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Thomas Schueneman headshot

Design for a Better World: Autodesk Doubles Down on Its Commitment


In the beginning: The gizmo that changed the world

In 1982, Time magazine named the personal computer its “Machine of the Year.” Subtitled “the computer moves in," Time’s designation foreshadowed what its writers could barely imagine. The mainframe had been around for decades, of course; but they were anything but personal, requiring a crew to run one.

It was also in 1982 when John Walker and a dozen or so of his colleagues pooled their resources to launch Autodesk and its flagship product AutoCAD.

Unbeknownst to the editors at Time, and nearly everyone else, silicon and Moore’s Law would usher in a new age of digital design and, more importantly, a renaissance of human imagination.

And it was all based on an odd little gizmo yet unsold on a skeptical public.

Imagination: The best tool

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” - Albert Einstein

What the public then grappled with, people like Walker and fellow programmer Michael Riddle understood: The computer could be a visualization tool for designers. AutoCAD was the culmination of Riddle’s early work -- which, at the time, was still awaiting the hardware to achieve its commercial potential.

Autodesk started on the idea of building better tools for designers. From there, it took off. The company not only created the tools, but also an ethos of design in service of building a better world. Such statements are often dismissed as marketing-speak. Who doesn't want to "make a better world," after all?

But Autodesk has walked the talk for more than three decades, opening avenues of possibility for designers and engineers to "create a future where we all live well and within the limits of our planet."

Who could have imagined all this back in 1982?

Lynelle Cameron on designing for a better world

TriplePundit champions the idea that a company's culture is just as important as its bottom line. Businesses provide real value by giving their employees a sense of purpose, their customers quality, and their shareholders a return on their investment.

Autodesk embodies these core principles. It's the kind of company that stays on TriplePundit's radar.

We sat down with Lynelle Cameron, VP of sustainability for Autodesk and CEO of the Autodesk Foundation, for an hour-long discussion about how designers and techies can continue to craft the economy of tomorrow.

Many readers may already be familiar with Cameron's leadership, but it's worthy of review.  Her experience in business and environmental stewardship comes, one might say, from the ground up.

She got her feet wet by leading expeditions for NOLS, the global nonprofit wilderness training school. As program director of the Mountain Institute, she worked in some of the planet’s most remote mountain communities.

Cameron then took her talents and experience to the corporate world, developing sustainability programs for Hewlett Packard and her years of leadership with Autodesk and now the Autodesk Foundation.

In her spare time, she sits on several boards, including the Center for Environmental Health and the Biomimicry Institute.

Our conversation ranged from the election of U.S. President Donald Trump to the brokenness of our relationship with nature, and how the human imagination can still mend it.

No solution is not first imagined. Within the context of a growing urban population, Cameron articulated the role Autodesk can play in imagining a better-designed world, especially through her leadership of the Autodesk Foundation, and how other stakeholders can do their part.

The song remains the same

Anticipating my first question, Cameron was unhesitant, reinforcing one core message: While a hindrance, the election of Donald Trump is no deterrent for Autodesk. Any reversal in policy and tone from the new administration and its global implications doesn’t alter the company’s objective.

Since our talk, Trump has made good on his promise to go after Obama-era environmental policy and initiatives. His series of troubling, hastily thought-out executive orders threaten decades of bipartisan support for fundamental U.S. environmental policy.

Trump's "keep-everybody-off-balance" leadership style is jarring, even for the industries Trump purports to champion. There is an inevitable sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop. One hundred-plus days in, there is little sign that will change.

But like it or not, Trump is learning (perhaps) that just because he says it is so, does not make it so.

In any case, "it absolutely hasn’t changed our strategy at all,” Cameron told 3p of Autodesk.

For Cameron and her colleagues, the mixed messages and antagonistic tone from Washington only reinforce their obligation to take a stand. Whether climate or immigration,"It has shone a spotlight on the urgency for the private sector to voice our opinion on the role of government."

"There is a groundswell among U.S. companies to not be quiet."

We all inhabit a developing world

History is replete with examples of the consequences of a zero-sum, one-versus-the-other worldview.  Besides the human suffering triggered by divisions of class, ethnicity, religion or what have you, attempts to meaningfully address the "wicked social problems" of climate change and sustainable human development often appear beyond reach. Even a staunch, protectionist, winner-take-all strategy cannot stave off the reality of planetary limits. Eventually, the tragedy of the commons arrives at everyone's back door.

Decades of struggling to define our "common yet differentiated responsibilities" among nations in a world divided have led to the Paris climate agreement and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. Plainly aspirational at their core, these global directives arguably represent the best chance we have for an appropriate international response.

“Two-thirds of our customers are from outside the U.S.," Cameron told us. And where governments fall short, she emphasizes the responsibility of the global private sector to take up the slack.

"We have got to engage our customers to help solve this climate challenge," she insisted, "because they're uniquely suited to [do so] and are making some of the most important decisions, regardless of what happens in the government and other sectors."

"What we try to do is lead by example, and I think others will follow suit."

Setting the corporate benchmark

Autodesk set corporate science-based emissions targets in 2009. Many thought it "was ridiculous way back then," Cameron recalled. Today? Not so much.
"Same thing with putting climate in your 10-K [an annual financial filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission], powering your business with renewable energy, or setting an internal price on carbon."

Autodesk continues to set an example for others to follow. Cameron is "optimistic" that in the eight years since the company outlined those first C-FACT targets, convincing clients and partners of the "business case" for sustainability "no longer need be so much of a discussion."

"I think our customers see the connection between energy and cost savings," Cameron said. "They understand that if you want to be in business for the long-term, climate change is something you need to consider."

It is a common and treacherous path we are on. Industrialized or emerging, rich or poor, we all in a sense inhabit a developing world.

Design like you give a damn

In the essay Journey to Earthland: The Great Transition to Planetary CivilizationPaul Raskin writes, “Simulation models help illuminate the technical plausibility of different scenarios by evaluating the realism of their assumed socioeconomic patterns in light of resource and environmental constraints."

That's a fancy way of saying that modeling, simulation, and visualization leads to better designs and better outcomes.That may not be exactly what Raskin had in mind, but It for Autodesk, it remains the driving principle.

  • AEC: From AutoCAD to Insight 360 (and everything in between), Autodesk continues to transform the AEC (architecture, construction and engineering) sector. Autodesk tools are used daily by architects and engineers around the world. As for construction, Autodesk now looks to the opportunity for "not just optimizing the design of a building, but the construction site."

  • Manufacturing: No longer some esoteric, impractical process, 3-D printing continues to come into its own.

Using Autodesk software, Airbus Industries designed the "bionic partition" for use in the A320 jetliner. The bit of the airplane separating the main cabin from the galley, the partition seems a rather insignificant part of the airliner. But in an airplane, weight is never insignificant. The bionic partition is nearly 50 percent lighter than current designs. Once testing is complete, the component will reduce fuel consumption, costs, and emissions.

Using the process of "generative design," the partition is just a first step in what Airbus calls its "vision of the plane of 2050."

Generative design mimics "nature's evolutionary approach," and is "super exciting," said Cameron, who, as mentioned earlier, sits on the board of the Biomimicry Institute.

"[Generative design] leverages the best of the technology and computer with people focusing on what they do best."

We're only scratching the surface with these examples, but they show what's possible when, to borrow from the title of Cameron Sinclair's book, people have the tools and motivation to "design like they give a damn."

Let people flourish

As impressive as her resume is, it's when you sit down and talk with Cameron that the passion and motivation for what she does are most palpable. Her career is more a calling than a job.

From its inception way back in 1982, the brilliance of Autodesk’s evolution as a company is allowing people like Cameron, and so many others, to flourish. The company's ability to influence and support sustainable design across the globe makes it what the authors of "Influencer" call a "positive deviant." Where others see problems, Cameron and her colleagues see solutions.

She sums it up best: "Thank God I am working at this company right now. I can't think of a better place with which to effect the change that needs to happen."

It is this drive and unflagging optimism that enable their customers and partners to flourish. Indeed, Camerons recognizes partnership and connection as key Autodesk's success.

Large or small, startup or Fortune 500, rural village or metropolis, connecting people, shaping ideas, and harnessing the best of the human imagination is, as Cameron put it, Autodesk's "secret sauce."

"People have agency," Cameron insisted. "I think we are collectively more ready to make that shift."

In a human-designed world, what we imagine is what becomes real.

Image credits: 1) Unsplash, 2) sushipingdanist; 3) wikimedia.org

Thomas Schueneman headshot

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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