In constructing our modern world, we have exceeded planetary boundaries that we didn’t even know existed. From the perspective of design, this represents an under-constrained development. In the past, designers focused on what they understood to be important: the economic constraints of cost, performance and reliability. It is only now that we are beginning to take the broader constraints that define a product’s impact on the planet into consideration.
This was the theme of my recent conversation with Lynelle Cameron, Autodesk’s senior director of sustainability and philanthropy. Autodesk is a world-leading provider of computer-aided design (CAD) software. When asked why she decided to come to Autodesk after working in sustainability for a decade at HP and elsewhere, Cameron said: “I realized that this little design software company was sitting on a gold mine of opportunity.
"If we could embed ecological intelligence into software, that would make it easy for designers of buildings, highways, cities, consumer products, you name it, to make better decisions about what is being designed, without needing to be experts on things like energy, materials, water and all that.”
That has been Cameron's primary focus for most of her eight years at Autodesk, though it’s recently been expanded to include the company’s philanthropy. She has been working to better align giving with “Autodesk’s core business of design, as applied by those working in the social sector as well as early stage startups that are using design to tackle some of today’s most epic challenges.”
This builds on earlier efforts by the company to make its software available to clean-tech companies.
Cameron speaks of designers almost in Rodney Dangerfield terms, as being overlooked and under-appreciated. But at the same time, she recognizes that the door is beginning to open for designs that embrace and embody sustainability principles to become more fully appreciated in the marketplace. Autodesk is well-positioned to help creative types tackle sustainable design with tools that provide the electronic equivalent of a sustainability guru looking over their shoulders and guiding them as they produce their solutions.
In the world of buildings, for example, Autodesk offers multiple tools for new high-performance buildings that include energy analysis, lighting and daylighting, simulations, and airflow modeling, all of which are aimed at optimizing the design. Additional tools, such as Rapid Energy Modeling Software, are aimed at retrofitting existing building to improve their performance. This application will enable users to create a complete 3-D model of a building directly from photographs. The model can then be used to optimize a retrofit.
With tools like these in hand, those aiming to make better, more sustainable products might be limited only by their imaginations.
Autodesk is also helping a number of startups get off the ground. Qbotix makes robots to adjust the positioning of solar panels. A few robots can take the place of tracking systems on dozens of panels, which can help reduce the overall system cost. That’s not to be confused with Q-bot, a small robot that can be used to perform jobs like spraying insulation in difficult-to-reach places like beneath floorboards. D-Rev develops and distributes bio-medical devices such as prosthetics for people living on less than $4 per day, while SolePower makes a shoe that captures energy produced by walking. The energy can then be used to charge a cell phone. MASS Design is an architectural design group that pushes the envelope on buildings with its holistic approach to design. Finally, there is Proximity Design, a group in Myanmar that develops affordable and useful items for local farmers that improve productivity while reducing environmental impact. Its work has reached over 2.5 million people, adding over $50 million of additional income.
As all products have embedded energy that went into their production, they also have embedded intelligence bestowed by their designers. Smart tools can help designers work smarter, worrying about the hundreds of details for them and thereby unleashing their creativity. A world comprised of smarter products will likely be more efficient, more sustainable and a better place to live.
Seated figure Image credit: CS_Ergonomics: Flickr Creative Commons
Other images courtesy of Autodesk
RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: email@example.com