How to Future at Autodesk
As part of Autodesk Research, the Strategic Foresight team at Autodesk informs long-term decision-making by anticipating what might happen so the company and our customers can navigate change, seize opportunities, and mitigate risk.
Forces of Change: Our Forces of Change Program is an annual program that results in a report and company-wide engagement that inform and educate about possible shifts over the next 5-10 years. Our prior CTO once referred to our team as “the tip of the spear” since our outlook is so far out on the horizon. In addition to the comprehensive qualitative aspects of its research, the Strategic Foresight Team provides quantitative analysis of emerging change.
Visiting Fellows: Via our Visiting Fellows Program, the Strategic Foresight Team hosts industry-shaping experts who bring orthogonal thought that informs strategic decision-making at Autodesk by challenging assumptions with critical outside perspectives. Fellows are seasoned professionals from a range of occupations outside of Autodesk who embed with the Strategic Foresight team for 3-6 months. (By the way, fellow is gender neutral. It’s a noun, from the verb, to fellow — to make or represent as equal — that can apply to men or to women, e.g., we have Women’s fellowships. Fellows are equal companions.)
Studies, Sessions, and Scenarios: The Strategic Foresight team aids long-term decision-making with a variety of activities:
- A Foresight Study is an in-depth, original research investigation into trends, signals, and/or case studies.
- A Foresight Session and Summary is driven by the Forces of Change program and Foresight Study topics.
- “What If” Scenarios examine potential big, strategic moves that could create headwinds or tailwinds for what Autodesk is trying to help our customers accomplish.
With this in mind, the Strategic Foresight team is constantly reviewing literature related to our field. So I recently read How to Future: Leading and Sense-Making in an Age of Hyperchange by Scott Smith with Madeline Ashby. I outlined my notes in a Mural:
How to Future presents the field of strategic foresight in straightforward, practical terms. Its premise is that “the future is a process, not a destination. The future is a verb, not a noun.” [Page xvi]
The book confirmed many of the concepts and processes that our team has in place at Autodesk. Scott Smith with Madeline Ashby characterize foresight using five phases, all of which are practiced as part of foresight at Autodesk.
SENSING: Our team scans for signals routinely. A signal is an indicator that gives us insight into potential futures. There’s an expression that “less is more,” but that does not apply to signal collection. More is more. The more signals that are gathered, the better the chance of unearthing trends that will affect Autodesk customers in the years ahead. The trick is to be able to separate the signals from the noise. For example, is the recent temporary ban of ChatGPT in Italy an indicator of the widespread government regulations for AI in the years ahead?
SENSE-MAKING: Our team uses the STEEP (Social Technological Economic Environmental Political) framework to determine what might impact Autodesk customers. Although Autodesk is a technology company, uncertainties include more than just technology.
SCENARIOS: One way to reach a preferable future is to describe it ahead of time and work towards it. Scenarios can serve that purpose. As part of spurring conversations around Autodesk regarding innovation, our team creates scenarios on how Autodesk customers might work in the future. Image a future where today’s desktop applications act as edge-computing for future cloud-based AI solutions.
STORYTELLING: One of the best ways to share a scenario is with a story. Here is one written by past summer interns.
Jamie and her team had never designed a structure with an eco-compliance score as high as 96. She leaned back in her chair, hesitant to be proud just yet. A confusion lingered in her focus – had they missed something? She put on a cup of coffee and decided to work late, she enjoyed these last stages of the design process, and it would only take her another few minutes to run an Autodesk Forma GreenAI verification on the materials in their design.
From the beginning, the goals of GreenAI were to nudge designers towards more sustainable material choices and building energy efficiencies. When Jamie began working as an engineer for her firm, she never thought the GreenAI software would lead to policy implications. Now, all new buildings in California were required to have an eco-compliance score of over 60 points, and those above 80 were granted various tax breaks.
As the GreenAI software matured, its preferences began to strongly favor certain material choices in various regions, and as a result, the construction landscape began to shift. For example, some of the older suppliers that Jamie’s firm used to regularly contract with were slow to adapt to the green materials movement, and they were replaced by other more advanced suppliers. Jamie’s firm took pride in choosing alternative materials which would result in higher eco-compliance scores as suggested by their GreenAI software.
Jamie stirred her coffee while opening the material suggestions panel. This panel does more than suggest smarter building material choices, it compiles data to provide a comprehensive view of the environmental variables associated with each material. In one case, the dynamic supply chain pulled a type of wood local to the region, reducing the environmental impact of long-distance material sourcing. As Jamie scrolled through the rest of the material recommendations, she found the material responsible for her great score. GreenAI had selected a different supplier that produced a concrete meeting their design specifications but also integrated carbon sequestration techniques into their concrete production process. On top of that, the supplier was local. No wonder the eco-compliance score was so high.
Jamie leaned back in her office chair with content. She began closing her computer, feeling confident and satisfied with her day’s work.
ASSESSMENT: Our team’s Forces of Change Report is the “tip of the spear” for Autodesk’s planning process. Teams that include product managers, industry experts, and strategists consider the macro-environment in which Autodesk customers will operate over the next 10 years. Steps can be taken today that will help position Autodesk to address the customers needs of tomorrow. How well will they turn out? Only time will tell.
So, what about the future?
As Strategic Foresight, we do not attempt to offer definitive answers about what the future will hold. No one can do that. Instead, we recognize that the future is only partially visible in the present and cannot be fully known in advance. There are actually a wide variety of possible of futures, and some are more plausible than others. The trick is to identify probable futures and help Autodesk work to make one of the preferable ones come true.
At Autodesk, we are inspired by the prospect of a better world designed and made for all. Our mission is to empower innovators with design and make technology so they can achieve the new possible. To do that, we deliver customers intuitive, powerful, and accessible technology that provides automation and insight for their design-and-make processes, enabling them to achieve better outcomes for their products, their businesses, and the world. Doing that requires preparing for a wide range of possible futures through the practice of strategic foresight.
Scott Sheppard is a Program Manager on the Strategic Foresight team for Autodesk Research.
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