Autodesk and the Future of Sustainable Design

If you start with the premise that many of the solutions to our global sustainability challenges require smart design and systems thinking, it doesn't take long before you find your way to Autodesk. The 29-year-old design software company has made a series of impressive moves into the sustainability realm over the past few years. It's one of those largely unheralded companies creating the tools used by architects, designers, manufacturers, and -- most recently -- cleantech entrepreneurs to produce the next generation of greener, cleaner, more efficient products.

Over the past year or so, I've had the opportunity to meet with or interview several members of Autodesk's sustainability team as well as its CEO, Carl Bass, on a number of occasions. Along the way, I have become increasingly impressed with how the company hasn't merely expanded its offerings to help design professionals achieve sustainability goals, but has also set out to elevate the sustainability knowledge and capabilities of design students and professionals, from high schoolers to seasoned engineers.

Autodesk makes a suite of 2D and 3D design software tools commonly known as CAD, for computer-aided design. Its flagship product, AutoCAD, along with the more advanced tools that integrate with AutoCAD, is the standard design software in architecture, engineering, and construction firms; manufacturing environments, such as industrial machinery, tool and die, automotive, and consumer products; and media and entertainment companies. (Autodesk software has been used in the special effects of dozens of movies, from "Alice in Wonderland" to "X-Men.")

Starting a few years ago, as green building grew from the margins to the mainstream, Autodesk began integrating components to help architects, engineers, and designers perform "whole building" analysis, optimize energy efficiency, even aim for carbon neutrality. It developed Building Information Modeling, or BIM, software, which allows architects, engineers, construction professionals, facility managers, and owners to break down barriers and bridge communication between design and construction teams, with the goal of optimizing buildings and creating predictable outcomes. Autodesk began using its own facilities as a living laboratory to gain real-world experience. "The idea is to use our own operations as a testing ground for prototyping new products, new features, new workflows that would serve our customers and rapidly green, in this case, existing buildings," Emma Stewart, senior program lead for the Autodesk Sustainability Initiative, told me.

No Green Button. Those efforts created a gateway into sustainability for Autodesk that has spread beyond buildings to designing everything from products to cities.

Sarah Krasley, a product manager in Autodesk's Manufacturing Industry Group, works with the company's industrial customers to help embed sustainability. "We have customers in building products," she explains. "We have customers who are designing apparel. We have customers that are designing consumer packaged goods. The myriad of sustainable design objectives across those industries is vast, and we realize that there is no green button. That is, there's not one simple sustainability tool that you can put into a CAD system and solve everybody's problems. So we're doing a lot of exploration at where sustainable design comes up in the workflow, and where it's most meaningful."