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Tom Schueneman headshot

Autodesk: Redefining Sustainability

Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

This has been the generally accepted definition of sustainable development since it was laid down in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brudtland Commission). Put more simply, do no harm.

Even this generally accepted description seems a daunting task in a warming world with ever more billions of people all grappling for finite resources.

Kicking off their second annual Sustainability Summit last week, Lynelle Cameron, Autodesk’s director of sustainability, upped the ante by changing two words of the Brudtland definition: “Meeting the needs of the present generation while improving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Two simple words that make a significant difference–more then just leaving the earth as we found it, but leaving it better off than we found it.  “Doing more good, not less bad.”

Vision and commitment

“It’s really this vision of a restorative economy,” says Cameron, “ Where people and planet are thriving that inspires and drives the work of many of us here at Autodesk.”

The Sustainability Summit is indeed Autodesk’s opportunity to showcase that vision, not only for Autodesk, but more importantly to demonstrate the innovative spirit of their partners and customers in their drive toward sustainability.

 “Our customers are the ones that are designing better buildings, products, whole cities that use less energy and less material. These are the people that are designing buildings that generate energy, technologies that purify water, that turn waste into new materials. These are the people that we have deep confidence in to actually turn around the situation we are in today.”  Not just “doing less harm, but doing more good.”

Finding simplicity, thinking “outside the box”

The tools Autodesk makes available to planners, designers, and inventors make possible some cutting-edge achievement in building and product design.  Sometimes, the best, most sustainable solution means repackaging existing technology or “finding ways to do things that nobody intended,” says Hydrovolts CEO Burt Hamner.

Using Autodesk digital prototyping tools like Inventor and Inventor Fusion, Hydrovolts has designed simple turbines able to tap an abundant yet underutilized source of “micro” hydropower from irrigation canals and channels. The turbines are installed and generating power within an hour, all without destructive dams, years of planning and construction, or slicing through an ecosystem.

“Innovation is re-positioning something someone hadn't seen," says Hamner. "That's how we focused on irrigation canals."

“The innovation comes from taking something originally proposed over here, repackaging and visualizing how it will work in this new space. So for us, the ability to take a design that was originally proposed for the ocean in Scotland and say ‘if we put this in the California Aqueduct underneath I-5, would it work.’ And the answer might be yes or no. But until you literally have the ability to visualize it – just doing math and stuff on paper doesn’t help – you’ve got to be able to see it," Hamner explains.

"Autodesk …software are invaluable tools for helping us digitally visualize and then revise our designs. And by using the Eco Materials Advisor within Inventor, we can weigh all the ecological impact together with performance and financial impacts of materials for our turbines. Autodesk technology is simply more efficient than anything we’ve tried.”

Taking an existing idea, in this case hydro turbine technology, and turning it on its head to arrive at a new sustainable solution: simple, efficient, and effective.

Finding your mustard: sustainability will not be forced

Perhaps it can be coaxed, guided and assisted, but not forced.

Take the case of the Eco-Fridge design project by Cal Berkeley graduate engineering students Daniel Talancon and Vince Romanin. Much of the lesson they learned in their New Product Development class focused on how design must meet the needs and expectations of the user.

“It’s a balancing act between introducing something completely different and innovative and building on what’s already there,” Talancon says.

“You can make a new compressor that’s 50 percent more efficient, but if somebody opens their refrigerator door and stands there looking for their mustard for five minutes, it’s pretty much a waste. You have to look at where you want to focus your efforts by looking at people’s habits, looking at their needs, and really focusing on where you can make the biggest impact if you want to change people’s lives for better sustainability.”

Solving the mustard search problem could mean a negative reinforcement like a door alarm or the door attempting to force itself shut, but users don’t take kindly to their refrigerators scolding them when all they want is the mustard.

So Talancon and Romanin designed a passive solution of simply organizing the interior of the Eco-Fridge to enable users to be more organized and know where things are.

We really tried to focus on helping them save energy and not forcing them to save energy,” says Romanin.

By combining cutting-edge design with a mindset of helping people make the "right" choices - "finding their mustard" - sustainability as a core human value takes root. Slowly, perhaps, but surely.

Better tools, better decisions

Autodesk CEO Carl Bass understands that achieving sustainability, especially as his ambitious team defines it, is a monumental task and far from fruition. But it is the "most important problem for civilization," and no great achievement or human endeavor has been accomplished without those with a vision of what might be possible, given the right tools in the hands of the right people.

“We give them the tools to let them make better decisions,” says Bass

That, in a nutshell, is Autodesk’s mission for sustainability - to provide the tools that enable those with a vision for a better world to go out and build that world. If we can see it, visualize it, we can make it.


Thomas Schueneman headshotThomas Schueneman

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com 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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