Connecting People and Planet through Design
This post originally appeared on Impact Design Hub and is reposted with permission.
An exclusive interview with Lynelle Cameron on her path into impact design, the Autodesk Foundation’s first year learnings, and opportunities for more people to become involved in the field.
By: Katie Crepeau
The intersection of people and the planet threads through Lynelle Cameron’s storied career in conservation, community development, technology, and design. As the Autodesk Foundation’s President and CEO, Cameron was first inspired by the people-planet relationship when reading the UN definition of sustainable development in the 1987 publication, Our Common Future. Building off her undergraduate studies in cultural anthropology and environmental management, she spent the first ten years of her career at the intersection of conservation and economic development.
Working with the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, World Wildlife Fund, National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and The Mountain Institute, she had the opportunity to live and work in mountain communities around the world. From Wyoming and Alaska to the Himalayas and volcanoes of Kenya, Cameron worked with some of the poorest people in the world who were surrounded by globally significant natural resources. The question driving the programs she built within each of these places was, “How can we work with the people as effective stewards of these resources in a way that improves their economic situation and quality of life?”
In 1994, Cameron’s point of view shifted thanks to Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce. The thesis that caught her attention was that business is not only part of the problem but also the solution to create a sustainable future on the planet. “I realized that the problem wasn’t necessarily up at the top of mountains, but rather downstream,” said Cameron. “It was the corporate practices that were driving the extractive industries and resulting in environmental degradation and poverty.” She soon after enrolled at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, eager to drive change from within the corporate sector.
Writing a business plan for the now thriving Center for Responsible Business and serving as president of Net Impact were Cameron’s focus in business school to catapult her career into the corporate world. Once graduation arrived, she set her sights on exploring the “big company” point of view at Hewlett Packard.
She helped develop HP’s Environmental Strategies and Solutions program to shift the company mindset from cleanup to product stewardship. “I went [to HP] because I saw a huge opportunity to change the way we design stuff. If we could eliminate toxic materials and start designing for recyclability and energy efficiency, we could change the conversation about energy, materials and e-waste.” Although there is more work to be done, HP’s leadership 15 years ago has raised the bar for Dell, Apple and many other tech companies.
Embedding Sustainable Design into the Tools
From HP, Cameron sought out her next platform for change. “I was explicitly looking for something other than another technology company,” she said. “The more I looked into Autodesk and talked to people, I realized this company was poised to have transformative impact on everything that gets built on the planet. The opportunity was massive and nascent.”
Autodesk provided the opportunity for Cameron to optimize another link in the ecosystem—design software. “What if we embed the ecological intelligence into the design tools?” Cameron questioned. “Then we won’t need as many specialists and “product stewards” at companies like HP trying to figure out how to design an energy efficient, easily recyclable product because the intelligence will be built into the tools.” The company needed little convincing and Cameron soon joined to build a sustainability team and program.
To galvanize Autodesk and its executives, Cameron adopted the UN definition of sustainable development with one change—switching “without compromising” to “while improving” to read:
“To meet the needs of the present while improving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
This replacement reframed Autodesk’s focus from “do less bad” to “do more good.”
Now eight years on as the Senior Director of Sustainability at Autodesk, Cameron views sustainability as a business opportunity not only for Autodesk but for also for all of Autodesk’s millions of customers. “Autodesk is in a unique position to provide designers with tools to help them understand the positive and negative impact of every design decision they make. We want every designer to have agency in creating a better world and to create positive impact through their design.”
The Autodesk Foundation, also under Cameron’s leadership, has been a pivotal move for the company. With over two years spent developing the foundation and one year in operation, two parallel goals have emerged for the Foundation. The first is to invest and support the most impactful people and organizations that are using design to create positive social and environmental impact. But the bigger vision involves the design community at large. “The impact of this [investment] portfolio goes way beyond the impact of these organizations,” explains Cameron. “If we are successful, our Foundation portfolio will have inspired millions and millions of people to start thinking about their own impact – the impact they can have in designing solutions for the ten billion people who will soon be living on this finite planet.”
The focus on impact came from an early discussion Cameron had with Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation. When Starr spoke about investing in social impact organizations, Cameron sought to expand this to include any positive impact, be it social, environmental, educational and so forth. “We wanted to be broader and more inclusive,” she explained. “We simply dropped the word social and ended up with impact design. It seemed so obvious for the Autodesk Foundation. ”
Learning from Social and Environmental Impact Designers
The Foundation team—which includes Cameron, Executive Director Joe Speicher, 3 staff, and 7 members on the Board of Directors—has made big strides investing in fifteen design-driven nonprofit organizations in the first year. “We want our portfolio to be representative of the diversity in the design movement,” said Cameron. “We think of diversity in terms of industry, geography, ethnicity and gender. Our portfolio today is a blend of architecture firms, product design firms, maker spaces and fellowship programs doing work in many different countries and continents. It’s the diversity of the portfolio that enables us to learn so much more as a Foundation than if we had given big grants to four or five US-based organizations.”
Cameron said the number one learning from the past year is that “giving away money well takes time and patience.” She explained that “it looks relatively easy from the outside” but she and the team have a whole new appreciation for foundations that invest their resources well and can show measurable impact. “We have a recipe of sorts, but the needs of each organization are different and we tailor each grant relationship to best suit the needs of that particular organization,” she said. This approach takes time and resources, but Cameron believes the return will be worth it.
The Foundation team has come to learn as much from their grantees as the grantees learn from the Foundation. “In fact, our success as a foundation is dependent on the success of the organizations in our portfolio. We need them as much as they may need us,” said Cameron. “As a Foundation we don’t exist unless we find truly impactful organizations doing great work in the social sector.” As one of the grantees noted, “We appreciate that the grant obligations are respectful of small, but growing, organizations.” The partnership between the foundation and grantees relies on an essential feedback loop that will propel the field forward together.
Based on the yearlong work with grantees, the team has begun to see Foundation customers fall into roughly two categories. The first are organizations working in the social sector, like D-Rev, MASS, and Proximity, who can benefit from higher quality design software and tools. Autodesk has provided software and training that has radically accelerated their product design process and the design outcomes they are able to achieve. This was the intent of the foundation and the Tech Impact Program – to bring high-powered design tools to communities and geographies that are working in extreme environments and previously didn’t have access.
The second category of support is for organizations that are using Autodesk software in “radically new and different ways.” For example, Hydrous is using Autodesk’s reality capture software to develop interactive 3D coral reef experiences for those who will never see a coral reef first hand, and exploring ways to measure the impacts of climate change on coral reefs. “Who knew our technology would be used for conservation science in this way? It’s brilliant and we want to find other organizations who are applying our technology to new challenges,” remarked Cameron.
Opening Up More Opportunities for Impact Designers
As the foundation grows their portfolio of grantees and works towards supporting the design community at large in the coming years, Cameron believes the field of impact design will proliferate. “Every day I talk to someone who is looking for a service-oriented career, a way to apply their skills toward having impact,” she noted. The following are four areas she’s seen that are providing more access to more people to be involved.
- Universities and schools are responding to demand and creating degree programs and classes focusing on serving the bottom of the pyramid, designing for social good, and practicing sustainable design. This has led to more designers graduating with a desire to apply their skills toward impact, start their own company, or join the social sector.
- The notion of ‘who is a designer’ is more expansive and inclusive, providing more people agency to design and shape the future. According to Cameron, it’s easier today to start social or environmental businesses through expanded access to capital markets and supply and manufacturing chains.
- Massive collaboration in the design process has brought more people to the design table beyond the typical architecture and engineer processes. A variety of tools today are also enabling people to collaborate in unprecedented ways – across disciplines, time zones, and geographies – and to do so in real time.
- New and evolving software tools are enabling designers to optimize their design and have a deeper understanding of the impact their design is having on larger systems.
Optimizing the Future—Together
Cameron’s vision is that by 2050, 10 billion people live well and live within the limits of the planet. It’s ambitious for sure – pursuing a better quality of life for everyone while at the same time protecting and restoring our finite planet seems nearly impossible. But Cameron is undoubtedly optimistic. She doesn’t naively think it will be easy, nor does she believe that the design community alone can solve the immense challenges that we are up against. “If we each tap into the unique opportunity that we have to contribute to a better world, and if we keep our eye on the ball, we will make progress,” she says. Perhaps we will be able to meet the needs of the present generation and improve the lives of future generations, one person, one organization, one company, one Foundation at a time.
To learn more about support offered to impact designers by the Autodesk Foundation, visit Autodesk.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image sources: UC Berkeley Hass School of Business, GreenBimTools.ru, Build Change, MASS Design Group
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Katie Crepeau is the Editor of Impact Design Hub. Katie is an architect, writer, and strategist focused on design and social enterprise. She pairs her professional experience in the architecture field with communication and writing to help designers improve project delivery, organizational strategy, and the broader development of the design field. As Editor of Impact Design Hub, she writes daily on people, projects, and happenings around humanitarian and community design. Katie is also co-leading a research and development project on impact measurement, serves on the board of public interest design charity AzuKo, and shares her work and thinking on DesignAffects.com. Katie received a BArch and MArch from Tulane University.