One of the oldest and most recognisable names in the CAD world, Autodesk’s software is found everywhere from architect’s offices, to retail designers, to Hollywood movie studios to the desktop 3D printers (which it also sells). The firm boasts an impressive array of cloud computing options for rendering massive projects, to mobile phone apps that turn your camera into 3D scanner.

And it also wants to let students and startups all across Africa use its tools for free.

So when we got the opportunity to sit down with Jonathan Knowles, whose official title is “director, strategic innovations and senior advisor to the CEO and CTO” but whose business card says only “explorer”, we couldn’t resist. We caught up with him at the Johannesburg extension of Autodesk’s conference series, Autodesk University, last week.

Jonathan Knowles at Autodesk University Extended last week. During your keynote, you spoke about Autodesk being involved in education and how it will be made free for learning purposes.  How did this decision come to be and how can an average learner get it?

Jonathan Knowles Our corporate culture is based on the idea that more designers and engineers are good for everyone, and that is good for the company. The better everyone is doing, the better we all do, so why not foster communities, individuals and ecosystems that support that? That’s why we have this multi-faceted approach to design and making our software free to all students, teachers and institutions. Our business model is also for enthusiasts: they can just use it. Go do. Go make. If you’re making under a certain amount of money [a turnover of $100 000 per annum], that’s okay, don’t pay us for it.

If you are, then just be cool! Help, be part of the solution. It’s like in Hawaii, they have these longboats which require multiple people to row and they have a saying: ‘put your ore in the water’, so put your ore in the water and let’s go. We’ve been, for many years, supporters of makerspaces. Autodesk is the largest supporter of TechShop, and we partner with other maker spaces around the world, including ones I will be visiting in South Africa.

We know innovation comes from unexpected places, they’re going to come from the fourteen year old girl in a village taking the free MIT lessons on her tablet. We want to plan for the future – 100 years from now, more than that, and we believe that accelerating this is the way to plan for the future. To corrupt a quote from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: ‘Innovation, uh, finds a way.’ And its to those ends that any student, teacher, teaching institution or maker can use of software for free, as long as they have a supported device and access to the internet.

How does Autodesk go about providing training and other resources to go along with the software?

I believe, nowadays, there are so many places on the internet for training. I believe that any institution that thinks putting hardware in hands will solve problems is short sighted, there must be infrastructure in place to also teach the educators and support them. They really need to create a teaching system to incorporate it into their lessons. It’s almost funny to me that you can learn almost anything on Youtube.

Instructables also excites me, it goes from such simple projects to more detailed one, and with more intent than Youtube. This intent really helps how to teach people to do. I think teaching on specific examples is better than teaching them in a broader way, so people can find what they’re looking for. So, while we don’t have any official support out yet, there are an infinite number of resources on the internet for people to use.

Your company background is in high-end 3D graphics and very expensive engineering. Why the new focus on makers and the otehr end of the market?

We’ve been on a path towards that for many years, because of the culture of making that exists at Autodesk. Our CEO, Carl Bass, is a maker. He has his own workshop down the road from his house. We have a facility in San Francisco called Pier 9, with a full metal and wood shop that employees can use so we can foster that maker spirit in the company.

What I’m trying to say is: we get it! We are trying to incorporate it into everything we do. Our business model reflects this: we want people to use our software because we succeed when you succeed.  Tinkercad and Spark are great examples of tools that are free and easy to use and we believe great things will come out of them.”

The software suite from Autodesk spans over 200 different applications, these have such a broad range, from movies and videogames to planes and buildings. We’re wondering is there any thing that is transferred between them?

It has been overlapping for some time. Think about building design, in the old days architects sold their buildings with sketches or cardboard models to give their clients some experience of the finished product, and to make a sale. But, because of what we know about making technology for entertainment, we can help provide an experience to people without architectural knowledge. He can show people their building in a city and how it will look with people and vehicles going in and out of it.

Those wanting to invest need these experiences to invest with more surety. They can also make changes on the fly and can spot problems by putting AI into the artificial crowds. The same technology used for architecture is also used in movies. We created the software that helped James Cameron create Avatar. With Jim we made something called virtual cinematography. The way he directs is that we would look through a monitor showing what the camera sees, and he would split his time between that and the actors.

In a movie like Avatar, monsters were usually done by a guy called a grip with a broomstick with a football at the end of it, and that makes it hard for the directors and actors. We made the monster actually appear on his monitor. It’s all about creating what didn’t exist before, and the more that is created the more everyone learns.”

 A big part of the maker culture is cracking things open, seeing how it works and putting it back together. It’s great that your 3D printing platform, Spark, is open source, but the rest of your software is closed down which must put a lot of makers off. How does Autodesk deal with this?

What you have to understand that people use our software for extremely serious work like skyscrapers and planes. When you use our software you have to know that you know that you know it is safe. This is why we have to keep our software used for those applications so secure. But, what we do is create software platforms that people can build with and build on to while still maintaining the integrity of the software. There are hundreds if not thousands of companies around the world that exist solely to create plugins and extensions for Autodesk software.

For example there is a product that’s called ShipConstructor that most ships around today are created with. It’s extremely complex. So you buy AutoCad and ShipConstructor and you can create ships with confidence. Being a platform is a good way for us to ensure others can innovate on top of what we’re doing instead of letting just anyone get into the code and hack it up.

What is your favourite animated movie and videogame?

I have a real appreciation for the original animations. I really love Mary Poppins (1964), [one of the first movies] to include both real acting and animation, and it was such a pivotal moment in entertainment. You know, Dick van Dyke dancing with penguins! Just thinking about what they had to work with and how much work it took, it’s amazing. I also Love South Park. Matt [Parker] and Trey  [Stone] can come in on a Monday morning with no notion of what they want to do, and by Thursday night they have a completed show. Done! In the can! And they do that using our software. They can just get to work without thinking about it, without worrying about hundreds of artists and animators working by hand. Marry Poppins probably took very little time to write and produce but then so many people had to work to animate it. Our technology allows Matt and Trey to be crazy successful and to be creative without worry. Their tools are just there.

I’m not a huge gamer these days, but what I love to see is videogames being used for new applications. I absolutely believe in entertainment for entertainment’s sake, but projects that go outside of that really excite me. There is a game in which players help to diagnose malaria, those kinds of games are my favourite.

[Image – Youtube]