Building a Better World: Automation, Innovation, and Intentional Design
As humans, we make tools. Then a funny thing happens: our tools make us. They shape our world and our work — how we make, build, move, and connect. They augment our abilities, but in the process, they change how we solve problems and perceive what’s possible. Whether it’s bone and stone, brick and iron, transistors and steel, or AI and AR, innovation transforms our industries — and our intentions.
But the future isn’t shaped by the tools alone. “Our future depends as much on people as it does on technology.” That’s how Autodesk President and CEO Andrew Anagnost kicked off the opening General Session at AU Las Vegas 2019. He was joined on the main stage by leaders from a range of industries that, together, shared a vision for a world made better through automation and innovation.
Challenges and Opportunities
The world is changing rapidly — that we know. The global population continues to grow while our natural resources remain limited. “For the first time in history, over half of the global population is now considered middle class,” Anagnost pointed out. With that increasing prosperity comes increased demand for more: “more housing and hotels, more automobiles and airplanes. It’s a massive challenge but also a massive opportunity.”
What does “better” mean, exactly? That depends on who you are and what you do. At the highest level, it means more sustainable use of energy and materials, more creative and meaningful work, and products and structures that prioritize the health and well-being of individuals and communities, Anagnost said. “I believe we have an opportunity to create a more sustainable, equitable, and more prosperous future.”
What does that look like in practice? Anagnost shared projects from a range of industries that demonstrate how we can build a better world through visionary innovation and intentional design.
Building and Rebuilding
The NoMad Hotel in New York will be the world’s tallest modular hotel when completed in 2020. A collaboration between Marriott and modular construction leader Skystone, it is currently under construction in lower Manhattan. Because the stackable hotel room units are manufactured in Poland, then shipped together and assembled on-site, the project will generate significantly less waste and greenhouse gases than traditional construction processes. “Not only is shipping them all together from Poland less expensive than trucking in materials from a factory 700 miles away, it has a smaller carbon footprint, too,” Anagnost pointed out. Overall, this new approach to construction allows for “less noise, less dirt, and less landfill.”
But revolutionizing how we build is only part of the solution. “At the same time as we build the new world, we’re going to have to rebuild the old,” he said.
Elizabeth Hausler, CEO of Build Change, maintains a clear vision of what’s possible. Her nonprofit organization is helping retrofit existing housing in developing communities around the world to make them safer and more resilient, while also responsive to the cultural and individual needs of the homeowners themselves.
As Hausler explained from the AU Las Vegas main stage, her approach has undergone significant transformation. In the early days, her teams worked manually. “We used AutoCAD to churn out unique floor plans for every homeowner. We walked around in villages with handheld Garmin GPS units to keep track of locations. And we compared satellite images before and after disasters to determine who lost homes.” They tracked bills of materials and building progress by hand and referred to written manuals to determine retrofitting rules. “It was simple,” she said, “but it required person power and skill and a heck of a lot of time.”
And the evolution continues. Build Change is now using AI to assess whether structures can be retrofitted. As Hausler explained, “The tool uses photos that the homeowner has taken on their smartphone and uploaded to our cloud. It analyzes building materials, the height of the building, the type of roof. It looks at the continuous length of solid wall, the size of openings, and the proximity of those openings to the corners of the building. All that data then tells us whether it’s possible to retrofit the home.” Through automation, “We’re scaling our efforts and scaling our impact.”
Autodesk has been supporting Build Change for years, having already contributed $1 million dollars to the organization. During the AU 2019 General Session, Anagnost announced Autodesk’s renewal of that commitment, pledging another $500,000, helping Build Change unlock an investment of $3 billion from the Colombian government.
Better Products, Better Factories
Artificial intelligence and new kinds of automation are transforming what we make and how we make it. Airbus provides one leading example. They’re using Autodesk generative design technologies to create better, lighter parts that can make their airplanes more energy efficient, but also to redesign their facilities, optimizing for many systems and variables at once — financial, social, operational, and environmental. The result? “A better factory altogether,” Anagnost said. “One that creates more prosperity for Airbus, but also creates better working conditions.” Workers become more productive while the company’s processes become both more profitable and more sustainable.
Generative design tools from Autodesk also helped Volkswagen create their first electric vehicle. “Designers worked with engineers to describe the problem — the goals and constraints, the forces at play — and generative design helped them discover what was possible,” he said. The results are striking — wheels that are 18% lighter, and a design cycle that was a third as long. “It’s about no longer simulating based on a design, and not just simulating during design, but simulating to discover the design,” Anagnost said.
A Better World Starts with Happier People
Anagnost closed out the General Session with a crowd pleaser — Star Wars. Asa Kalama of Walt Disney Imagineering joined him onstage to share how Building Information Modeling (BIM) enabled his team to integrate 600 different models into the new Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge destination at Disneyland. Thanks to Revit and Shotgun, which they used to manage and track props and inventory, the team reached new levels of precision and velocity. With six full-scale spaceships, including the Millennium Falcon, these creations had to match what fans had seen on screen while meeting building codes and MEP requirements and being able to withstand the impact of millions of visitors. With a BIM-enabled workflow, they finished the attraction months ahead of schedule.
Better Starts with You
Changing tools and advancing technologies are undeniably impacting our world. But it’s the people using them that will determine how we meet the challenges facing us today and tomorrow.
Better doesn’t start with automation, or generative design, or BIM. It starts with the people who harness those tools to better use the world’s resources, design better for health and resilience, and create better work. Better starts with you, wherever you are, and whenever you’re ready. “That’s what we’re working towards at Autodesk: a platform for better,” Anagnost said. “Better workflows, better outcomes, a better world.”