The Future of Design @ AU 2012

Alvise Simondetti was invited to speak at Autodesk University 2012 as part of the Innovation Forum on the Future of Design. The conference was held in Las Vegas, and was attended by 12,000+ designers, innovators, engineers, and entrepreneurs. In addition to giving his presentation, Alvise attended a variety of other sessions at the conference in order to bring new knowledge and insights back to Arup. His tour of the United States included visits to both San Francisco and Seattle, during which he engaged the local Arup offices as well as several top tech companies to cultivate Arup’s network of relationships and discuss emergent project opportunities.


Autodesk University 2012

Autodesk University 2012

Keynote speach: Carl Bass

Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, began the conference with the delivery of a keynote speech. His presentation was delivered to a live audience of 15,000 people in Las Vegas, and was also broadcast through Autodesk TV. The future of design tools featured prominently in Bass’ keynote. Many of the trends he outlined related to the near future of design tools, such as cloud-enabled, integrated, and collaborative online tools and services, such as the newly-unveiled Autodesk Fusion 360. The ideas he raised were largely in alignment with Alvise’s own work on design tools of the longer-term future. This presentation was a good indicator that opportunities may exist for future collaboration between Arup and Autodesk regarding the future of design tools.


AU 2012 Executive Briefing

Executives Briefing: Jon Pittman

Jon Pittman, VP of Corporate Strategy at Autodesk, discussed the three current megatrends: products are being replaced by services, big data is being monetized in exchange for freeware services, and design tools are becoming less differentiable in terms of functionality, resulting in the increased importance of experience as a competitive selling point.

1. Products versus services

These three megatrends are informing Autodesk’s emergent and future business, research, and product development strategies. Autodesk’s core business practice, the sale of discrete, permanent software packages is beginning to be replaced by software that is accessed through the cloud by way of a subscription-based sales platform. This new strategy as presented by Pittman was an interesting insight for Alvise, because Autodesk was formalizing the approach that Arup has taken for many years: that designers should use the most appropriate tool to achieve the specific task at hand.

The implications of this shift are enormous. Subscribers would be allowed access to every piece of software that Autodesk has developed on an as-needed basis without needing to actually own any of them. Another significant implication of this movement toward subscription-based software consumption is the need for total integration between all of a company’s software acquisitions. Designers of the future will need to be able to smoothly navigate between all services available through their cloud-based subscription.

Models for transactions will also change as an effect of this shift toward subscription-based usage. The back end of the sales process is becoming increasingly automated, reducing the need for human transaction actuators. “Low-touch” relationships will play an increasing role in a provider’s interaction with its subscribers. These mini-relationships, based off of automatic computer-aggregated data specific to the customer, could customize the user’s experience by providing advice and information specific to usage and purchase history. An insight gained from this model is that low-touch relationships are much less expensive to maintain than traditional client relationships, and can be extremely effective in certain capacities.

2. Big data and freeware

Another critical insight gained from this session was the increasing prominence of freeware. In many cases, companies are discovering that the development and maintenance of a relationship with customers, and the associated big data that is able to be collected as a result, is more valuable than the profit margin attained from the sale of a product or service. Companies such as Facebook and Yelp are emerging within this new realm of big data collectors, hosting platforms such as social networking services in exchange for the rights to aggregate usage- and profile-based data, and sell it to companies that specialize in analyzing and monetizing that data. “Knowing what people want” is proving to be a valuable asset in a wide range of applications. Amazon is able to promote its own sales by providing customers with product recommendations for related items, based off of an algorithm that tracks which items are typically purchased together. Such uses of big data can be highly functional, from the perspective of both the provider and the consumer, at minimal cost per actuation.

3. Function versus experience

A third trend in current design tool development is a decreasing emphasis on differences in functionality between products, and an increasing emphasis on user experience. Many products on the technology market are capable of accomplishing the same objective tasks, as evidenced by the recent explosion of the tablet computer and android markets. An analogous example is dining at a restaurant: in this scenario, achieving proper nutrition is nearly taken for granted, and the differentiators between restaurant venues is almost entirely based on the subjective experiences that are cultivated within each option.

As such, the “consumerization of information technology” is a critical current issue, marking a transition from top-down to bottom-up IT models. Historically, IT has been approached from a top-down perspective, where a company’s CIO and top management plays a large role in determining the technological experience of every employee of the company. The millennium generation, in contrast, is increasingly bringing their own devices to work, thereby taking control of much of the experiential aspect of technology usage.

This trend of consumerism in the IT market is being expanded into the software realm by Autodesk by way of their 123D suite of programs. This freeware offers a simplified interface for an intended audience of non-technical users. However, the 123D suite offers many of the same set of functional capabilities as the more complex, expensive software programs; the difference resides predominately in the experience.


The Future of Design: How the Masters Create in 2025

Alvise Simondetti @ AU 2012

Alvise was invited to speak in a session entitled “The Future of Design: How the Masters Create in 2025.” He was one of seven speakers in the session, representing Arup alongside futurists and designers from companies working within a wide variety of different industries, such as software, transportation, biotechnology, and animation. Other speakers included representatives from Intel, Tesla, Adobe, Dreamworks, Singularity University, and Byologyc. The presentation was attended by over 300 people, and was broadcast live through Autodesk TV. One of the speakers, Trevor Haldenby, founder of Byologyc, is an Arup Foresight + Innovation alumnus, and has recently worked with the F+I team on the Future of Gamification. Alvise’s presentation conveyed his current research regarding experiential foresight and the future role of design tools for engineers and architects. It was based around the theme of the design of the built environment, and contained research relating to the concept for a universal pop-up hotel.

Full coverage of the panel is available here.


Design Computation Symposium

1. Peter Martens, BEMO

Peter Martens from BEMO Systems, Germany showcased 96-axis machine that was designed to pass aluminum coils through a system of wheels to form exacting shapes that satisfy complex geometric specifications. This technology was used, for example, to cover 30,000 square meters of free form surface for a project in Taiwan, led by Mecanoo, based in Delft. This presentation revealed an interesting question about whether structural constraints of materials and fabrication technology should limit the form of a building, or whether the form of a building could inspire the creation of new tools for alleviating existing structural constraints.

SCI-Arc Robot House

2. Sci-Arch Robot House – a realtime 3D printer

SCI-Arc presented a platform for animation-based fabrication. The project involves the use of multiple robot actors that are controlled within the Esperanto plug-in for Maya software. This technology allows for “character rigging,” or the coordination between the animation of virtual robots and the real motion of physical robots in the studio, governed by digitally triggered pneumatics. An emergent trend is the usage of this software as a physical platform. One such example is a realtime 3D printer, involving the development of a fixed virtual model, which is ultimately sent to a 3D printer. The difference between realtime 3D printing and traditional 3D printing technologies is that the printer itself would be mounted onto the robots, enabling the design to be modified in real time. During this presentation, Alvise initiated a conversation about the possibility of an “undo” command in the 3D printing process. The radical speculation was well received by the team as a necessary consideration for future research.

3. Kreysler

Kreysler specializes in the fabrication of large-scale Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines. Reportedly, the team’s best project was when the fabricator was hired by the client, Stanford University, to consult with the architects and engineers from the inception of the project on issues such as theirmal expansion. This model illustrates an extremely effective departure from the typical, siloed relationships between teams working on the same project. During the presentation, Kreysler provided an additional insight that two-dimensional drawings have very little relevance in the current and future workflow of designers and engineers.

4. SJET at MIT, Skyler Tibbits and Arthur Olson

Skyler TIbbits and Arthur Olson of SJET conducted a demonstration on self-assembly. Their research includes work on right- and left-handed patterns of attraction, also known as molecular chirality, which allows for self-correction of errors between simultaneous assemblies of different distinct elements.


Microsoft Meeting, Seattle, WA

Microsoft Paint

Subsequent to his attendance and participation in the Autodesk University conference, Alvise met with Microsoft in Seattle. He met with Habib Zargarpour, Creative Director at Microsoft Game Studios, to discuss game analytics. One theme of the conversation was that the design-publish process could be seen as a game that is not yet optimized. If different environments, from the scale of buildings to the scale of entire cities were configured into navigable gaming environments, then designers could more easily analyze feedback gathered from real users navigating around the environment. One insight gained from this conversation is that Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games are beginning to make use of real-time analytics, which allow the designer to fine-tune the gaming environment in real time to optimize the users’ experiences.

Another technology on the horizon at Microsoft is the usage of computational fluid dynamics in software development. For example, the latest version of Microsoft Paint allows users to mix colors at varying intensities dependent on pressure input from the user onto the tablet surface.



While the insights gained from Autodesk University and a selection of meetings with top tech companies were disparate and wide-ranging, several key themes emerged. Technology is rapidly changing some industries and business models in a way that we can barely recognize them. It is only a question of when, not if Arup industry will be affected,

Arup needs to carefully consider how to make the most of currently available technologies. Additionally, how can Arup seize the lessons learned from current technologies to provide input about the necessary capabilities of the technology of tomorrow? How can we foster innovative, cross-disciplinary, collaborative thinking that takes advantage of the skills and structure of our firm, so that we can emerge on top of new technological developments?

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