How are companies rethinking their physical innovation spaces in 2022?
We dropped by the Autodesk Technology Center in Boston’s Seaport District last month to talk with Rick Rundell. Autodesk is a $4.7 billion software company that makes products used for an array of creative tasks, ranging from designing buildings to creating special effects for movies.
Prior to COVID, Autodesk’s Technology Centers in Boston, San Francisco, and Toronto had been inviting artists, entrepreneurs, and makers into the spaces to work on projects or new ventures, in the hopes that they could help Autodesk better understand its future customers.
“The mission was really about how will things be made in the future,” Rundell said. The centers “brought in an outside perspective, a provocation to our own thinking. Better ideas come out of that kind of mix.”
An Organizational Change
Rundell said he hasn’t had to re-justify or defend the Technology Centers over the past several years of the pandemic, but that he has had to respond to an organizational change. Previously, the Technology Centers had been a standalone organization, ultimately reporting to the company’s Chief Technology Officer. Now, they are a part of Autodesk’s research function, under Vice President of Research Mike Haley (who ultimately reports to the CTO.)
“We have industry experts here, a strategic foresight team, and a centralized engineering function,” Rundell explained. “And I run all the programmatic aspects of Autodesk Research.”
As of February, Rundell’s title became Senior Director, Research Programs; he had previously been Senior Director of the Autodesk Technology Centers.
How do you take the kind of wildly open innovation function, where you bring in everybody and let them work in the same place, and pair it up with a classic industrial research organization?
During the pandemic, Rundell said there were efforts to expand beyond three big cities, and make the Technology Centers’ footprint more global, especially in regions like Asia-Pacific and Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. But online networking and programming did not have the same impact, even though it helped to initiate some important new relationships. Rundell said, “We could never catalyze the same energy and activity” as with the physical centers.
“What I’m interested in now is, how do you take the kind of wildly open innovation function, where you bring in everybody and let them work in the same place, and pair it up with a classic industrial research organization? How do those functions relate?” he said. At many companies, “a hacker space or innovation lab tend to be separate from the formal research organization,” he added.
Different Focuses in Different Places
The three different locations each have a different focus, and they’re outfitted differently to reflect that focus. Boston is full of large ovens for working with composite materials; water jet cutting machines; mobile robots for moving items around on construction sites; and large-scale 3D printed objects.
“The different locations have different capabilities,” Rundell said. “Boston was originally for architecture, engineering, and construction — so this is the largest space we have in the mix. San Francisco is more about manufacturing technologies. Toronto is focused on opportunities for hybrid reality in a manufacturing environment.”
The locations are not just for Autodesk Research staffers’ use; Rundell said startups remain part of the mix. However, in an era of more distributed teams and remote work, it’s tougher to persuade them to come in to work there on a regular basis. He said, “I don’t think we’re ever going to get back to what we had before,” in terms of startups using the centers as a home base for 40-plus hours a week. Academic researchers and project teams from Autodesk’s customer base also often make use of the space.
‘Expectations Have Changed’
In the pre-pandemic era, Rundell said, much of the value of the Autodesk Technology Centers came from serendipitous conversations and creating new connections with current and future users of Autodesk’s software. These days, he said, “expectations have changed. Now that we are more complementary to the overall mission of research, we have a more systematic approach to how research is executed.”
Generation 1.0 was “an open innovation space open to all comers.” In Generation 2.0, “We are more of a research center focused on discovery, and things we can do with new or existing technologies that will be important to our industry over the next ten years,” Rundell said.
Three Big Themes in 2022
Rundell laid out three themes that his colleagues at Autodesk Research are actively exploring:
1. “Opportunities presented by the convergence of methods between industries, and between how something is made and how it is used. One example of the former would be methods from manufacturing applied to construction, either making more of a building in a factory before installing on the site, or taking factory processes (e.g. robotics, 3D printing at scale) to the construction site. An example of the latter is how digital twins of a manufactured assembly can inform better design of that assembly in the future.”
2. “Opportunities for machines (mostly computers) to collaborate with humans more effectively by providing design collaboration (e.g. our ongoing work in advancing generative design) or better coaching and guidance in the use of our software tools.”
3. “Opportunities presented by improving the world, addressing sustainable use of energy and materials for example in the design process enabled by our tools, or increasing the healthiness and resilience of the worlds buildings and infrastructure.”