years. His books, tools and methods were widely adopted around the world for use in business, government, city schools and universities. Starting in 1992, he began travelling the world as a speaker, trainer and senior consultant in the field, visiting over 50 countries, led several pioneering initiatives and organizations, advised numerous companies and institutions, including the United Nations Secretariat and European Commission, and taught hundreds of officials and executives about the principles and practices of sustainability, innovation, change agentry, etc. In 2018, he stepped away from that role and the company he founded and took on the role of Assistant Director-General and Director of the Department of Partnership and Innovation at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida. As a government official he now represents Sida in international fora and manages a department of over 100 people, who focus on research, civil society, capacity development, catalytic finance, development, innovation, and partnerships with business investors and other Swedish government agencies. So in this conversation, Alan takes us behind the scenes in one of the world’s most rational pro-social and data-driven governments, Sweden, to see how sustainability done right looks. (That word sustainability has been a problem since the first day I said it.) So Alan lets us see how sustainability done right looks. I found it extremely illuminating, and saw things that I had never seen before from inside my dear beloved United States of America. Now, Alan.
Hi, Alan, it’s so good to be with you. For people who are watching, you just have to know that Alan and I met in the 1980s. So you are one of my longest term allies. I just want to also say because I want to, that one of my big memories is early on, we went to the Globe Scope Pacific Assembly together. That was like my first awareness of the idea of sustainable development. That’s where I learned the term. That’s where I was exposed to all the problems and some solutions. And that’s where I had the inspiration that transforming your relationship with money actually could help the biggest problem on the planet. That’s where we sat around and you wrote “The Dead Planet Blues”.
That’s good. I did. We were all profoundly and ironically moved by that conference at the same time. On the one hand, we were getting lots of good information from leading thinkers of the day and also from very prominent people, most of them had flown in by private jet. We were also sort of swooning at the irony of talking about issues of global poverty and sustainable development, in a fancy hotel in Los Angeles with a giant swan sculpture in ice.
I don’t remember the swan sculpture.
Oh, I remember the details. And that led to a certain, shall we say, ambiguous relationship with the contents of the conference. On the one hand, we were getting inspired. On the other hand, we were thinking of if this is how people are going to try to save the planet, we’re sort of doomed. And thus was born a song, “The Dead Planet Blues”.
Exactly. And do you care to do just one little stanza of it? I mean, you can blow it off, and we’ll just put it in the show notes.
<singing> “I got them ol’ dead planet blues.”
Okay, we’ll put it in the show notes so people can see it.
Yeah, it’s on Spotify, it’s on Apple Music. It’s everywhere. You can find it, definitely.
Yeah, so I bring this all up, because in our own ways… You more loyal to the issue than I, to the leading edge of the issue, to staying right on the point of sustainable development: What is sustainability? How do we get there? How do we accelerate our journey?… We’ve been on this for 30-35 years. You’ve really been through so many iterations. You’ve been a writer, you developed that amoeba game about how culture changes, you’ve developed games, you’ve led organizations, you started your own organization, and now here you are in Sweden, leading a government agency. So of all the people that I know personally, because I know you as a human and I know you as a leader; you’re the most loyal to this issue.
So here we sit, in 2021. And I don’t want to go into a whole long intellectual assessment of how far we’ve come. I mean, from my point of view, we’re not far enough by a longshot, and I would imagine yours as well. But it’s like: Where now? Given that there’s been so much breakdown, whether it’s the pandemic or… I don’t know how present our political insanity is in the United States to people in Sweden, but I guess you know that if the United States still sneezes, it actually affects everybody. I mean, it’s just been such a dispiriting year in terms of advancing the Sustainable Development Goals, advancing the project of sustainability, advancing the things that we need, the moves we need to make in a systemic way to get ourselves where we need to go. Always in any situation, wherever you are, there is still a window of opportunity. There’s windows that open as things fall apart. And so, the question that we’re asking all our guests in this podcast is in the presence of all that is going wrong, you as a cultural scout, as somebody who can see far and serves the common good: What do you see emerging that we can cooperate with? What are the energies right now that are alive, that hold promise from your point of view?
Boy, you don’t ask small questions, Vicki. But then, you never did. That’s one of the reasons I always like hanging out with you. First of all, a small correction. I don’t lead a government agency, I lead a piece of a government agency. I’m an Assistant Director General, which means I run a department, one of five departments that do the work of the agency SIDA, as it’s called; the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, which is like USAID for Sweden, you might say. So it’s kind of a little funny to listen to you describe me as someone who’s on the cutting edge, when of course, I’m sitting as a senior official in a government agency, and government agencies are not usually known for being at the very cutting edge. The fun thing about working at SIDA in Sweden is that it actually is – in development cooperation terms and in the terms of the sustainable development issues that we’ve been working on for a long time – is in many ways, at the cutting edge.
And Sweden itself is, you might say, a cultural scout in the development cooperation community, in a lot of the ways that we work in development cooperation and sustainable development; working to help lots of other countries on their sustainable development journey, gets recognized and copied. We have the benefit of being able to operate in that space in a way that, despite the fact that we’re pretty small compared to the country that you’re living in, we can have some influence there. But it still is kind of funny to think of myself as somebody on the cutting edge in the way that you’ve described people on your show here, as I was listening to previous episodes, because sustainable development for us, at my agency in Sweden, and in Sweden, it’s mainstream. It’s so mainstream. That’s one of the things that, it’s funny to say that something being so mainstream is something emerging. But that is, we’re finally at the point that you and I talked about 30+ years ago, that we needed to get to. We needed to get to the point where sustainable development and all that it means, a systems way of looking at the world, integrating the environmental and the social and the cultural and human; not sacrificing nature to increase economic prosperity, not sacrificing economic prosperity to improve nature, doing it both at the same time; working to help people improve their own lives, under the conditions that they determine are the ways to help their lives.
All those things that were a big dream 30 years ago, sort of a pipe dream, you might say, a wild-eyed utopian vision, are every day for me now. When the Swedish government, you might call them auditors, study the way that our bureaucracy is running and whether or not we’re following the various steering signals that we’re supposed to follow from our government. They’re looking to make sure that we’re doing things like working for environment and climate change, working for gender equality, working to do development cooperation from the poor people’s perspective, and a lot more. I mean, the very first thing I want to say is that, the thing that I see emerging, the thing that I see is positive, is 30 years of watching a truly wild-eyed utopian dream cooked up by a bunch of UN people and grassroots activists and academics back in the 70s and 80s, having become and still in the process of becoming everyday business, everyday policy, everyday bureaucracy, the everyday work of many, many 1000s of millions of people. I used to do a thing, Vicki, where I would every year, or every couple years maybe, do a kind of armchair analysis of how many people were working on sustainable development. You know, when we first met each other, it was in sort of the high three figures.
Right. Give me 1, 2, 3?
Yeah, there weren’t many people. It turns out I wasn’t the first person to put sustainability on their business card. But I was definitely among the earliest in that regard. But I gave up trying to do that count somewhere in the mid 2000s, when I was up in the several 100s of 1000s of people who were professionally employed in some way, as teachers, as consultants, as government officials, as sustainability officers in companies. Now that’s a long time ago that it became sort of mainstream. Now it’s deeply mainstream.
Now you’re at the point where – and here’s one of the things I think that people can start to think about where to engage. We’re at the point now where the entire financial system is at this tipping point moment of really embracing a sustainable development perspective, where the most influential leaders in the world are making public statements about diversity, about environment and climate change. Basically issuing warnings to the boards of directors of the companies that they in turn own, that: We’re gonna be watching you, and we expect you to perform on these issues, and if you don’t perform, there will be consequences in terms of where we place our capital. And that means that people in their ordinary financial lives thinking about their pension savings and everything else, are no longer restricted to tiny little niche funding opportunities. They can follow a general global development and vote with their dollars in terms of where they put their savings, and follow very well laid-out pathways for that. I’m not just talking about your ordinary saver; I’m also talking about large scale investors, who can now follow the signposts and help create half a million connections to off-grid electricity in Africa, which is good for the climate, good for literacy, good for women, good for a whole host of issues. So there’s no doubt about it, that we’re hopefully towards the end of a very down year. In the area where I spend most of my working hours these days, thinking about how to fight poverty and oppression with sustainable development, we figure we’ve lost maybe, we the World Bank and others, we’ve lost 3 to 5 to 7 to 10 years, depending on what you’re looking at. Those are big numbers. We’re not supposed to talk about problems on your show…
No, it’s okay.
But in terms of knowing what’s emerging, you got to know what you’re up against. What I know is that, well, the world has sort of slid downhill on some issues of climate change. We know how to climb that hill. It’s not going to take that long to climb it back up again. And we’ve also found some openings of the kind that you’re talking about. The whole dialogue around how to recover from COVID-19 is all around building back greener, fairer and better, which doesn’t just mean richer; it means better in the sense of in line with the planet’s boundaries, in line with what’s required to achieve a better life for everybody on the planet. So as you can see, if you ask me another question, I could certainly spin a tale of woe. And the last year has created a great deal of very, very serious woe for many millions of people, and that’s something we just can’t avert our eyes from. But at the same time, we’ve also learned quite a bit about how to recover, what to recover, what to take from what’s currently happening and use it.
For example, digital. One of the things we discovered was some of the conferences that we thought we were going to hold that were kind of exclusive, and maybe you’d invite some top decision makers from this sector and that sector, get them together in private rooms, and they talk about things and they advance the agenda. You know, that is part of how the world works, and is part of how people in top decision-making positions find out what it is that needs to be done now and what they should be doing. But what’s happened now is, since you can’t do that, a lot of those meetings went digital. They went big. And we discovered from our own agency, that meetings that we thought were going to have 100 or 200 people attending, had 6000 people watching the video. And 6000 people who, some of them being influential. A colleague of mine who works in the United Nations, recently was on one of these digital meetings. I won’t give too many details, but it was a relatively high level event with the institutions that you hear about in the press. Afterwards, got three phone calls from people who weren’t actually even in that meeting, but they were number one in their organization, and their number two had been there, for example, and heard what my colleague had been talking about and wanted in, wanted to help, had an idea; having to do with moving more financing into the area of sustainable development in poor countries. So, one digital meeting probably did more than if it had been a real meeting with people flying into that particular city from all over the world, etc. It still generated, or maybe it generates more. And another way, it also generates more inclusion, because people can participate in these meetings on equal footing. It’s not like I arrived in first class and you arrived on a boat with a bunch of bananas in the cargo hold, you know? We both arrived through the same digital fibers, into the same digital space, speaking to each other on the same terms. Anyway, so those are a few of the things I see emerging. I could babble on.
And so there’s Sweden, where you’re having the experience of the fulfilment, relatively stunning when you look back on it, stunning fulfilment of a pipe dream from 30 years ago, a context landing and influencing everything. What we said back in 1990 was, we want sustainability to be considered in every decision in the city of Seattle. We want it to be integrated. That was our goal. And you live somewhere where that’s happening, and that’s stunning, because we fight for that here. How does a country like the United States – which is still so influential in the world, even after all the tearing down of our reputation – how does a country like the United States catch the drift?
Since I have two nationalities, I do end up having to explain one to the other, and the other to the one in many contexts. So one of the things I constantly have to remind my European colleagues – because Sweden isn’t alone in being a leading embracer of sustainable development and policymaking both domestically and internationally, we have a lot of European countries and an entire European Union that’s been doing that too – but I always have to remind some of my European friends, I have to keep reminding that the United States is not a monolith. It’s not one thing. It’s 50 states and lots of cities, where there’s an incredible diversity of embrace, shall we say, of the Sustainable Development mindset, whether it’s using those words or not. You live in the region around Seattle, and that’s one of the places where it’s more represented than in other places. Then there are parts of the United States where we know that that’s maybe a less happy and welcome expression of local policy. But the same is true here in Sweden and in Europe. We have variations in our politics about how fondly people think about that concept, and Europe has famous fights about that. So it’s all about spectrum and centres of gravity and where things had shifted. We’re in the happy circumstance of more often arguing about the how, rather than the whether to do it. But that’s not uncomplicated.
One more thing, I just have to say this, because you asked me. It’s also really important to note in relation to what I was just saying, that the United States throughout all the last years has continued to do some really great stuff internationally, that I’m not sure if a lot of Americans are aware of. For example, there was an effort by the previous administration to reduce the international aid budget by 20 to 30%. And the administration never got it’s way on that. Congress always overruled them and increased the aid budget over those years. Now, there were big debates and polite but firm moments in meetings between, say, my country and the United States, around previous policies on gender equality and access to abortion and things like that.
But apart from those obvious points of stark disagreement, there continue to be quite a lot of US funding of solar energy in Africa, for example. One of the programs that we work with at my agency is called Power Africa. It actually started in dialogue with the previous administration, which also created something called Power Africa. We worked together on that for some years. We have two different streams of activity joined by a common name at the moment. And a lot of that stuff just kept going. So there was certainly a lot of things happening in the US context that political decision makers in my country found worrying. But there are also quite a lot of things that kept going very right. So it’s important to think about the United States as a country where, regardless of who’s sitting in the White House, there are millions of people working to try and make the world a better place. And a lot of them kept at it during a period of time when not all the forces in government around them were in favor of that particular policy. We watched that happening, from my perspective in my agency. Just a little notice. It’s a very appreciative and respectful dialogue that goes on between countries like this, and a lot that we appreciate in what the US does and a lot that they appreciate in what we do. We learn from each other and then we give each other criticism when we feel that has to happen, but that happens at the political level, not between people like me and my counterparts.
I think we’re gonna probably start to steer toward the end of this conversation. But what’s standing out for me is that, what could possibly go right is the basic weight of good people who work in government bureaucracies. I know that sounds like it’s not revolutionary, but there is a ballast. There’s a ballast, and when the ballast has momentum, it’s like a big tanker. And as we used to say in transformational teaching, it takes six miles to even budge the prow of a tanker because it’s just got so much weight behind it. What I’m hearing from you is interesting in two ways. Number one, the weight of the work of 30 years is in the hold of that tanker. Maybe you don’t think it’s a sailboat, it’s not moving fast enough, we still need Greenpeace out there. But still, that is moving. It cannot be thrown off easily by the whims of autocratic leader. And because of the news cycle, we get upset about statements made by autocratic leaders, of things that they want to have happen. But it doesn’t mean that they will happen. This is actually probably the swamp that the former president talked about; the immovable, the arc of the moral universe, if you will. This is where the arc of the moral universe is actually enacting itself in the good people who stay the course, who stay in their positions, and they keep moving the edge forward. I talked about you originally like a leading edge person, but you know, maybe this is the edge. Maybe it is the edge to work institutionally, and to keep the institutions going.
It’s also the case that there are multiple edges. Where the edge of innovation was 30 years ago is now probably, for example, in Africa. It’s not in my agency. Let me give you an example. One of the things I was thinking about; cultural scouts, what’s happening. And I’m glad you’ve gotten my one of my main messages, which is that I believe in the power of long term institutional change. In essence, we first started talking 30+ years ago. I think one of the few really accurate predictions I’ve ever made in my life was that this was going to take decades, this work. And it has, but by taking decades, it built up that momentum that you’re talking about. We are heading in the right direction with storms to deal with and all kinds of stuff.
But the other thing to say is that there is an enormous cadre, a generation of young people all around the world that is working really hard to advance the actual cutting edge right now; in everything from the arts to entrepreneurialism to artificial intelligence. We at SIDA, we teamed up with some colleagues in another institution in Canada, and we funded and recently launched a new initiative for research on artificial intelligence in Africa. I had the privilege of attending the launch digitally, of course, and I was gonna do the closing remarks, but I was listening to the whole thing. Of the panel of speakers, the moderator and the four speakers, experts in artificial intelligence talking about how they’re working in the African context to make artificial intelligence more responsive to their needs, make sure that the frameworks for regulating it were homegrown and to purpose and etc. It was four African women. 30 years ago, that would not have been the case, that the speakers on a panel about the leading edge of artificial intelligence research would have been four African women. I just thought, this is the cutting edge. And the millions of other people working in the countries where we work, who are innovating and working. And not just the people who are working at the sort of cutting edge of their particular professions, but the people in the refugee camps who are working to put a business together to give people access to a mobile phone or working with organizers to create a safe space for women who otherwise might be at risk if they go to get water across the camp somewhere where it’s not safe. All of those people are the real cultural scouts. That’s what I want to say.
Yeah, exactly. It’s so exciting, the things that leaped up for me about… My friend Douglas Rushkoff has a book called “Team Human”; it is sort of like Team Human. There’s a game and many of us are playing it. We’re playing it in our own places, and in our own ways, but there’s some sort of DNA of this thing that has come alive in amongst humanity. And there’s rearguard, there’s regressive people, and there’s all that dark stuff happening. But I can feel the light. I can feel the light through what you’re saying, and I don’t think you’ve just simply manipulated it for the purpose of this conversation. I think it’s actually, I drank the Kool Aid. I got it. I believe you. So thank you, Alan, for this wonderful update. Thank you.
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