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Monday, June 18, 2012

Autodesk POV: The Nine Planetary Boundaries: Autodesk's Next Grand Challenge

From the same people who brought you software that kills trees at 36" x 42" at a time, this looks encouraging, but only if you play along.  

One of the things I'm proud of at my firm is that we are using Vasari to help us in our building design. it's sad that so many other architecture firms shun the technologies made available to them for better design and engineering, but hopefully, those who use the BIM process will get all of the woork and the laggards will go away.

BIM -It is Alive in the Lab

POV Dispatch is an internal communication from our Corporate Strategy and Engagement team that is part of the Office of the CTO. Sometimes I share articles from the dispatch with It's Alive in the Lab readers. In this case, I am proud that Autodesk is considering how it can help with planetary challenges.


Autodesk helps people imagine, design, and create a better world. Autodesk employees take pride in this vision for the company. It's a justifiable pride, when we think about some of the amazing achievements that literally couldn't happen without our tools:

  • creating amazing, and sustainable, buildings like the Shanghai Tower.

  • clean technology companies using our tools to create things like algae-based biofuels.

  • scientists at Harvard using Autodesk tools like Maya to create tiny nanomachines that can be sent into the bloodstream to seek and destroy individual cancer cells, one at a time.

  • an ambitious British Antarctic Survey (BAS) expedition to Lake Ellsworth in Antarctica (looking for new answers about the evolution of life and the effects of climate change) that is being made possible by Autodesk's digital prototyping software.

Often we associate the "create a better world" part of our vision with our efforts to promote sustainable design, through the capabilities we build into our tools and the messages we bring to our customers and the world. And we have done a lot over the past few years to promote sustainable design, and address complex, urgent issues like climate change.

The Grand Challenges Are Getting Even More...Challenging

But now we and the rest of the planet are being challenged to up our game in the sustainability realm, because the challenges facing us are getting even more complex, and even more urgent.

One way of looking at this is through a set of indicators called the Nine Planetary Boundaries. This concept was developed by a group of scientists led by Johan Rockström and Will Steffen, at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. The team set out to quantify the safe biophysical boundaries outside which the Earth System cannot function in a stable state--the state in which human civilizations have thrived. In other words, these are the nine "lines that we must not cross" in terms of our effect on the planet. As Rockström says, "The human pressure on the Earth System has reached a scale where abrupt global environmental change can no longer be excluded. To continue to live and operate safely, humanity has to stay away from critical 'hard-wired' thresholds in the Earth's environment, and respect the nature of the planet's climatic, geophysical, atmospheric and ecological processes."

The Nine Planetary Boundaries

The Nine Planetary Boundaries that this team identified are:

  • climate change
  • stratospheric ozone
  • land use change
  • freshwater use
  • biological diversity
  • ocean acidification
  • nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans
  • aerosol loading
  • chemical pollution.

[More about the Nine Planetary Boundaries]

Research published in Nature by this team shows that three of these boundaries -- climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen input to the biosphere -- may already have been crossed. And they emphasize that, because these boundaries are strongly connected, crossing one boundary may seriously threaten our ability to stay within safe levels on the others. For example, a shift in climate strains a region's biological diversity. Looking at the stresses being placed upon our planetary systems through this lens is useful because it reveals the true, complex nature of our planet. Climate change is only one of (at least) nine planetary boundaries that we must be careful not to cross, and each of them demands greater creativity and innovation.

Responding to the Planetary Boundaries

Through Autodesk's Clean Tech program--through which we donate software and expertise to clean tech companies--as well as via public presentations by Autodesk executives like CEO Carl Bass, CTO Jeff Kowalski, as well as sustainability evangelists across the company, we have been spreading the word about sustainable design.

We have also been incorporating capabilities related to sustainable design into our tools for several years, and that has made it easier for people who want to design more sustainably to do so more easily and affordably. While we often emphasize energy use and performance (which impacts climate) many of these efforts have also focused on planetary boundaries other than Climate Change, such as freshwater use and land use.

Embracing Sustainability, in all its Complexity

But for us to be even more effective at helping our customers address all of these planetary boundaries, it will be necessary to embrace the full complexity of the planetary challenges and boundaries that we face. The good news is that Autodesk can have an even greater impact in terms of helping our customers design within the constraints of the Nine Planetary Boundaries. The reason we have so much potential power is due to the very nature of what we create--software--and the people for whom we create it--the world's designers, architects, engineers, and digital artists.

We make the tools for the people who make the world.

The better we all understand the true, and full set of, planetary limits, the better we can become at creating tools that can help more people turn sustainable design into a reality. Expanding our frame of reference is essential, because understanding the problem space sets the context for the kinds of cool innovations we can come up with. Expanding our understanding of the very real planetary boundaries we're facing will unlock a whole new wave of innovation for Autodesk, and for our customers.

(Thanks to Dawn Danby for her many contributions to this article)

Hope and responsibility are alive in the lab.

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