Dawn Danby pops upover a Skype connection on the screen of my computer, holding up her laptop to the camera mounted in another. The machine in her hands shows a screen shot of Ecotect, a building-design program that represents the type of sustainability software she's helping develop for Autodesk in California. To make the exchange even trippier, the screen shot shows a 3-D model of buildings that very much resemble the skyscrapers just outside my window in downtown Manhattan, with a rainbow-colored river moving around and through them, representing the flow of solar energy.
Autodesk, a world leader in design and engineering software best known for AutoCAD, is going long on sustainability, betting that its programs can make green building (and eventually manufacturing) effortless and ubiquitous. Danby, 31, is the company's first sustainable-design program manager, charged with leading the software development teams and driving the strategy aggressively across the company.
"Whole-building energy analysis has to date required a huge amount of time by an expert who looks at a 3-D model after it's been designed, then tells you how the building is going to operate and how much carbon it will produce," Danby explains. "But after you've designed something all the way through, it's hard to tweak at the end. Ecotect lets you do a pretty quick pass on a building when it matters, at the beginning, based on a running analysis of how the shadows fall and the wind moves through that space." The idea is that a tool like this will put the knowledge of a master green engineer into the hands of each of Autodesk's 9 million customers -- architects, engineers, and designers -- and smooth the path to making things sustainable worldwide.
Lynelle Cameron, Autodesk's director of sustainability, says it took months to find someone with Danby's qualifications: "Dawn had worked at the intersection of multiple design disciplines, had deep expertise in sustainable design, and had business skills. The combination of any two of these is unique -- Dawn has all three."
With both a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MBA, the Toronto-born Danby is like a mixed martial artist: As a designer, she has worked on furniture, urban planning, retail systems, and closed-loop-manufacturing strategies. She collaborated with artist Noel Harding on a major project to green the city of Windsor, Ontario, including the Green Corridor Nature Bridge, a $3.5 million pedestrian walkway on the U.S. -- Canada border, with native plants and wind turbines. She was also an original contributor to the Worldchanging blog and book, helping to build that online community. "I would put Dawn toward the top of any list of emerging sustainable-design leaders," says Alex Steffen, Worldchanging's editor, adding that her genuine interest in people is her particular gift. "This makes her astonishingly effective at delivering innovation breakthroughs in ways that make sense to the people who have to implement them," he says.
"I never was in one particular box for much longer than a year or two at a time," Danby says, her grin flashing through the Webcam. "The focus I had was on sustainability as opposed to industrial design or really any other discipline. I'm looking for the most interesting projects, most interesting people to work with, and for leverage points -- because we're in a big hurry" when it comes to the fate of the planet.
That sense of urgency convinced Danby of the need to cross over to the corporate side, where she's overseeing the construction of tools rather than making stuff herself. In her new role, she's a geek on a mission. "We have to be creative all the time about what the mechanism is for advancing sustainability -- not just to get people hooked on the new widget, the new technology, but to give context and train them. It's really important to have the people who sell the software understand the benefits and be able to explain them to customers, so we can get to the ultimate goal: to change what gets made." -- by Anya Kamenetz