Autodesk Discusses the Tools for Designing Sustainable Cities

by Matt Ball on August 25, 2011

Autodesk held a press event today in San Francisco dubbed, “the Sustainable Cities Roundtable,” to highlight their design products for sustainable cities. With rapid urbanization and rapid population increases, Autodesk is responding to the need for massive infrastructure investment, and a need to improve our transportation, water, electric and gas distribution, and energy efficiency.

According to Emma Stewart, senior manager of AEC sustainability at Autodesk, the definition of a sustainable city includes four  key elements that include a transparent and inclusive planning process, efficient energy assets within the city that are in close proximity to the resources that are consumed, a multi-modal transportation system that is load balanced for demand, and byproducts from the city that are minimized or recycled.

James A. Moore, senior vice president of National Community Planning at HDR Engineering, foresees a radical change to how we plan our cities, with a breakdown of bureaucracy as a much-needed step for more sustainable planning. His take on sustainable cities is that it is an optimization of the city as a system of systems, where we need to scale our best approaches, like district heating and cooling, to larger areas. The next generation of tools are going beyond modeling our physical constructs as drawings and models, helping us project our model across time, and essentially play SimCity for real to synthesize and optimize the efficiency of our cities. In the end, Moore reminded us that the bottom line for the new sustainability is to create a place with a high quality of life where people want to live.

John Kennedy, senior manager of Building Performance Analysis at Autodesk addressed the building-level issues, where optimizing existing structures can dramatically improve energy use. A good metric that Kennedy mentioned was that each $1 billion invested in energy efficiency improvements can save the energy equivalent of five 200 MW coal power plants, reducing our needs to build these power sources as well as eliminating the emissions that they produce.

With Autodesk’s partnership with the Carbon Disclosure Project, they hope to standardize the data and metrics that cities collect regarding their efficiency, and to see more cities compete directly with one another based on these metrics. In China, they have created a detailed outline for what an Eco City is. While we may not be at a point where we adopt a top-down Chinese planning model, adoption of metrics and mandates can help us reach efficiency goals. Peer pressure is an important driver, where mayors won’t want to see their cities be left behind.

Lynda Sharkey, technical marketing manager at Autodesk, then led us through a product demo and discussed the need to make engineers more amenable to the ideas of sustainability. Autodesk Infrastructure Modeler is well tuned to address issues of sustainability, with its conceptual design process providing a means to get ideas across to stakeholders and drive consensus. The people factor, the ability to get all the decision makers in one room at one time, is a barrier that is directly addressed by Autodesk’s new technology that allows design considerations to be quickly modeled and discussed. Putting all city data into a 3D model to give people a full understanding of what you have planned eliminates the need to describe it or go back to the drawing board to present results at a future meeting.

Emma Stewart mentioned that on the research and development front Autodesk is working on a Net Zero Energy accounting system tied to buildings and the environment. This next-generation capability comes in part from work that was done on the Masdar City Headquarters that used Autodesk’s and others’ tools to take into account the full cost accounting for the energy and water emissions from the materials and processes used to build the building.

It was exciting to hear hard problems about data normalization and modeling for multiple stakeholders being addressed in today’s conversation, as well as the intangibles of political and budgetary pressures. While Autodesk has no sway over these areas, it’s clear that the next-generation of Autodesk’s tools will seriously address both environmental and infrastructure problems to help us make our cities more efficient, more green, and better places to live.

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Chris Andrews August 26, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Great article, Matt. Just to point your readers in the best direction, Autodesk is partnering with CDP on their Cities project. The best address to find that is:

Readers can find a summary report from the first year survey that includes some interesting statistics, such as that while 93% of respondents take responsibility for emissions at the highest levels of government and 62% have climate action plans, only 7% do carbon accounting at the of street-level spatial scale.

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