Creating a Better Designed World with Autodesk’s Ben Thompson

November 15, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and they say you save the best for last, and I think we did it again here today. Ben Thompson, the Sustainable Business Program Manager at Autodesk, welcome to Green is Good. BEN THOMPSON: Thank you, John. Thanks for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey. You know, before we get into talking about the iconic and great brand, Autodesk, and the important work you’re doing there, share a little bit with our audience about Ben Thompson. I want them to get to know you a little bit. BEN THOMPSON: Sure. I’ve been working at Autodesk for about four years, but before that, I was actually up in Washington state finishing up my degree in business and working with some small businesses on their sustainability initiatives and trying to get involved in some green legislation, green jobs, and actually one of the last failed green cap and trade policies that was going on in Washington state and before that, I was in the music industry and it was that industry that actually kind of pushed me into doing sustainability. I thought you know, I could probably do some good for the world. Let’s try doing that and now here we are. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is awesome so now you’re making music for the environment by helping the world with regards to sustainability at Autodesk. I love it. Talk a little bit about Autodesk and its sustainability program, its platform for us and for our listeners out there that want to follow along, if you got your tablet in front of you or laptop or any other type of electronic device, go on to www.autodesk.com and click on the sustainability reporting section. It is really great. I’m on it now and while we have our conversation with Ben today, you can follow along. Go on, Ben. Tell us more about it. BEN THOMPSON: Sure, so Autodesk is a leader in 3D design software. We make tools to help architects, engineers, and designers of all kinds bring their designs to life so our tools are used to design and build buildings, roads, infrastructure, manufactured goods such as shoes, electronic devices, and even it’s used to create some of the most popular video games, TV shows, and movies so looking at Autodesk through that lens really kind of shows oh my gosh, we have this huge potential to really influence the world and influence the world for good so our mission as a company is to help people imagine, design, and create a better world and that’s really what attracted me to Autodesk in the first place was if we can change just a little thing about our software or if we can change the practice, Autodesk has this tremendous influencing power and we can really change the entire built environment is we wanted to. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, let’s talk about that. It’s a worldwide iconic brand, Autodesk. How many facilities do you even have around the world? BEN THOMPSON: Sure, so we have just over 100 locations in about 42 countries, and in all those locations, we staff around 7,500 employees, so definitely an international scale and our products are sold all around the world. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, wow, wow, wow, so talk a little bit about sustainability then in terms of sustainable business programs. What types of programs are you implementing in your offices? In 42 countries, 100 facilities. Like you said, you get to really move the needle when you get the people on board. What types of programs have you chosen to implement in these offices? BEN THOMPSON: Sure, so within our own operations, we’ve had a program for about five years, and at the onset, we decided to set this long term green ash gas reduction target. IT’s based on the 85% reduction by 2050 that the IPCC recommends and based on that and some work that BT did around target setting, we created this methodology called C Fact to set really a fair target that is based in science so we have this target of about 4% reduction year on year so as a result, we’re focused on how we can save our environmental impacts and reduce carbon so one thing that we’ve really been focused on in facilities has been around doing tenet assessments and energy audits. We actually lease almost all of our own global portfolio, which has its own challenges, but we have this tenet assessment process where we work with our facilities and managers and try to understand for each location where the best opportunities for savings are given the unique operating scenarios in each location. Year on year, we have this scoring method and we’ve been able to increase our performance by 9% each year and this year, we’re targeted on introducing enough investment to save $91,000 just this year and hopefully save around 5,000 tons of CO2 so from a traditional operational standpoint, we’ve got a lot going on but what I’m really excited about is what we call our ‘Living Laboratory’ and that’s where we are able to leverage the tools that Autodesk creates for our customers and implement them within our own operations and try to recognize additional savings through the use of our own technology. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. You know, and what are some of the more interesting Living Lab programs that you’ve implemented to date? BEN THOMPSON: Sure. Well, I guess I’d like to start with our first and that was when we were ramping up our offices and walls in Massachusetts and also San Francisco, California, and we were using Autodesk Revit, which is a building information modeling tool to bring all of the stakeholders in the design process together to get everybody on the same page and align all of their objectives around this one goal of getting LEED Platinum certification in those offices and really the magic of this process, which is called Integrative Project Delivery or IPD, is that you get everybody together so that throughout the process, one decision won’t potentially affect the project negatively because people there are sharing ideas and doing so over a model so everybody knows from the get go through the end of the process how the project will be executed and how everything will be designed and built so that was really what got the Living Lab off the ground and it makes for really good showcases. Most recently, we’re actually expanding that space in San Francisco at our office at One Market and also, we just opened a new office on a pier in San Francisco and they leveraged our technology to do everything from the space layout to making sure that the lighting levels were right and that everybody had the right views and making sure that the HVAC was sized correctly for the space and that’s all based in our products, that showcase. JOHN SHEGERIAN: A lot of people think, Ben, that going green and being sustainable costs more dough than maintaining the status quo. Is that just not true anymore and if it’s not, what’s the ROI on going green and being sustainable for Autodesk and other great companies like yours? BEN THOMPSON: Sure. Well, the USEBC, they have lots of studies about how the incremental cost of LEED actually doesn’t have to be an incremental cost, depending obviously on the project. I could see very marginal increase, if even that. When it comes to using our own tools, sometimes it can be very easy. If we’re, say, doing a retrofit on lighting, the payback is very obvious and we’re even seeing some technologies such as PV coming drastically down in price so it’s becoming much more cost effective to install that and so we’re beginning to install PV. When it comes to using Autodesk tools, we sell them and we demonstrate very easily through our customers that our tools help people save time, help make some of the sustainable design decisions much more apparent and easier to understand so that’s saving money but when it comes to really combining all of that together to create kind of the mega ROI, if you will, it is actually a lot more challenging. We know that it will pencil and it will pencil very well but one thing that we’re looking at is how do you add all of these intangibles in and really demonstrate a true ROI for sustainability so that’s actually a business process that we’re trying to crack right now and hopefully, we’ll have more to share about that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Ben, I want our listeners to get inspired here because this is fascinating. As you said at the top of the show, you have 100 facilities in 42 countries. I never had a clue that your brand was that widespread. Okay, that being the case and in the seat that you sit, how do you get your employees to get engaged? You’re the champion for sustainable business program. How do you get employee engagement in these programs and what’s been your way to get them involved and excited about what you’re proposing? BEN THOMPSON: Sure. Well, grassroots really makes a difference and some of our programs actually got jump started because we had passionate employees on the ground and they’re really pushing us to deliver environmental performance and so we actually have a Global Green Team Network and each office has a small group of individuals who, on top of their regular job, are excited about sustainability and how they can contribute to a better world within their offices and so we leverage them to be our champions. We leverage them to actually create change in their communities that they serve. We’re very proud of our community actions but one other really big way that we do that is by bringing people in who — an Autodesk company this size, we’ve got accountants and financiers and legal folks that never even touch the technology and we show them what our customers are able to do. We give them really great stories like the Biolite stove, which is this camp stove that burns so hot that it reduces smoke. It’s almost smokeless and how they’re able to design that using Autodesk tools. That’s when kind of you see everyone’s eyes open up and they’re like wow, we’re really making a difference here and that’s when they start thinking about I might not be directly affecting product development but through my job at Autodesk, I can contribute to a better world so that’s how the inspiration goes and that’s how they actually inspire us. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great, so you create a culture that everyone is working together to really create a better place, a better world to live in, through the products even that you’re creating that then go on and create other products that are changing the world. Wow, that is so fascinating. We’ve got about four minutes left, Ben, and again, the fun of this show is not only to have great people like you representing amazing brands like Autodesk and doing important work but then how do we leave solutions on the table for our listeners in the United States and around the world who want to replicate Autodesk’s success and programs? Share some tips or advice on how can they get involved and do things also and get their employees engaged like you? BEN THOMPSON: Sure. Well, first and foremost, I’d say it’s about getting the right folks in line and beginning to contribute and we definitely do that through our own programs. We try to partner with clean technology entrepreneurs. We’ll actually grant them $150,000 worth of software if they’re trying to design the next clean technology that’s going to change the world and so really kind of building up those experts around you because there are a lot of really smart people out there and they want to help. They just need a little bit of a leg up so we’re doing that definitely and I’d say within operations, which is the program that I oversee, there’s definitely a status quo to sustainability already but if you look around, there are a lot of new standards being developed and new best practices that are coming out and we’ve been following those really closely and trying to actually influence them whenever we can and that’s when you start meeting the other companies and the other individuals out there that are really making a difference and that’s when we start partnering and that’s when really some of the amazing things start happening. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit about the journey, though. I had a great guest on, the Chief Sustainability from Coors and I said, ‘Where’s the finish line?’ and his name’s Barton Alexander and he said, ‘John, there is no finish line. This whole journey is a process,’ and that was three, four years ago on the show so share your advice to other companies that are listening. We’ve got two minutes left, Ben. What’s your advice about the journey, both your journey at Autodesk and others who want to do it but maybe even feel it’s too daunting? BEN THOMPSON: Sure, sure. Well, I’d say there’s still a lot of low hanging fruit out there and going after that, whether it’s within your facilities or whether it’s let’s take that step and do some green innovation in our own products, getting that first wind is a really great way to show off how capable not only you are but how capable your team can be and that’s how you can begin to expand. We started out as a very, very small team here at Autodesk of about three people and now we have dozens across the company focused on sustainability in different capacities and it all started with understanding how you can create that first amount of change and really, it’s that seed and once planted, you can’t really stop it, which is great because that’s what we need and really understanding that your company has a differentiator in some degrees and that differentiator can be leveraged to drive sustainable innovation, sustainable development and that’s really what we’ve done at Autodesk by using our tools and trying to think of different ways that our technology can be applied to really drive sustainable development and every company has that opportunity. You just gotta get out there and go for it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well thank you, Ben, for your time today. You’re doing great work and we’re so appreciative of everything you’re doing. We’re very appreciative also of all the great work Autodesk is doing. To learn more about what Autodesk is doing and their sustainability program, go to usa.autodesk.com/sustainability-reporting. Ben Thompson, you are a sustainability rock star and truly living proof that green is good. BEN THOMPSON: Thanks, John.