2011/03/12 08:30 Alan Atkisson, "Stories of Transformation: Creating Resilient Systems in Challenging Times", Resilience 2011

Resilience 2011 --  Resilience, Innovation and Sustainability:  Navigating the Complexities of Global Change -- Second International Science and Policy Conference -- March 11-16, 2011

This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker's presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship, by David Ing.


Welcome by Sander van der Leeuw, Foundation Professor, Dean of the School of Sustainability, Director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change

Here because something we need to do

  • Beyond talk
  • Tipping points

Conference is second in series launched by 2008 by Stockholm Resilience Centre

  • Independent of organizations
  • Core is Resilience Alliance, but important to get a wider community, e.g. vulnerability community
  • Global environmental change organization will change over next few years, as unable to deal

Deliberately focused on a theme, across sectors

  • Only with a wide thematic view, that will be able to deal with issues at hand


  • 10 years ago, president, who had founded Earth Institute at Columbia, wanted to put sustainability at the core
  • Jed Redman, social environmental research
  • A lot on making the campus carbon neutral
  • 4 years ago, created the first school of sustainability
  • Now 500 undergrads, 100 grad students, 170 minor student
  • Across engineering, law, etc.

Break down the ivory tower, transdisciplinarity, and externally

  • University as core in the region
  • 22 cities

Green shirts

  • Haven't done anything at this scale, at the university

Printed program is not the final, final is on the web site

Heard Museum:  green dot on badge

Monday: policy day

  • Over lunch, Jared Blumenthal
  • Energy policy, water policy

Semester break, a lot of facilities are changed, i.e. catering facilities in this building

Art manifestations

Alan AtKisson: one foot in academia, one foot on the ground

  • Adventurous career: helping in drug treatments, sustainability
  • Also a musician

[Alan AtKisson]

Keeping Japan in thoughts, potential for nuclear disaster

Am not a researcher

  • Do publish infrequently
  • Primarily a practitioner
  • Usually spend time listening to researchers, and translating into other things
  • Thus, a reverse to be speaking

We tend to downplay the pleasure in the research

  • Bird migrations: why?

Report on meetings from yesterday

  • Re-energizing research .. in the context of complex systems
  • Why so little action on sustainability, considering so much talk?
  • Oren Young: 5 big problems
  • 1. Governance
  • 2. Inertia
  • Misplaced confidence in technology and substitutability
  • Cognition:  other people don't get it
  • Human nature: making choices that don't look reasonable
  • Johan Rockstrom: new social contract between science and society
  • Elinor Ostrom: no panaceas, scared of adopting one global solution
  • Brad Allenby:  Nobody understands where technology is going
  • Carlo Jaeger:  moved byond the stage of warning
  • John Finnigan: couple planetary boundaries to societal limit?

Need to understand

  • Speed of change
  • Types of change
  • Scaling up
  • Process of learning


  • New roles
  • Multi-modal, transdisciplinary
  • Improve communications

Complex systems thinker by nature?

  • Haven't grappled with what it means to be an animal, and overuse resources

We don't deal with the illusion of sustainability: Mad Hatter's Tea Party, clean cup, move down, so eventually return back to the situation

  • Hard to get these ideas across without metaphors

Leading environment economist, in the EU

  • Discount rate so that all species look less valuable in the future than in the present?
  • Economist said: don't worry, there's genetic engineering, and if society want them, can then recreate the species
  • Substitutability
  • This is someone on our side

Job is to take things like ...

  • Limits to growth, planetary boundaries ...
  • ... and convert to ...
  • Workshops, e.g. Strategy for Green Transformation (for Egypt)

Looking for leverage points and change agents (individual people)

  • Action sense
  • Planners


  • When started doing sustainability consulting 20 years ago, was the only one
  • Reports for a corporate client, Baltic Sea
  • Sometimes workshops, scenarios so can make decisions
  • Not science, but useful

Some unconventional methods

  • Playing guitar to defense
  • Sing

It's an inexact science

  • Do a lot of training with planners:  jumping to answer, missing the thinking
  • Do business, not science

Started enterprise as business, ability to fail

  • If sold work, a way of sharpening an axe
  • Not making a lot of money

Read Limits to Growth, 1972; Ehrlich; etc.

Worked with Dana Meadows

  • Dana didn't want to go to Sweden, suggested Alan take it

Wall Street Journal in 2008, acknowledge that Limits to Growth might have been right

  • Eco:nomics Conference
  • They're making money off this

But they're not thinking about planetary boundaries

  • If 2 degrees change, then OECD countries would have to deharmonize

Happen fast enough? Exponential growth

  • Can't talk about this, sing

We see exponential growth, the rest of the world sees a black hole of money

Postulate:  If we are in the "great acceleration", then we need an accelerated human response

Still takes Limits to Growth seriously

  • Pleasant future
  • No fun at all future

Sustainability jargon jungle

Sustainble Development Action Cycle:  9-step framework

  • From Alan AtKission,The Sustainability Transformation, Earthscan 2010
  • a. Boundaries
  • b. Thresholds
  • c. Goals
  • Policy makers can't start with complex systems, then need to start with indicators
  • Don't see analyses, entry points
  • Most people grab whatever is available

Simplify to ISIS:

  • Indicators
  • Systems
  • Innovation
  • Strategy
  • Action

Lure people into the complexity of the system, by looking at indicators

Intellectual roots?

Compass of sustainability, based on Herman Daly's work

  • 1997:  Daly as foundation for indicator definition
  • People from other cultures don't like well-being of individuals as hierarchical on top of society, economy and nature
  • Economy and nature interconnected
  • Thus, compass rather than hierarchical
  • Could be controversial with nature being first
  • Business people won't listen if you tell them they're secondary
  • Take indicators, normalize, and aggregate them up
  • Problem:  getting information through

The Signal Path:  Research --> Decision

  • After transmitting the message, release control by people who filter, weighting and evaluation

Was against aggregating indicators

  • However, decision makers wanted a single number, something simple
  • Market signal:  can't force people to interact with information in a way I think might be intellectually rigourous
  • Flashing red light, then then ask why, and then go to the diaggregated level

Still do compass today

  • Schools also use compass, sometimes for education for sustainable development

Why do this?

Faith: when commitment, more chance it's true

  • Optimists get more done than pessimists

The Hope Graph

  • Adapted from Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations
  • On one side, have unsustainable technologies and trends, that are exponential, with a coming collapse
  • But also a sustainable technology and trends curve, exponential, can we make it grow faster
  • Threshold

Applied Innovation Diffusion Theory

  • The Amoeba of Cultural Change:  a map of change
  • Fun, can do it as role playing game
  • Example, restoring fishing in Lake Edwards:  rule of law isn't quite right today, maybe in the future

Sustainable Seattle, started in 1993

  • Creating indicators
  • Now, 20 years later, creating Happiness Index, based on Gross National Happiness from Bhutan

ISIS Pyramid

  • How to get people engaged in a participatory way
  • Start with indicators
  • Look at systems, looking for entry points with leverage
  • When have leverage point, then is it education, economic, etc.? for most impact
  • Sweden and Estonia: eco region in the Baltic Sea

What works, and what doesn't?

  • Maybe 30% of interventions have worked
  • Succeeded mostly where people who are least free
  • e.g. army, corporations doing more than governments (e.g. disincentives in policy)

Global company, in Brussels headquarter, watched the 11th hour


Some observations:

  • Some transformations have occured, we aren't studying them enough
  • more are needed fast
  • It's possible to facilitate transformation
  • Small scale and large scale are linked
  • Role of science in this process is changing quickly

Transformatoins now underway

  • New meaures of progress
  • Green economy
  • Supply chain transparency