Autodesk Foundation: A Learning Journey alongside Impact Designers

By Lynelle Cameron, President and CEO of the Autodesk Foundation

In the seven years I’ve been at Autodesk, I’ve seen many of our customers using design technology to create a better world.  Examples from the clean tech industry or the younger generation of students are case in point. Designers are rising to the challenge, designing and redesigning the world around us at an unprecedented pace.   In my role leading Sustainability and now the Autodesk Foundation, my job is clear – help more people use design to address epic challenges- climate change, energy, urbanization, access to water or health, among others. 

This was the inspiration behind the Autodesk Foundation, the first foundation to focus on supporting impact designers. These are designers who understand the power of design to solve the most intractable, interconnected and epic challenges. These designers are focusing their talents, ambitions and careers on creating positive, lasting and scalable impact. 

We invest in and support these impact designers for several reasons. First, we believe in the power of design and designers to create a better world; secondly, we believe that we, and our customers, have much to learn from these people; and lastly, we detect a movement brewing, a shift in power where designers are in front – a design-led revolution of sorts.  We want to support this and help it grow.

As any funder knows, the impact design movement needs more than money.  One of our greatest assets are the products and services we sell – the design technologies that are radically changing the process of design itself. With the tools available today, designers have the most robust information so they can, for example, understand the potential impacts of their design and have the ability analyze and test thousands of iterations in minutes.  They can collaborate in unprecedented ways, inviting more voices and massive collaboration into the entire design process.

We want all nonprofits to benefit from access to the best design technology available.  Through the Autodesk Technology Impact program, qualifying nonprofit organizations can  obtain our technology. The program is available in North America and will be rolled out internationally over the year. We will provide $7.5 million worth of software to at least 500 nonprofits within a year.  A few months in and we are already half way to our goal.   

But even more than technology, our greatest asset is our employee base – 7,500 talented employees who share the vision of a better world.  They want to contribute to a better world and they understand the challenges are of large proportions.  But many don’t know where to start or how to get involved.  The Foundation will create a pathway for the employees to roll up their sleeves and contribute. 

Through the Employee Impact program, Autodesk will match employee contributions of time or dollars, up to $3,000 per employee.  We know some employees are able to contribute financially while others want to contribute through volunteerism.  The Foundation supports both.  We will also help match employee interests and skills with nonprofit needs.  There’s nothing novel about this approach, but I’m optimistic that the participation rates and overwhelming response we’ll get from employees will be astounding.  There’s stifled interest – our hope is to unleash it.  

As a first step, in the past year we partnered with four impact design organizations that exemplify the kind of organizations we want to work with and can learn from.  We assisted MASS Design in the design of two maternal waiting homes in Malawi.  We supported D-Rev in durability and field-testing of a new injection molded, low-cost prosthetic knee.  We provided four engineers from Kenya-based KickStart International with digital prototyping and 3D printing training in San Francisco.  And, we collaborated with Auburn University in the construction of a $20,000 energy efficient house in rural Alabama.

But this is only the beginning as we are on a learning journey.  We aspire to support a movement, rather than inciting competition among like-minded impact designers.  We aspire to collaborate in new ways with the funding community and engage our customers and resellers in the process.  And of course we will increase the visibility of the most impactful designers – spotlighting what works.  But perhaps most importantly, we will learn from the design-led revolution already underway – working with the designers who are driving change and applying their talents to tackle epic challenges.

For more information, see the below video and refer to our press release.