Profile: Carl Bass

Why is the CEO of technology company Autodesk a sustainability advocate? First, he thinks it’s one of the single biggest problems we face as a civilization and incredibly important that we deal with it. “Sustainability is representative of what we try to do with all of our products–we’re trying to give people better tools to make better decisions. If there’s a gigantic problem out there, why not use it as an example of what we can do”.


In Sustainable Business Forum (10 February 2012):

By Marc Gunther is a contributing editor at FORTUNE magazine who writes and speaks about business and sustainability.

This bench, fashioned from a single piece of black granite, was inspired by an African headrest and designed by Carl Bass. An accomplished and dedicated woodworker, Carl has lately been making things out of stone and metal, too.

In his day job, Carl is the CEO of Autodesk, which makes 3D design software that helps shape the world we live in. With just under US$2 billion in revenues, Autodesk, which is based in San Rafael, California, USA,  sells to the architecture, building, construction, manufacturing and entertainment industries.

I traveled to San Francisco this week to interview Carl at an Autodesk sustainability summit. We met at the Autodesk Gallery at One Market Street, a cool space that showcases some of the cutting-edge sustainability projects designed using the company’s software–the ongoing renovation of the San Francisco Bay bridge, the Tesla electric car, Masdar’s headquarters building which is supposed to generate more energy than it uses.

Autodesk has a slew of sustainability initiatives, including working partnerships with the US Green Building Council, the Biomimicry Institute, the Cleantech Open and Granta Design. It gives away millions of dollars of software every year to clean tech startups and entrepreneurs in 29 countries.

As you’d expect, Carl uses Autodesk’s software — Inventor,  in the case of the bench — to test out his designs. This is known in the business world as eating your own dog food. I began our conversation by asking him about his latest creation, a bowl (below) made of metal, stainless steel and bronze that he produced, believe it or not, on a 3D printer. What follows are edited excerpts from our talk.

On making a metal bowl using a printer: It’s a little science fiction-y.  They lay down layers of stainless steel powder and use a laser to fuse it together…The idea that you can send a file to a printer and get something made out of metal is totally incredible.

How his customers’  thinking about sustainability has evolved: Where you see the greatest interest in sustainable design, right now, is around buildings. Things like LEED gold roll off people’s tongues. Cities are getting more interested. When you move into the realm of manufacturing, it’s more divided. Leading consumer products companies have taken a keen interest. Nike’s a good example. They’re selling millions or tens of millions of things, so small design decisions can have a huge impact downstream. The more traditional parts of manufacturing will come next.

On Autodesk’s role: Our job is to understand what our customers want to do, and look at what technology is capable of doing and try to intersect at the right time. You don’t want to be too far ahead of your customers because that falls on deaf ears and you certainly can’t afford to be too far behind. You’re trying to find that intersection.

Some people say the company should aggressively push sustainable design: We’re not in the business of putting an X on your design. “You want to print that? No, you can’t print that.”  Just imagine if you push it to the limit. “Your building’s too ugly. Your product doesn’t work well.”  That’s just what people want, software that grades them. (laughter)  I get annoyed when my phone won’t even let me type the word I want to type. Image the sensibility of a designer who is told by their software that their choices are lousy. That’s not the way to win friends and influence people.

On the laggards: There’s a whole lineup of Republican candidates for president who are more extreme than the next in denying climate change. I’m sure we have customers like that, and I don’t think any piece or software is going to change their minds.

Why, with so many companies embracing green practices,  the big picture–rising carbon emissions, in particular–looks gloomy:  You’re dealing with economic and demographic trends that aren’t helping. More people with disposable income and a middle class sensibility. I was thrilled to see the Tata Nano car. It’s great that you have an emerging middle class in places like India. But it’s a tragedy that it’s not an electric vehicle. It’s five or 10 years before it would be practical to make a really low cost electric vehicle, and now we’re putting relatively inefficient internal combustion engines on the road.

On how computer power has changed design: “If you go back to the 90s, for the most part, we were giving people tools to document a design. It was a computerized way of making a blueprint. There was nothing real about it. The thing that’s changed the most since then is the amount of computing power we now have available, and what we’ve been able to do with that. In every industry where we participate, people are building 3D models of what they are going to build. They’re no longer relying on 2D representations. So there’s an incredible power to really understand the projects and products that we are building.

On cloud computing:  I can access the cloud and get more computing power than existed on the planet five years ago. People are under-utilizing computing and treating it as a scarce or somewhat precious resource. Computing is virtually free. I can rent an eight-core [i.e., very powerful] computer for five cents an hour. So for an entire day of computing, it costs me 40 cents. To park my car downstairs for an entire day costs 40 dollars.

Why he’s a sustainability advocate: First, personally and professionally, I think it’s one of the single biggest problems we face as a civilization. It’s incredibly important that we deal with it. Second, sustainability is representative of what we try to do with all of our products–we’re trying to give people better tools to make better decisions. If there’s a gigantic problem out there, why not use it as an example of what we can do?

Whether his passion for making things makes him a better CEO: I don’t profess to be a professional designer. That’s what our customers do. But the process in some ways is the same. I like to think that it helps me in my day job, but I would probably do it anyhow.


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