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Autodesk brings sustainable design software to startups

 
Biolite Cookstove

Biolite – a startup supported by Autodesk’s Clean Tech Partner program – used Autodesk software to design an efficient, low-cost cookstove. Photo: Courtesy of BioLite

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Autodesk brings sustainable design software to startups” was written by Marc Gunther, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 3rd December 2013 16.39 UTC

What comes to mind when you hear the word “design”? Fashion, perhaps, or interior decorating, or maybe the latest cool gadget from Apple.

But design is about a whole lot more than making beautiful things.

“Design is the act of intentionally shaping the world,” says Lynelle Cameron, the director of sustainability at Autodesk, a leading provider of design software to architects, engineers and industrial designers. Done right, she says, design can be a way to attack big global problems like climate change and water scarcity.

Few companies have much impact on design as Autodesk, a big (FY2013 revenues: $2.3bn) software firm in San Rafael, California. More than 12 million professionals use its software products, such as Autocad and Inventor. So do more than 145 million consumers who can find free or low-cost modeling or sketching products like Sketchbook, Pixlr and 123D as apps for iPod, iPad and Android. Here’s another fun fact about the company: the last 18 Oscar-winners for special effects, including the 2013 winner, Life of Pi, all used Autodesk software.

Autodesk’s approach to design is evolving, along with the entire field of design, as I learned on a recent visit to the Autodesk Gallery in downtown San Francisco and to a research and development lab nearby at Pier 9, where I met with Cameron and her colleagues. Several themes emerged:

First, design is becoming democratized and decentralized. Today, individuals and small companies have access to the kinds of tools, information and resources (such as 3D software, low-cost computing power and 3D printing) that were once available only to big companies and the government.

In 2011, Autodesk bought a website called Instructables, which features more than 100,000 user-created projects that are shared with – and modified by – a community of designers. The democratization of design enables massive collaboration, not just inside companies or organizations, but also with their customers – and across global borders. This explosion of access will create new possibilities for design, just as digital tools and platforms have transformed music and journalism.

Second, cheap computing power and storage, along with the phenomenon known as “big data”, have supercharged design. So, for example, product designers have access to information about the lifecycle impacts of materials they use. Or architects and engineers can capture extremely local weather data, enabling them to make maximum use of wind and solar resources in building design. “We’re using massive data sets and virtually infinite computing engines,” says Ben Thompson, program manager for sustainable business at Autodesk. Cheap computing also allows for the rapid iteration of ideas at a low cost.

Third, Autodesk is trying to bring systems thinking and modeling to design, so that designers can understand all of the consequences – economic, environmental and social – of the choices they make. “What we are trying to do is build ecological intelligence into our software,” Cameron says.

That all sounds abstract, so let’s bring it down to earth with a couple of examples.

Consider Biolite, a Brooklyn, New York-based startup that has designed an efficient, low-cost cook stove aimed at the roughly 3 billion poor people around the world who cook over smoky open fires. Designing a cook stove is harder than you might think; it requires tradeoffs in performance, cost and durability. To make things even more complicated, Biolite’s stove uses waste heat to generate electricity too.

Software speeds up the design process and takes out costs, Jonathan Cedar, Biolite’s founder and CEO, told me by phone. “We are able to model potential designs, and then simulate performance,” he said, without having to build physical prototypes of each design.

Biolite’s HomeStove is being tested in a series of pilot projects that will reach approximately 10,000 people in India, Ghana and Uganda. The product delivers multiple benefits – it requires less wood (which protects forests and saves time), generates less smoke (which causes diseases), reduces climate emissions and provides much-needed electricity.

Uncharted Play, meanwhile, has created the Soccket, a soccer ball that converts kinetic energy into electricity that can be used to power a light bulb or charge a cell phone. (President Obama kicked one around last summer while touring Africa.) The company also is developing a jump rope that will likewise harness kinetic energy.

 

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