Emma Stewart is head of sustainability solutions at Autodesk.
Autodesk Emma Stewart is head of sustainability solutions at Autodesk.

The growth of cities and increased emphasis on resilient construction are pushing municipalities to seek innovative design strategies that promote sustainability. While the answers often lie in data collected by public and private entities about metrics such as how people move through urban areas and resource consumption, the challenge is to distill the information to salient design solutions.

At the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in New Orleans this week, the technology and software developer Autodesk introduced a series of apps to help project teams evaluate the cost of sustainable design strategies as well as integrate building-performance analysis and building-information modeling (BIM) workflows for Revit and FormIt users. (More on those introductions here.) During a talk at the show, the software provider's head of sustainability solutions, Emma Stewart, argued for the need to use environmental and social goals as the driver of design decisions. We caught up with Stewart afterward to learn more about how data—the right kind, that is—can influence how we design cities.

What is Autodesk’s Sustainability Solutions team?
Our mission is to make sustainability easy, insightful, and cost effective for our highest-footprint customers—industries whose environmental challenges are most closely coupled with their economic challenges. That’s true for buildings, it’s true for infrastructure, and it’s true for manufacture.

What role do cities play?
I’m convinced that’s where the nexus of power has shifted, at least in the West. They make for a nice microcosm of how to effect change and how to refine our design tools to the point where they’re used not just by cities but, even more importantly, by the architects, engineers, and industrial designers who serve them or who operate within them. It’s a nice construct within which many of our projects fit.

During your talk, you defined the concept of the “S.M.A.R.T.” city and compared it to today’s “smart” cities. What is the former, and where are the opportunities for Autodesk to make an impact?
The S.M.A.R.T. city is a response to the discourse around smart cities and makes the point that the concept of “smart” focuses too much on the technology and too little on the ends, which is to make livable and sustainable urban environments. The technology [of smart cities] is generally put forth as sensors and big data, which have a value if you’re building something from the ground up or if you’re dealing with something that’s constantly spinning, like a turbine, or something that degrades without you noticing, like a building’s energy efficiency. But they don’t make a lot of sense for tackling some of the biggest impacts, such as road and transit design and the overall design of a building rather than fine-tuning its operation once it’s designed and constructed.

So, S.M.A.R.T. stands for: Setting science-based targets, meaning that they are in line with what environmental scientists recommend; making a design case on the basis not just of pure financials but the societal and environmental benefits; absorbing water, both in coastal cities and inland areas that are experiencing sewage overflow and increased participation; retrofitting key structures to lower their energy consumption while offering tenant payback like better daylighting and air quality; and offering transportation through multiple modes that reduce reliance on the personal vehicle. For the latter, we’re investing in two areas; one is at the macro level, in simulating the needs and demands for public transit through [a partnership with the] CoSMo [system modeling and simulation] company and the second is the acquisition of technology called Commuter that does micro-scale simulation of how you or I would get to work and what that experience would be like.

What role does data play?
We’re generating 2.5 quintillion bytes of data in a day. Data-driven design would probably put us all in the madhouse. Analysis-driven design suggests that we’re able to select only the data we need to draw insight that then is required as an input to the design. So, what does it take to get you from your home to your place of work? You don’t actually need to know most of what the Department of Transportation is collecting. But you do need to know a lot about the road design, the time it takes to exchange modes of transport, what the ticketing looks like, what the safety and security concerns might be. We need to be more selective about the data that we collect and incorporate that into the design much earlier in the process.

This interview has been edited and condensed.