17 Conference Report #techonomy17

Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost on the Obligation of Business


  • Autodesk's Andrew Anagnost and David Kirkpatrick engage in conversation on AI, robotics, and business during their session at Techonomy 2017. Photo Credit: Paul Sakuma Photography


Andrew Anagnost
President and CEO, Autodesk


David Kirkpatrick
Founder and CEO, Techonomy

David Kirkpatrick and Andrew Anagnost of Autodesk in conversation at Techonomy 2017. An excerpt of the transcript can be found below, and the full transcript is accessible here.

Kirkpatrick: And this is the end of the day now, but don’t leave because Andrew Anagnost is the quite amazing, new CEO of Autodesk.  And I’ve just been so interested to get to know him a little bit on the phone and briefly here, and I think you’re going to see why.

Autodesk is a company that makes software to make things, basically. Is that a fair summary?

Anagnost: That’s what we do, design and make things.

Kirkpatrick: And so because of that, you seem to have given a lot of thought—well, you’ve been there since ’97, so even though you just became CEO, you’ve been there. You know what this company’s all about and you’ve clearly been thinking about some of these big issues that we’ve already touched on here, notably, this issue of the future of jobs and how automation will affect everything. So maybe I should let you kind of riff a little bit on that topic since you are quite eloquent, and don’t let me down on that.

Anagnost: [LAUGHS] Well, you know, there’s a couple of ways of looking at this. First, let’s talk philosophically. We’re moving into an age of automation. And we as tech companies, we have a responsibility to do this ethically, morally, and in a way that benefits society.

Kirkpatrick: To move into an automated society.

Anagnost: Yes. To move into this new whatever you want to call it, the new machine-human society, whatever you want to call it. There’s a few simple rules you can follow. First off, you’ve got to remember that the end user is the customer. And a lot of the ills that we were talking about earlier today which people were so passionately discussing is that Silicon Valley in some parts has forgotten who the customer is. We do great things when we focus on the end user as the customer.

The other thing that’s super important is we’ve got to deploy this technology to solve some fundamental capacity problem, either an economic capacity problem, a social capacity problem, or, frankly, an environmental capacity problem. And that’s one of the areas that you and I can talk about a little bit.

But the last piece is we have to stand up and be realistic that we have a moral responsibility to help people in what I like to call the valley of dread. And you simply draw your favorite S-curve, right? There’s this period where new technologies are coming up and jobs are being created, but at the same time, you’re undoing some other economy. And there’s this valley of dread. We’ve been talking about it for a while. There’s going to be new jobs on the other side. I am a techno-optimist, a little grumpy one, but I’m a techno-optimist. And there are going to be more jobs, more things to do on the other side. But there is this reality that there’s a group that’s struggling during this transition that we as providers of technology have to pay attention to.

Kirkpatrick: Okay, that’s a really good way to think of it. But another thing I want to get on the table as we continue discussing various aspects of what you do and what you hope to see is this point you make about, you know, the global middle class is not going to get smaller, right?

Anagnost: This is the capacity problem. So you and I had talked about this on the phone. Look, we’re moving to a world—look at your favorite prediction, 2050, 10 billion people in the world. Ten billion people in the world. We don’t have enough infrastructure to support those people. In the developed world, cities are not able to provide the capacity for this population. In the developing world, there’s simply not enough roads and bridges to provide capabilities for these people to have the mobility they need.

Kirkpatrick: Not to mention homes.

Anagnost: Exactly. And by the way, there’s one stat to kind of fulfill that capacity, we literally have to build 1,000 buildings a day over the next 33 years. A thousand buildings a day.

Kirkpatrick: A thousand buildings a day for 33 years.

Anagnost: We can’t do that. And the other thing is, back to this middleclass, if we’re going to move to a world with 10 billion people, we want to have a vibrant, healthy, and productive middleclass. If we don’t, we’re either going to have—

Kirkpatrick: You mean globally.

Anagnost: Globally.

Kirkpatrick: Yes.

Anagnost: Sure. We’re either going to have war, we’re going to have famine, or we’re going to have pestilence. It’s that simple. So we’re not going to get to 10 billion if we don’t have a vibrant—and we can debate if we should get to 10 billion or if we will get to 10 billion, but that’s not the point.

Kirkpatrick: But they’re all going to have to be in the middle class, however many there are.

Anagnost: So fundamentally, we have a major capacity problem because that middleclass, they’re going to want more things, right? So we can sit here arrogantly in the developed world and say, “Well, they should just redefine their expectations of consumerism.” But is that fair or is that just us being parental or worse?

Kirkpatrick: Imperialistic, it could be called, actually.

Anagnost: They’re going to want the same things. They’re going to want their refrigerators, their washing machines, their cellphones. They’re going to want their conveniences. We cannot build all these things that are needed right now. And frankly, the world can’t support the capacity needs that we have right now. Why can’t we apply the automation to really make it possible to do all this more, do it better, but do it with a lot less impact?

Kirkpatrick: One of the things that I really like about you as the CEO of a creation software company talking like this is you see this as a virtue for the world that’s inarguable. You also see the opportunity that you could really make a lot of money to help it make it happen. But this also is very much in line with Techonomy’s embrace of the sustainable development goals because this is why it makes so much sense. We can consciously start working towards really remedying the problems of the world without disadvantaging business necessarily.

Anagnost: I fundamentally believe that.

Kirkpatrick: I hate win-win, I hate that phrase, but the fact is, I love listening to a CEO like you who’s put it together in the context of your business.

Anagnost: Yes, absolutely. This is just good business. Like I said, more is inevitable. This isn’t going away. We can pretend it’s going away, we can pretend there isn’t going to be more. More is inevitable. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, all these algorithms, this is going to help us absorb this capacity without destroying the planet simultaneously. Imagine a world where instead of building one project for $10 billion, you build 10. Imagine a world where urban areas are continually renewing themselves through automation and application of automation technology. These kinds of efforts are actually going to employ more people and they’re going to create more good and more sustainable development in the world than we have today.

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