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EcoAP speaks with Alan AtKisson of the Balaton Group

11/02/2014

  • Experts interviews

Alan AtKisson is a Stockhom-based consultant and author who is recognised for his two decades of work on sustainability management and policy. He is an advisor to, and a former president of, the Balaton Group, a global network that focuses on sustainability and systems thinking.

The Balaton Group was established in 1982 by eco-pioneers Donella and Dennis Meadows, authors of the influential 1972 book The Limits to Growth. The main activity of the group is an annual retreat on research and strategy for sustainable development.

In 2013, AtKisson was appointed to European Commission president José Manuel Barroso's Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC) . In this interview, AtKisson discusses the influence of the Balaton Group, the benefits to Europe of prioritising sustainability, and why environmental constraints are a key to innovation.

 

The Balaton Group keeps a low profile, but is considered influential. What has been its main role?

Alan AtKisson: What makes the Balaton Group unique is that it has been around a long time, and so a core group has built up a lot of trust, which allows for a high level of collaboration across disciplines and cultural boundaries. For example, it brings in the latest social science and integrates that with economic thinking and natural science around resource consumption or other sustainability issues. Secondly, the Group has a rather deeply held perspective of systems integration, which is based on the science of system dynamics.

When I say integrated and system, it is important to know that those words are not “fluffy” in a Balaton Group context. The group's intellectual foundation is married with a very practical orientation. Projects spin out of the Group, often finding a home in another establishment or institution. The Balaton Group doesn't try to present itself as an initiator of projects; it just creates the environment in which people can find collaborations and then generate something quite concrete.

I can give examples across different decades. Back in the 1980s, the dialogue that happened in the Balaton Group context very much helped colleagues in Denmark in developing the initial policy initiatives that strongly contributed to that country's move to become the wind powerhouse that it is today.

Going into the 2000s, I can even pick a more specific example. One of our members, Junko Edahiro in Japan, was very much inspired by her exposure to the Balaton Group and has been translating sustainability thinking into and out of Japan ever since. One initiative is Candle Night – a particular night every year when people turn their lights off. The focus wasn't even so much on the energy saving, but was to create a sense of familiarity and cosiness and intimacy with family and friends. Millions of Japanese participate every year.

 

Is Europe getting the balance right on sustainability, or is there too much emphasis on economic growth at all costs?

Alan AtKisson: When I talk to friends and colleagues who are senior policymakers on sustainability in Europe, they always hope and wish that the Lisbon Agenda was not quite as dominant as the old Gothenburg Agenda, and that sustainable development was a stronger piece of Europe's future vision for itself.

However, there has been a lot of success for the integration of sustainability thinking into the very heart and mainstream of European policy, investment and development, particularly compared to other parts of the world. These things are relative and Europe is relatively far advanced. Some people believe that the precautionary principle is some kind of hindrance to Europe's science and technology and even economic growth. I actually believe quite the opposite. Very intensive research suggests that far from being hindered by the precautionary principle, innovation in Europe has been advanced by its use. That's one of the ways in which Europe has a chance to show the world what good science and technology and indeed what good economic growth can look like in a variety of contexts, including in the context of embracing the precautionary principle.

 

Should Europe go further in embracing the precautionary principle, with even stronger environmental policies, such as tighter emissions limits?

 Alan AtKisson: Here I want to reaffirm that I'm not speaking for the Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC) or even about the STAC. I personally support stronger emission standards. The science suggests that this is necessary for risk abatement, for preserving the options of future generations. But I also think that what we often perceive as costs are actually investments. This is one of the cases in which a stronger embrace of that limitation, in this case the limitations around how much carbon is acceptable, drives and could drive much more innovation – in the energy sector, in resource consumption, in city planning and many different areas.

 Then there are the cases where, regardless of where one sits on an issue, Europe has ended up on one side or another. The very volatile GMO debate is a good example. Many people in the scientific community understandably view restrictions on GMOs as inhibiting their ability to pursue certain kinds of science or get supported in Europe. But once the die is cast, regardless of where one sits on the issue, there we are: the EU now has the opportunity to show what it means to do agricultural research to advance productivity using technology that is constrained away from certain options and towards others. One may feel one way or another about whether that is a good situation, but it is the situation, and it presents opportunities for innovation.

 

Is the challenge for sustainable development to communicate the message that constraints should be embraced as drivers of innovation?

Alan AtKisson: The job of communicating the benefits of sustainability has certainly become much easier. The doors are more open for communicating that sustainability spurs innovation. Ten years ago saying things like that sounded like sales talk. Now it is already well established. Major corporations like Unilever or Nike have purposefully integrated their sustainability thinking into their long-term business plans and their innovation programmes, and they are watching the benefits accrue to their market position. The rhetoric of ten years ago has become the Harvard Business School case study of today.

From that perspective we have come a long way and it is now easy to make the case, particularly the systems thinking aspect: finding very important linkages between things that were previously seen as separate, and using these new ideas. Systems thinking is really crucial. Sustainability proves that embracing the absolutely fundamental physical limits of what ecosystems and social systems can tolerate leads to really dramatic innovative advances that can make great business. That's a message I'm happy to repeat as long as anybody will listen.

People are quite naturally always looking for every advantageous move that they can make. That's of course why we have policy and why we create common ground rules for everyone to play by. That's why a surprising number of larger businesses today are actually asking for lower emission targets or more ambitious sustainability-related targets of various kinds. I repeatedly talk to people in business now who complain that the policy machinery is behind where they want to be in terms of what they want and need to spur their own processes. It's not universal, and the industrial community is very diverse, but the fact that those leaders exist and that their companies are large speaks of the sea change that has happened in the way we think about these things. I would strongly encourage anyone sitting on the fence to take a hard look at the benefits achieved by companies that have embraced these more ambitious goals. When companies do embrace ambitious goals, it is almost always to the advantage of the business, regardless of what you think ideologically.