Dassault Systemes was recently named number 5 in the Corporate Knights top 100 most sustainable companies. At the center of this achievement is Bernard Charles, CEO and President since September, 1995, and at the core of Mr. Charles’ business is a philosophy on what it means to be sustainable. In his words: “Imagining sustainable innovations capable of harmonizing product, nature and life is the only way to progress for us, for our customers, and for society at large.” We sat down with Mr. Charles to unpack this concept-rich statement, and to try to understand how this vision helps Dassault Systemes succeed as a business.
Sustainability: I’d like to start at the beginning, with the concept of “imagining”. Is that a core part of the Dassault Systeme’s culture? Why does it matter for sustainability?
Mr. Charles: We start with “imagining” because sustainability is about freedom of thought. It’s about feeling comfortable to move beyond current assumptions around how much energy or raw material or water it takes to make something. I want my co-workers to feel empowered, even mandated, to look beyond what they have traditionally considered possible, and let go of their imaginations. I want them to feel they are a part of an important project to make things better, and a first step in that project is discovering their own freedom to think and explore. From that realization comes innovation, which is the next step, “imagining sustainable innovations”.
Sustainability: Following from that , what does it mean for innovation “to harmonize with product, nature and life”?
Mr. Charles: Part of what makes this statement perhaps a bit difficult is that it comes from a concept inspired by my experience of Japanese art. At its core, its about finding a harmony across the elements of experience which matter most. It’s about the preservation of things. For Dassault Systemes, that means product, nature, and life. It’s about starting with a product, either existing or imagined, and then thinking about it from these other points of view. A product exists within nature, its components come from nature, and it will likely, eventually, decompose back into the natural world. How much a part of the natural world is it? How much does creating it, using it, and disposing of it distort or damage the natural world around it? How much energy does it require across this entire life cycle? We try to develop solutions to help our customers explore these questions so that they can make the most informed, sustainable decisions possible.
Sustainability: Is Nature different than Life?
Mr. Charles: In one sense nature is a part of life. But how I mean this in the vision for Dassault is that harmonizing with nature is mimicking it, in the sense that what we and our customers create as product borrows from the design wisdom of nature. Nature knows how to design itself so that it doesn’t degrade its own life cycles. We can learn so much from closely examining the structure and process of natural things. Indeed, we can learn so much just by spending time in natural settings and seeing, listening, hearing and paying attention to what is around us. And so if Nature is the design and process from which we can learn, “Life” in this context is about putting all that in motion. We learn from natural design and process, and then we live it! We build it into our workflow. We build it into our way of being and doing business. In this sense then, we harmonize with nature and life.
Sustainability: Could you please give an example of how this happens at Dassault Systemes?
Mr. Charles: Certainly. We have recently decided to invest 350 million dollars in helping mining companies better understand the impact of their operations. These are tools which will assist with significantly reducing the environmental impact involved with the extraction of natural resources. This is a necessary industry, and its an environmentally destructive process to extract needed minerals. By developing this tool set, we can create a solution where one is most needed, and where it can make the most impact on reducing the amount of land, water and infrastructure required to mine natural resources. This kind of tool will help some in this industry, who choose to, to see a better way of doing things. And seeing and experiencing is the beginning of understanding and choosing a more sustainable way of doing business. We want to help the world tackle sustainability challenges through Experience – which we call 3DExperience. 3D universes generated by visualization tools are the most powerful vehicle for creating the future.
Sustainability: You then go on to connect this concept of harmony to “progress for us, for our customers, and for society at large.” Why is it critical to success for business today? and for society at large?
Mr. Charles: We as a society, and that includes our customers of course, are placing steadily increasing demands on a living planet with finite capacity to sustain itself and us along with it. We take great risk in the medium and long term if we lose site of this reality. And this is not always the easiest way to do business. I’ve passed on many opportunities which would have grown my business more quickly in the short term, but would have created too much risk, been to far out of harmony, in the long term. At the same time, I like to imagine, to experiment with projects and ideas which may seem unlikely to pay off in the short term, but if successful, will be transformative for us and our customers and hopefully society in the longer term. So to answer the question, the concept of harmony becomes increasingly important as we put more and more pressure on the fragile systems we all depend on for living. I believe that if we provide this kind of leadership, we can create a much more sustainable and successful business, costumer and society. And if we fail, I want to know we had the courage to imagine solutions which could have helped, and that we did what we could to make these solutions a reality.
Sustainability: I’m now imagining a world in which Dassault Systemes helps connect a diverse group of innovators, be they in the financial, NGO, academic and industrial communities looking for sustainable solutions? Is this part of your vision?
Mr. Charles: I think we can really help provide connective tissue and technological insight for these communities. With 3D experiences or “universes”, we can help visualize solutions, from which new insight can emerge. Also, we may be able to help consumers understand the real cost, from a sustainability perspective, of what they are buying. And by consumers, I mean our customers, the consuming public, the investment community, and many other key decision-makers who help determine the viability and quality of our society as a whole.
Sustainability: Finally, what kind of effect does your leadership and this philosophy have on employees at Dassault Systemes?
Mr. Charles: Well, I hope, and I think I see every day, that our employees feel like they are a part of a project which is larger than themselves and even Dassault Systemes. I want to be an example of the kind of sustainable risk and entrepreneurship which can make us all successful, and I feel like the employees at Dassault Systemes can find energy and freedom and creativity in this way of doing business. Dassault Systemes is not really just a place to work, it’s a place to be impactful. A place to create meaningful change in the world. That can be a pretty powerful recruitment and retention tool!
Note: Sustainability’s Managing Editor conducted this interview, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.