In conversation with Autodesk’s Emma Stewart

In this week's 'In conversation', edie speaks to one of the company's leading innovation in 3D design, engineering and software. Autodesk's head of sustainability solutions, Emma Stewart, talks about the next steps in sustainable innovation.

What area will you be focusing on next in terms of sustainability?

Today we focus on some pretty cutting-edge issues. For example, we advocate for a Zero Energy Building Lifecycle, which uniquely includes not only the operational energy of the building’s use, but also the energy associated with the products and materials used to construct the building in the first place. We’re also big proponents of green stormwater infrastructure such as bioswales, green roofs, and permeable pavement, and are working to make these techniques as accessible to civil engineers as the techniques of the past.

Next year we’ll expand our market research to include district energy for urban brownfield development, real-time energy monitoring of industrial machines, and the net environmental impacts of 3D printing.

What are the major changes you see happening in your industry?

We are experiencing a prodigious leap in technology’s ability to collect, store, and analyse data. According to Cisco’s annual tracking of internet usage, back in the year 2000, we averaged 10 megabytes of internet traffic per user per month. I now send email attachments that are larger than that! By 2017, that number is expected to be 16 gigabytes. In aggregate terms, that’s the equivalent of all movies ever made crossing the global Internet every 4 minutes. But that much data can be paralysing – it doesn’t necessarily lead to good decisions. The key will be providing our customers – engineers, architects, and designers – the ability to parse through reams of data (e.g. Life Cycle Assessment reports) to get the result they need (e.g. material X is safer and greener than Y).

What are the challenges for someone in your position?

As a corporate sustainability professional, it’s critical to understand both how the business operates and what incentives systems exist within each Division. Once you’ve overcome that challenge, you are better positioned to align sustainability objectives with what already motivates your executives.

What motivates you?

Humans have been steadily unplugging our own life support systems, many of which are provided free-of-charge by ecological systems, including climate regulation, water purification, and air filtration. I’m motivated by the vision that humans can revitalise these systems while achieving a good quality-of-life, and see the profit motive of the private sector as a powerful and elegant mechanism by which to accomplish that.

What’s the current big focus for the environment?

I think the current media attention on “resilience” may help elevate consideration for environmental opportunities like green stormwater management and microgrids, but it could also lead to a singular focus on reacting to environmental disaster, rather than preventing it, which is a risk.

What tips or advice would you give to newly appointed sustainability professionals?

You are only as good as your credibility, so know your subject matter cold and be able to postulate on how things will change in the future.

What do you like most about your job?

Autodesk software – because it is used by 10 million designers, architects, and engineers — is one of the most effective ways to drive change in how we utilise natural resources to create high performing buildings, infrastructure, and manufactured goods.

What’s the worst aspect of your job?

I feel a real sense of urgency from reading the scientific literature on the health of ecological systems, including the impacts of climate change. One need only scan the newspaper to see China’s poor air quality shut down a city of 11 million people in Harbin and cripple the capital city of Beijing, flooding in North America create Federal Disaster Zones of Boulder and decimate the once hedonist center of Acapulco, and wildfires threaten Australia’s most populous city. I always ask whether we’re moving quickly and far enough to help our customers operate in such a new world.

What period of time would you visit if you had access to a time machine?

I’m an avid international traveller, so I would like to travel back 3,000 years to when the ancient seafarers explored the Pacific Islands by raft, long before even the great Polynesian navigators, and understand how they accomplished that with such limited technology.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Besides my family, finding a way to marry my passion and my profession.

If you could go back in time, who would you like to meet?

Frederick Law Olmsted. He introduced the concept of urban parks to the US and designed many of the parks that bring open space, air quality, and greenery to city-dwellers today. He also happens to be my husband’s great-great-great grandfather!

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

The world has lots of specialists. What the world needs are “synthesists”, people who can see the entire system, all of its moving parts, and identify the greatest levers for change within that system. It is these individuals who will help us address complex societal challenges like quality education, public health, and environmental sustainability.

Worst advice?

A highly functioning team is one where members’ professional styles differ as much as possible from one another. In fact, I’ve learned that the key to creating a strong team is really hiring exceptionally talented people who appreciate the importance of domain expertise and have high regard and trust for one another.

What’s your top tip for employee engagement?

Don’t be patronising. Employees can be very discerning about the legitimacy of a company’s sustainability investment, so don’t oversell and don’t dumb it down for them.

What state do you see the planet in in 30 years?

Most ecological systems are currently in steady decline. If I’m optimistic, I think better policy and technology can help some rebound quite rapidly (e.g. tropical forests, wetlands) while others will be in worse shape (e.g. the oceans).

What do you say to the climate change sceptics?

The scientific community is not one prone to blind consensus. I have never seen such a high level of consensus on any other topic as I do on the anthrogenic causes of climate change.

If there was one word you could remove from the English language what would it be?


Books or kindle?

Kindle for me, books for our daughter.

Check out edie’s entire ‘In conversation’ series here

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