Brainstorm Green

Emma Stewart: 'What the world needs are synthesists'

October 30, 2013: 1:10 PM ET

Autodesk's head of sustainability solutions prefers the big picture and considers her environmental footprint.

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FORTUNE--Fortune's annual Brainstorm Green conference brings together individuals who strive to build a sustainable future across various industries. In this weekly feature, we shine a spotlight on an attendee to offer their personal insight on business, environmentalism, and entrepreneurship.

Emma Stewart, who holds a Ph.D. in environmental science and management from Stanford University, is the head of sustainability solutions at design software company Autodesk and teaches at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. We asked her 10 questions about her professional and personal lives, as well as her outlook on green projects. Find out below what green business she admires most, the best advice she ever received, and the surprising answer to what class she found most useful:

1. What alternative energy projects are most overrated?

Wind and solar, while photogenic, are currently very expensive ways to tackle climate change. Less sexy projects like upgrading appliances, re-lamping, and insulation are far more cost-effective, and don't require the changes in policy necessary to level the playing field for wind and solar.

2. What green business or person do you admire most? Why?

I admire Interface [a commercial and residential modular carpet manufacturer] for having set the bar high on developing new environmentally-friendly product lines and tackling its own manufacturing environmental footprint aggressively but methodically.

3. What other companies do you admire? Why?

I admire Google (GOOG) because it makes sacred space for innovation and never rejects an idea for being too distant from its core business model. When they decided that clean energy was a priority for their operations, they actually registered their company as a utility provider.

MORE: 10 questions for 'eco-entrepreneur' Anthony Zolezzi

4. What is the best advice you ever received?

The world has lots of specialists. What the world needs are "synthesists," people who can see the entire system—all of its moving parts—and identify the greatest levers for change within that system. It is these individuals who will help us address complex societal challenges like quality education, public health, and environmental sustainability.

5. What is one characteristic that every leader should possess?

An instinct to experiment rapidly and learn from those experiments.

6. What is one goal that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?

I'd like to take my daughter to all of the countries to which I've traveled, but see them through her more perceptive eyes.

7. What daily steps do you take to promote sustainability?

It's difficult to live sustainably in the U.S., the world's worst performer in terms of resource use intensity per dollar of GDP produced. My personal environmental footprint, living in a dense urban environment with public transit and a relatively clean energy mix, is below average. But frequent air travel puts me well above average, so I buy carbon offsets to mitigate that.

8. What was the last book you read?

To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov

9. What was the most important thing you learned in school?

Honestly, I use the skills I learned in theater class more than any other. Speak confidently and carefully, "read" your fellow actors' while onstage so your efforts complement one another, and when unanticipated events occur, improvise quickly and move on.

10. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

I would be able to conjure up—for anyone I met—an image of their world 50 years from now.

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