A Conversation With Dawn Danby, Sustainable Design Expert

Dawn_010bwcrop_sized.jpg Dawn Danby's background is hard to sum up, except everything is green. She has worked in green building and furniture design; she once spent years with an artist designing a tree-covered, wind-powered pedestrian bridge on the U.S.-Canada border, but now she works on sustainability issues for Autodesk, which makes 3D design software used by 10 million designers, engineers, and architects worldwide.

In 2009, Fast Company recognized Danby as one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business, and she has spoken at numerous conferences, including TEDGlobal 2005. Here, she discusses the challenge of overhauling how engineers are taught, why watered-down green thinking is worse than the evilest greenwashing, and music.

What do you say when people ask, "What do you do?"

I'm a designer and strategist focused on sustainability. This has been generally true since about 1998. I also have various secret identities that have either kept me sane or paid the rent, so there are people out there who know me as a medical illustrator, a singer, or as curator for Reorb.it, a social media theatre project.

Right now I run a project called the Autodesk Sustainability Workshop, which teaches young engineers and designers about sustainable design. There's probably an order of magnitude more engineers than there are designers, and they're often trained in a math and physics vacuum without any focus on the values or environmental impact of their decisions. This is something we should be intensely concerned about: students want to make real, physical things, and they want to have an influence.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people think about sustainability?

New forms of connectivity are changing how we think about sustainability and what we perceive to be true. Sounds cliché, but it's basic. Many of the core concepts around sustainable design haven't changed much in decades. What has changed is our ability to access information about what works and doesn't.

What's something that most people just don't understand about what you do?

That I often have to start at the beginning. Many folks don't realize how many people out there are brand new to thinking about the environment, and who lack a basic understanding of science and planetary ecology. We like our echo chambers: it's seductive to stay inside small, comfortable communities.

I rarely meet people, in any field, who are totally cavalier about destroying ecosystems or human health. I think a lot about the engineer who, two beers in, came up to me at a conference, and tried to pick a fight: his opener was, "I think sustainability is a communist plot." The conversation we had was sort of profound, because I had to figure out how to make this stuff relevant to him while trying to really understand his grievances. We ended up agreeing on everything except terminology.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Access to better, more transparent data is increasing the number of people who can spend time thinking about environmental impact. Sustainable design had been based on loose assumptions and rules of thumb. My colleagues at Autodesk work tirelessly at getting better information to designers well before things are built. We now have data that allows architects to run detailed models, estimating how much energy a particular building design will use. Product designers can choose materials based on their emissions impact, water use, or toxicity. This is a radical change.

Presented by

Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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