Designers have a special, challenging job, but it’s going to keep them busy for a long time: rethinking virtually everything in the world, and redesigning it for sustainability.
As the President and CEO of AtKisson Group, an international sustainability consulting network, Alan lives and breathes sustainable development and transformative change. When he isn’t consulting governments, companies, global NGOs and the United Nations; creating sustainability tools; getting inducted into the Sustainability Hall of Fame; or writing, speaking and singing about sustainability; he’s co-founding sustainability learning platforms like 17Goals.org and the very one you’re looking at now (read Oslo Manifesto’s founding story here). His books too, help make “doing” sustainability more approachable for all, and include the bestseller Believing Cassandra: An optimist looks at a pessimist’s world, The Sustainability Transformation, Sustainability is for Everyone, and, most recently, Parachuting Cats into Borneo which offers both philosophical and practical advice on the process of leading change.
Here we talk with Alan about taking responsibility, breaking free from unproductive systems, and why sustainable design is crucial to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Q: What are you working on these days? What are you most passionate about?
A: In my practice, I help change leaders and organisations implement sustainability — understand it, set clear goals, create effective strategies. Since 2015 the UN Sustainable Development Goals have truly been at the heart of that work. And yes, I’m passionate about the SDGs: I think they represent an enormous step forward in humanity’s ability to envision a positive future, and then take action of all kinds to make that future more possible.
“Sustainable design is crucial to nearly every aspect of the SDG vision.”
Q: What specific actions or initiatives are you taking for the Sustainable Development Goals this year?
A: First, we’re continuing the initiatives we set in motion two years ago: 17Goals.org, which gets thousands of visitors every month, from every country and sector; and the Oslo Manifesto project, which has a solid following in Norway, but which we also expect will give birth to a broader movement for the SDGs in the international design community. Sustainable design is crucial to nearly every aspect of the SDG vision.
I’m sure I’ll continue consulting to the UN Secretariat in New York, because it’s such an important institution and surprisingly under-appreciated for what it does. We need a strong UN!
I’ll also be speaking to a conference of university rectors in northern Europe, early in 2018, with the aim of helping them deepen the engagement of their institutions with the SDGs. Universities are extremely important actors in this global drama of long-term transformation.
And of course, I’ll continue to improve the tools we make available to help people learn, plan, and take action on the SDGs — the “Accelerator” as we call it. We launched a free “lite” version in connection with the UN’s launch of the SDGs, and now we have hundreds of people using these tools, around the world. Many of them are teachers, who are getting trained by our spin-off sister organization, CompassEducation.org.
And who knows what else will pop up!
“There is a vast economic system around you that drives you in exactly the wrong direction.”
Q: What do you think is most challenging in the design industry when it comes to sustainability?
A: Designers, like the rest of us, are embedded in systems whose routines and incentives are practically “designed” to make sustainability difficult. For example, if you’re designing a product or service that needs to compete on price, you’ll basically be forced to choose the cheapest materials and providers. In all likelihood, those choices will also be the least sustainable (ecologically sound, socially fair, economically innovative). There is a vast economic system around you that drives you in exactly the wrong direction.
Q: What do you think the solution is?
A: Well, it’s not an easy or short-term fix, but we have no choice but to change those systems: the incentives, the rules, the prices, and especially the scorecards that tell us whether we’re heading in the right direction. It is slow, patience-testing work. But that’s what I and many others have been focused on for a long time. The SDGs were a huge step forward in that process. So is the rise of carbon pricing, corporate sustainability reporting, the “circular economy” movement, and so much else.
This is a “one step at a time” process. But we need as many people as possible, taking those steps together, faster and faster.
“Designers do have a great deal of choice… And their training is all about ‘innovating within constraints.’ They can use their skills to find and choose more sustainable options, even when those options are still not perfect.”
Q: How do you view the role of designers when it comes to bringing more sustainable solutions into the world? How much responsibility should they take?
A: My answer here is the same for people in every profession: they should take their responsibility seriously. Designers do have a great deal of choice, even within the systemic structures I talked about earlier. And their training is all about “innovating within constraints.” They can use their skills to find and choose more sustainable options, even when those options are still not perfect.
And like everyone else, they can push against the system’s constraints, and say, “That’s not appropriate.” They can raise the awareness of buyers, bosses, the media, and say, “We can’t keep making or doing things like this, and if doing things more sustainably causes higher prices, that’s a signal that the prices are wrong.”
Change like this takes years, but design decisions last for years. So there is no time to waste. Designers have to stretch the envelope, push the boundaries, think out of the box, etc. And luckily, that is what they are trained to do.
“You can force compliance, but you can never force responsibility. That comes from having your own insights, a sense of ethics, a feeling of commitment.”
Q: How can we get more creative professionals to take responsibility and truly realize the difference they can make?
A: You can force compliance, but you can never force responsibility. That comes from having your own insights, a sense of ethics, a feeling of commitment. The best we can do is create environments and communications tools that support designers in cultivating their own insights about how best to achieve sustainability, so they start to see it as a basic, foundational element of their profession. That’s why I think the Norwegian conference series “Framtanker” was such a brilliant innovation on the part of DOGA (I wrote about that here). And that, in turn, gave birth to the Oslo Manifesto.
Q: Do you have any role models for sustainable design? What brand/organization/individual inspires you the most?
A: Oh, there are too many here! I’m a big fan of companies that embrace sustainable design — who really take it seriously, as part of their business model. I’ve been fortunate to have such companies as clients, and many of their designers are inspirational in their commitment.
And then, of course, I was inspired by the pioneers in the sustainable design field, people like Amory Lovins (a legendary energy expert) and Sim Van Der Ryn (a pioneering “green” architect). They and many others set the patterns and principles in place for the younger innovators that are creating revolutions in design today.
“Designers have a special, challenging job, but it’s going to keep them busy for a long time: rethinking virtually everything in the world, and redesigning it for sustainability.”
Q: Do you have any advice for creative professionals who want to get started integrating sustainability into their work?
A: Read about those early pioneers! They had a much tougher time getting their new, sustainable ideas into the mainstream than you are likely to have. Read the work of Donella Meadows, a pioneering systems scientist (and lead author of The Limits to Growth from 1972) who also wrote newspaper columns that are still full of wisdom. And then, get out and see the world. Visit places and people who are on the cutting edge today. Let their creativity and bravery rub off on you.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: It’s popular to say that we’re all designers today. For example, in my profession, consulting, we have “design thinking” now instead of traditional strategic planning. And I certainly felt like a designer when we were creating the tools, games, learning and planning processes in our Accelerator tools.
But I recognize the difference between that, and making decisions about the physical stuff — buildings, vehicles, clothes, toys, you-name-it — that fills our human world. Designers have a special, challenging job, but it’s going to keep them busy for a long time: rethinking virtually everything in the world, and redesigning it for sustainability.
Watch Alan AtKisson’s talk from DOGA’s 2017 Framtanker (Forward Thinking) Conference: