Tech Driving Behavioral Change: Talking with Autodesk U’s Emma Stewart

Notes from Autodesk University

The breadth and depth of the technological reach on display at Autodesk University, particularly for a first-timer such as myself, is, for lack of a less hackneyed phrase, overwhelming.

But what is important to eventually grasp at such an event is the transformative power of technology to drive behavioral – and thus societal – change. Skeptics of that idea can ponder what sort of smartphone they were using fifteen years ago, or ten, or five (or even that “smartphone” makes it past spell check). We live in a world driven by Moore’s Law.

To be sure, raw computing power – the basis of Moore’s Law – is not “the answer” for positive change or a sustainable future – but is nonetheless a requisite key for enabling the best of human endeavor now and into the future.

Confessions of a pessimist blogger

While in Las Vegas last week for the Autodesk University (AU), I was provided the opportunity to interview and talk with some leading figures at Autodesk involved with issues of sustainability, mostly in terms of the AEC sector, but also in a more “theoretical” sense, often belying my tendency at times toward pessimism – a pessimist in a sea of optimism, I’m used to it.

Frankly, I didn’t travel to Las Vegas (more on that later) to hear more of the vague, pie-in-the-sky talk of “sustainability” that too often wafts through the blogosphere and eludes concrete description or definition.

True sustainability defies any easy, painless, or single fix. It isn’t found in one company, or sector, or national policy. Achieving it will require a common vision across social, economic, generational, national,and cultural divides. In short, it means a behavioral shift of the likes rarely seen – certainly not by you or I (yet) – and  that too often seems agonizingly distant.

Seeing the whole

No technology or company can hope to accomplish such a behavioral change on its own – nor should it. But two key aspects of how Autodesk can effectively serve that “execution toward a goal” are best defined by two simple words: Integration and visualization. Seeing the whole.

Autodesk used “The Power of the Possible” as their slogan at AU, but integration and visualization are what best define what is possible, and were the keynotes, at least for me, throughout the event.

Devils, details, solutions

The devil is, as always, in the details. And in the details lay the answers to some of our greatest challenges.

Visualizing the consequences of a variety of answers for a specific “detail” – the energy and resource flows of a planned building (or entire community, or single cubicle), managing increased demand on a watershed, providing the mechanism to help make possible the elusive global agreement on climate change – provides the potential to define the best solution to these challenges and then execute confidently toward that goal.

Autodek's Emma Stewart talks of how technology can drive behavioral changeFor people like Emma Stewart, who started with Autodesk as Senior Program Lead for Autodesk’s internal Sustainability Initiative and recently moved her considerable expertise to the AEC division, the discussion of sustainability, policy, and solutions roll off her tongue, it is a language she speaks every day.

Following is an undoubtedly inadequate synopsis of my thirty-minute conversation with Stewart, where she challenged my pessimism and helped me understand why she and her colleagues take their mission at Autodesk with enthusiasm and promise, and why I should perhaps allow more optimism into my worldview.

I can only touch on some issues we discussed, and I use her words as much as possible, as she is much more fluent in the language of sustainability than I.

International climate agreement

TriplePundit readers are aware that COP16 is happening right now in Cancun (in fact, it’s nearly finished). But in sharp contrast to the frenzied media circus at last year’s COP15 conference in oh-so-cold Copenhagen, COP16 was largely forgotten even before it began. We started our conversation here, with my assertion that the apathy toward the current international climate summit, combined with a steady march backward in US political leadership, gives little to see as hopeful for COP16.

But Stewart sees solutions on the horizon for some of the more intractable issues involved in any climate treaty – namely, measurement and verification. Wow, that doesn’t sound very exciting, but just try to make any grand ideals and goals laid out in a global treaty work without it.

“I do believe there has been some progress charted around agreements for the need for measurement and verification,” Stewart told me. “In particular in order to create the confidence needed for technology transfer and funding from the industrialized world to developing countries.”

“So that is a foundational building block that is needed, and technology plays a very large role in that. Whether it’s GIS mapping of rainforest to confirm that avoided deforestation is being maintained in Asia and Brazil, or whether it’s sub-meters in buildings and new wireless sensor technology allowing building owners to get a better sense of what their building is consuming. An therefore carbon offsets and this ‘avoided good’ that is … invisible, suddenly becomes visible.”

Back to the future

“As silly as it may sound”, says Stewart, “since the 70’s we’ve forgotten that efficiency is the best and most cost effective form of emission abatement and, more important, weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.”

And the reason for that, says Stewart, lay in the how the human brain tends to compartmentalize when faced with complexity. With a Ph.D in environmental science, policy, and management, Stewart understands how specialization can break down a holistic understanding of interrelationships between processes, systems, and disciplines.

“Hundreds of years ago our buildings were designed based upon their local climactic zones, and based upon the community usage, and based upon future adaptive reuse,” Stewart explains. “Today, they’re cookie-cutter structures that bear no relevance to the buildings around them, or the climactic zone, or the grid they’re pulling from. So you need that data embedded natively in the tool you’re using – and you need it almost to jump out at you.”

With the rapid advances in Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Geospatial Information Systems (GIS), that data is increasingly available early in the design phase of project, making just such “jumping” of data an ever more present reality. With such technology, Stewart sees a  renaissance toward a much more holistic approach to planning and design in the built environment.

Combine this with the potential of the cloud, and a fundamental shift sustainable design is afoot, according to Stewart.

Computing in the cloud – a new definition of knowledge

“In the environmental world,” Stewart says, “people look at cloud computing as more efficient computing. I do not – at all. I look at it as the changing the way we define knowledge.”

“Because, sure, you can pull – reduce the energy draw of a server by 90 percent by virtualizing it; that’s not interesting to me – that’s only marginally interesting to me. What’s really interesting is now through the cloud, I, general contractor, engineer, MEP, architect, can pull weather data, can pull from the DOE’s analytical engines through the cloud, and run multiple scenarios.”

“So we’re moving towards a world where the technology is able to run millions of times and therefore iterate on your behalf, make mistakes on your behalf, and ultimately help you optimize for whatever parameters you set up. And energy could easily be one of them. So we’re taking some of the onus off of the user and putting it in the cloud. And that is what is exciting to me…. I think the true sustainability potential of cloud computing is smarter design.”

(Read Stewart’s 2009 article “The Sustainability Potential of Cloud Computing: Smarter Design” published in Environmental Leader)

Las Vegas?

Ah yes, the big pink elephant in the room – flying to Las Vegas – that power-and-soul-sucking town in the middle of the desert – to talk with someone about sustainability. I plead guilty.

Not so much to assuage that guilt but more as an example of volunteer accounting of carbon footprint, I asked Stewart about the consequences of such a “mega-event” as AU.

Stewart says that “every lightbulb” used for AU at the Mandalay Bay last week is accounted for as a Scope III emissions for Autodesk. There were upwards of 7000 in attendance, so that’s a lot of, um, “lightbulbs.” But all sarcasm aside, it plays right into Stewart’s original role at Autodesk as Lead for their internal sustainability program.

“We’re not a huge energy user,” says Stewart, “our footprint when we started measuring it was 83,000 metric tons… tiny! It’s now 46 (metric tons), so we’ve made a big cut. But, we also decided – made a concerted effort – to start accounting for very indirect emissions, Scope III emissions. And AU was one of them, because my first take on it was ‘we’re flying how many people? And putting up how many people?’ in a space that was not necessarily designed for optimal… in fact the opposite. So we started tackling this question, and it means asking a lot of questions of a lot of suppliers how have never been asked this question before…”

“…So even though we’re not Walmart in terms of our footprint, just by function of asking the question we’ve actually developed now templates for how to footprint events that other companies are using because no one had ever done it before.”

(Learn more about Autodesk’s innovative, open source approach to corporate emissions targets, known as C-FACT (Corporate Finance Approach to Climate Stabilizing Targets)

A time when “sustainability” is no longer an issue

There will be a time when all this talk of sustainability and sustainable design will, hopefully, cease. “Sustainability” will be a given, and it will just be “design.”

Until then, we’ll keep talking about it, no doubt. But more importantly there will be people like Stewart and her colleagues at Autodesk, as well as all the other forward-leaning companies and individuals highlighted here in TriplePundit (many of whom utilize Autodesk tools to envision a better reality), hard at work in the trenches of creating the means to make it happen.

But, to bring the discussion full circle, it will require a sea change – even for those that now think they don’t care a whit about “sustainability” (and they’re out there).

To paraphrase Cassius as he pondered the future with Brutus, “Our fate, dear Brutus, lies not in our technology, but in ourselves.” We must decide what our fate will be. Technology cannot answer that question. But it will certainly help lead to the answer, and drive the behavioral change required to reach the goals we set for ourselves. With it, we can “see the future” and the consequences of the decisions we make today.

And me? Well, I’m a pessimist. But as George Will once said, “The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised.”

Talking with people like Stewart gives me hope that I’ll be pleasantly surprised.


Visit Autodesk’s Sustainability Workshop

Visit Autodesk labs to see (and try) the latest innovations under development at Autodesk

Image credits: Adrian Midgkey, courtesy Flickr; Autodesk

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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