A Professional Profile: Alan AtKisson
Alan AtKisson has been working at the forefront of sustainability leadership and innovation since 1988, when he first became managing editor and later executive editor of the pioneering journal In Context: A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture. In 1991, he co-founded and co-led Sustainable Seattle, the first such urban initiative of its kind, which was recognized by the United Nations as a best practice and copied by other cities around the world. In 1992 he founded a one-person consultancy in Seattle, advising small business associations, non-profit organizations, and city governments. Today, the global AtKisson Group network has offices, affiliates and associates in a dozen countries around the world. Alan serves as president of the Group. He advises national governments, global companies, large NGOs, and United Nations offices on sustainability strategy. Through the AtKisson Group’s professional development division, ISIS Academy, he also trains and coaches executives and officials from around the world on how to improve and accelerate their sustainability change efforts. He is the author of five books and co-author of several others, and he gives dozens of speeches, lectures, and seminars every year on current issues in global sustainability. A dual citizen of Sweden and the United States, Alan is comfortable working in English, Swedish, and French.
Alan is the author of Believing Cassandra and The Sustainability Transformation, two widely read introductions to the concept and the practice of sustainability. The books were issued in new editions by Routledge/Earthscan in 2010; and his work has been translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Russian.
He is also lead author of the ground-breaking report on new economics, Life Beyond Growth (2012), published by Random House Japan; and a contributor to several other multi-author volumes, including Worldchanging (2006) and The Natural Advantage of Nations (2005). His essays and articles have appeared in many trade publications, journals, and websites In 2012 he published his essays (Because We Believe in the Future), as well as his Collected Poems: 1982-2009.
Alan graduated first in his class from Colonial High School in Orlando, Florida, in 1977, and received an academic scholarship to Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was educated in philosophy, science, and cultural studies at Tulane and also at Oxford University in the UK. In 1981 he was named a Henry Luce Scholar, a post-graduate fellowship that permitted him to live for a year in Malaysia, where he worked as a counselor for Malaysian heroin addicts.
On his return from Malaysia in 1982, at the age of 22, he moved to New York City to pursue a career in music (while also working as a furniture mover, free-lance writer, and Wall Street typist). He wrote songs, led rock bands, performed with folk ensembles, and generally participated in the acoustic music scene in New York’s Greenwich Village.
Starting in 1985, with his designer partner, Alan co-owned and managed a designer clothing company based in New York. The company grew very quickly and sold its products to the top-rank department stores in the United States. However, after about three years, Alan and his partner decided to close the business because they did not want to make the ethical compromises (including bribery demands) that growing a small clothing company in New York seemed to require at that time.
Alan’s career then found its real direction. In 1987 he became the director of the U.S. branch of a small organization dedicated to peace and international exchange, called Servas. At the same time he launched a small magazine on change called Ascent. In 1988, after publishing just one issue of Ascent, he was offered the job of managing editor for the journal In Context, founded by the pioneering sustainability theorist Robert Gilman. In Context was focused on sustainability, systems thinking, and culture change, and was the leading U.S. journal of its kind at the time. Contributors and interviewees included Al Gore, Amory Lovins, Lester Brown, and many other sustainability pioneers. Among the contributing editors to In Context was Donella “Dana” Meadows, lead author of the classic bestselling sustainability book The Limits to Growth (1972). Dana Meadows became a friend and mentor whose impact on Alan’s professional life was decisive. Alan’s approach to sustainability, which integrates system dynamics and tough-minded strategic analysis with creativity and inspiration, owes a great deal to her influence.
In 1990, with a group of five other colleagues, Alan co-founded the Sustainable Seattle initiative, which led to the development of the world’s first urban sustainability indicators, produced through a large, volunteer-driven, citizen and expert consultation process. Sustainable Seattle became a model for similar programs in many countries, and Alan became known as an expert on sustainability indicators and strategy. Beginning in 1992 he began traveling internationally to give keynote speeches and seminars, and he worked with several leading think tanks and international scientific review processes, as well as dozens of city, regional, and international initiatives in sustainable development.
Throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s, Alan and his growing network of colleagues continuously developed tools and methodologies for working with sustainability and change. These include the Sustainability Compass, the ISIS Method, the “Amoeba” model for strategic change agentry, and the collaborative sustainability learning and planning workshop process known as Pyramid. These tools, which have been documented in a number of scholarly publications and which are also described in Alan’s books, have now spread around the globe. They have been used in a very wide variety of contexts, from aboriginal communities in Australia to corporate leadership teams, and from villages in Indonesia to national and international government planning processes in Europe.
While he has worked continuously as a consultant since 1992, Alan has on several occasions taken on chief executive positions, either as a short-term transitional leader to help implement transformational change in an organization, or as a volunteer presiding officer. In 1996-1997 he served as Executive Director of a then-prominent economics think tank based in San Francisco and Washington DC, called Redefining Progress. “RP” was focused on developing alternative indicators to the GDP and to mainstreaming sustainability ideas into economics. Alan developed its national indicator programs and also led the organization, which had 25 staff, through a one-year leadership transition.
In 2005-2007, he served as the transitional executive director for the Earth Charter Initiative, a civil society process known for having produced a widely endorsed statement on global sustainability ethics, the Earth Charter. Alan worked with its high-level Commission and Steering Committee to reorganize the Initiative, transition to a new structure and governing Council, build new programs and funding relationships, and generally strengthen the Initiative’s strategic capacities.
In 2006, Alan was elected President of the International Network of Resource Information Centers, better known as the “Balaton Group.” The Balaton Group, founded in 1982 by Dana and Dennis Meadows, is a network of leading sustainability researchers and practitioners from around the world. Alan first joined the group in 1992, and many of his innovations and contributions to the field of sustainability were influenced by Balaton Group network processes. As president (a volunteer position), Alan expanded the governing board, initiated the development of a new co-presidential governance structure, and worked with colleagues to secure new funding resources and revive the organization’s Donella Meadows’ Fellows program (which supports brilliant young researchers), while managing its core program of annual meetings and collaboration processes. Although the Balaton Group is quite influential in sustainability circles, it is not widely known because it has generally pursued a quiet, behind-the-scenes strategy of fostering collaboration and innovation across disciplines, national boundaries, and generations. Many highly visible initiatives in sustainability have started off as small working groups at a meeting of the Balaton Group, and then been spun out into other institutions. In 2012, the extraordinary history of this 30-year-old network was the subject of a special issue of the international journal Solutions. Also in 2012, after a six-year term, Alan stepped down from the position of co-president; but he remains a very active member and Senior Advisor.
In recent years, Alan’s work has focused on advising international institutions (such as the United Nations) and large companies (including Levi Strauss and Ernst & Young), and on coaching and training executives working in sustainability-related disciplines, in both the public and the private sector. He also supports several training programs for officials in Africa and Asia. In 2013, he was selected to serve on the President’s Science and Technology Advisory Council, reporting to European Commission President Manuel Barroso and the EU’s Chief Science Advisor, Anne Glover.
Throughout his career, Alan has maintained his love for music and has often found ways to bring music and other forms of creative expression into his lectures and presentations (when called for). Over the years, he has produced six albums as a singer-songwriter, three of which are currently available on iTunes and other digital platforms. He is currently working on a new studio album for release in 2013.
Alan is a dual citizen of Sweden and the United States. He lives in Sweden (since 2001), married to his partner, Kristina AtKisson, who also works in the field of sustainable development. They live just outside Stockholm, in an environmental demonstration house that they designed and built in 2009. They have two children.