Autodesk’s CEO explains how automation could change not just industries but entire cities

“Automation is changing the very things we’re capable of making and how we make them.” These were the opening words of Autodesk CEO, Andrew Anagnost’s introduction to Autodesk University 2018. “Automation is introducing new ecosystems, new jobs and whole new ways of working.”

Last year Anagnost talked about automation not as a threat but as an opportunity to make more things, make them better, and with less negative impact on the world. This year’s speech was entitled ‘the opportunity of better’, and how automation will free people from repetitive tasks, letting them get on with more creative, stimulating, better work.

For example, Anagnost says: “In 1900 40% of the United States worked in farming. Today only 2% of us do. Automation has enabled us to use farmland more effectively and with better precision, and in place of repetitive jobs there’s a whole new ecosystem of jobs. Better jobs.”

The transportation industry is likely to be the next big industry to feel the effects of automation. With the advent of autonomous vehicles fewer people will be employed as drivers, just as there are fewer people employed to build cars. But again, Anagnost points out that more jobs will be created just as they have in other areas.

“How many sustainability coordinators existed a decade ago? How many cloud architects, user experience architects, data scientists, drone operators, big data analysts, even BIM managers? Automating repetitive tasks doesn’t make the tasks we do redundant, it means we have more time to focus on what adds value.”

He explains that we shouldn’t spend time being concerned about jobs going away, what we should concern ourselves with is how jobs are changing and what skills will be needed to thrive in the future.

Having grown up in Los Angeles, the fact that the city will host the Olympic Games in 2028 has attracted Anagnost’s attention.

“Los Angeles is a very diverse and dynamic place,” he says. “It has more of everything: More people, more celebrities, more beaches, more culture – though some people might not call it culture – more theme parks. One thing people don’t know is that Los Angeles County has more manufacturing jobs than any other county in the US. But more comes at a real cost: Alongside LA’s population diversity, you’ll find population density. Alongside LA’s culture, you’ll find incredible congestion – its commuters spend an extra two weeks per year stuck in traffic.”

The population of LA will be twice as big in 2028 as it was when it hosted the Olympics in 1984. Additionally, 2 million more people will arrive in the city from all over the world looking for comfortable housing, good food and a great experience. LA has a decade to plan for the 16-day competition and, like so many host cities before, legacy is a big focus when the circus leaves town. How will automation help LA meet the needs of both the athletes and visitors as well as its citizens in future?

“Take the design of the athlete’s village for example,” explains Anagnost. “After most Olympics these developments are usually turned into low-income housing. But the short-term needs of world-class athletes and the long-term needs of low-income families (that often inherit the apartments after the Games) often compete.”

Failing to meet the design challenges this poses is why some host cities’ Olympic facilities have failed to provide a legacy and have instead become white elephants.

“Today, you would typically approach a design challenge like this with ‘the waterfall process’,” he explains. “Designing through cycles of work and re-work; re-drawing what has already been drawn; re-detailing what has already been detailed; re-creating what already exists; and dealing with the inevitable problems that cascade from all the re-work and re-dos, leaving a lot less time to use creativity to solve real problems and less time to address all the requirements that could have been, leaving the promise of the athlete’s village exactly that: a promise.

“Automation is going to allow us to explore dozens of design options really early in the design process and share the ones that best meet the requirements with all of the disciplines most of us consider downstream today. These tools are going to give real-time feedback on the constructability, the cost, the reliability and the risk of our designs.”

Instant, automated communication of changes to the design will not just keep all those involved in the project informed, it also means that the model will actually represent exactly what is built with no compromises.

The other area Anagnost sees automation helping during the Olympics is around the visitor experience. The design of reconfigurable food trucks, for example, which could be manufactured, deployed and moved around the city to meet demand in certain areas where it is high.

This big data approach to a public event can even help the organisers plan the locations for the various stadia and facilities to prevent congestion – something that LA is infamous for. To this end, Autodesk is working with design consultancy, Atkins on a project to do just that.

Using Autodesk’s Forge cloud-based development platform and knowledge gleaned from helping plan the London Games in 2012, Atkins has developed an app that allows city planners to find the optimum position for buildings in terms of the price of the land and possible congestion that could build up around them.

“When all of these digital assets are combined, anyone can look across a digital twin of the entire city that aggregates data in real time,” Anagnost concludes. “You can always find food when you need it, athletes can always get to where they need to go, and the city can look out for hazards or congestion and stop them before they even happen.

“Automation makes the whole experience better for everyone. That’s what ‘the opportunity of better’ is all about; better knowledge; better insights; better outcomes.”