How Autodesk Tackles the Next Frontier of IT-for-Green
My travels last month took me back to the Bay Area for client meetings and a chance to spend some time at the Autodesk Gallery, a very cool space near the ferry building in San Francisco. Autodesk uses it to show off its customers' design innovations, not coincidentally created using the company's design software. The event in January showcased how customers are using Autodesk visualization software to improve the sustainability of their product designs and implementations. This is tackling sustainability right at its core: making products that are more energy- and resource-efficient, easier to manufacture, easier to reuse and recycle, right from the start. The products we saw at the event included:
  • A new research facility at NASA Ames down the peninsula. This super-green building is aimed at "beyond" LEED Platinum standards, incorporating a variety of innovative design and engineering elements all captured in building information modeling (BIM) software. The Feds will use it as a laboratory for energy efficient buildings, spreading its best practices and learnings across the broad portfolio of US government buildings and research facilities. NASA is also working to make the design blueprint a working model for efficient ongoing operation of the building.
  • An electric bike designed and built by PiCycle in Sausalito. Aimed at the worldwide market for motor scooters and other surprisingly dirty vehicles (did you know that a Vespa has 5x the emissions footprint of a Hummer?), Pi cycles are sold at Best Buy and other retailers that are getting into the personal transport market. By using digital prototyping, Pi is able to keep its production costs low(er) and continuously add new features like WiFi connectivity.
  • An easy-to-disassemble prototype "Bloom" laptop designed by students in a Stanford mechanical engineering class. This was a "concept car" designed to show how a functional laptop can be designed and built so that it can be upgraded in a modular fashion, and then taken apart for recycling at end-of-life, all without any instruction manual or tools. It's something I have been after the big PC manufacturers to develop — even just as a prototype — for years now.

Spending some time with the Autodesk executives at the event and touring the gallery reminded me that many of the new products and processes that Forrester's clients are putting in place are treating symptoms rather than root causes. Adding PC power management software to a fleet of desktops, as a couple of our government-agency clients have done recently, reduces the PC fleet's energy consumption relative to its baseline — that's good. But it does nothing about the material composition, short life expectancy, or difficult recycle-ability of the PCs — that's bad!

Only by addressing the fundamental resource-intensity of the products we use — when they are designed, not when they are already in use — can the root causes of unsustainable business practices and infrastructure be illuminated and eventually removed. The IT industry in particular is still plagued by a fast-product-cycle mentality, where the response to a broken key on a PC is too often "get a new one!" Designing products that are not only resource-efficient, but built to last, will be a fundamental and difficult change to the technology trajectory and business model of many IT suppliers. Autodesk is showing the way.