guest column

Guest column: Now is the time to plan for the future of Houston's tech economy

Leaders across the spectrum are coming together this week to shine a spotlight on the future of tech jobs in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

This week, leaders in government, business, and academia are convening to work within the community to explore how we can leverage partnerships and new federal programs to drive investment into Houston’s burgeoning innovation ecosystem.

At AI Across America: Houston, we’ll begin forming plans and partnerships capable of sparking an innovation ecosystem, fueling AI education, training, research, development, and job creation. We’ll also examine how students, workers, businesses, and academics in the community can prepare for upcoming opportunities and challenges.

Why Houston

Besides being near Texas’ 10th District, choosing Houston was easy in its own right. According to a study by Axios and LinkedIn, between 2020 and 2021, while the traditional tech hubs bled top talent, Houston gained 10.6 percent new tech workers. Those workers arrived to a solid foundation; in 2022 the Houston metro area had net tech employment of 134,436 people. The growth is steady too. From 2010 to 2019, the Houston area tech workforce grew 12.3 percent.

Recently, Houstonians are leveraging federal programs and public-private partnerships to build innovative, collaborative environments. These include places like The Ion, East End Maker Hub, and Houston Community College.

Defining the project

The AI Across America project is a collaboration between SeedAI, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and the Congressional AI Caucus. Working in conjunction, the organizations support efforts in the public and private sectors to expand access to AI education, training, development, testing, and job creation for communities across the country.

The AI Caucus is a group of U.S. Representatives working together to better understand their constituent's interests and those of all Americans as it pertains to AI. The organization works to explain the underlying technology and the ecosystem.

SeedAI does the groundwork to build collaboration across the private sector, government, academia, and civil society to support community-driven AI investments. The work of SeedAI focuses specifically on people who have been historically-marginalized and overlooked.

This is a critical moment for AI in America and beyond

AI is the battleground of the next great global competition. We have to be the first to build and master AI technology. Yet, because AI is a reflection of the people creating it and historical data, pursuing technology through the perspective of only a small group of people opens us to disproportionate harm and unknown risks.

Worse still, if the barrier to entry for AI is allowed to continue growing, we risk losing our most precious resource – the ingenuity waiting to be unleashed across the country. How, in those circumstances, can we succeed when faced with a nation like China with a population dwarfing the U.S. alongside an ability to spend far more agilely and extensively?

How can we succeed, and what is Houston’s role?

Fortunately, through recently-passed legislation called the Chips and Science Act, we have an opportunity to reclaim international leadership in a quintessentially American way: by leveraging the diverse strengths of communities across the country.

Houston already has a head start and an expanding tech economy – with planning and collaboration, Houstonians can be first in line to build new resources for AI education and development. When every state and community begins to realize their potential in the AI-powered future, Houston can play a leading role in guiding others to success and enabling their transformation.

If we succeed, we’ll uncover ingenuity and inventions we would’ve never anticipated. And as AI becomes easier to apply, we’ll have a real chance to build an AI-first generation of workers and builders from coast to coast.

Once we become competitive internally, we will be unbeatable internationally. If we succeed, we’ll lead the world in economic competitiveness and national security for decades to come.

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Austin Carson is the founder of SeedAI, a nonprofit established to work with a diverse group of policymakers, academics, and private sector experts to help communities across the United States access the resources they need to engage with AI. Congressman Michael T. McCaul, Republican Leader for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Vice Chair of the Congressional AI Caucus, is currently serving his ninth term representing Texas' 10th Congressional District which stretches from the city of Austin to the Houston suburbs.

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Building Houston

 
 

These organizations are teaming up to advance development of a regional clean industrial hub. Photo by Katya Horner

Two Houston organizations that are on a mission to make Houston a leader in the energy transition have announced new plans for a hub focused on decarbonization.

The Houston Energy Transition Initiative and the Center for Houston’s Future have teamed up with the Mission Possible Partnership, with support from the Bezos Earth Fund, to lead the city of Houston through the accelerated development of a regional clean industrial hub geared at decarbonization of the industrial sector, including petrochemicals, cement plants, heavy transportation, and more.

The two-year project is focused on development and deployment of clean energy projects — such as "low-carbon hydrogen, carbon capture, use and storage, electrification of industrial processes, and the production and use of low carbon fuels," according to a press release.

“There is no geography in the world better positioned to support the transition to and integration of abundant, low-carbon energy solutions than Houston," says Jane Stricker, executive director and senior vice president of HETI, in the release. "As the Energy Transition Capital of the World, Houston is leveraging its energy leadership to accelerate global solutions for a low-carbon future. This partnership with MPP is a critical component in the region’s efforts to develop and deploy technologies, policies and strategies for broad decarbonization."

MPP, a nonprofit alliance of climate leaders launched in 2020 focused on energizing decarbonization, is supported by RMI, the Bezos Earth Fund, the Energy Transition Commission, World Economic Forum, and We Mean Business.

“The Center for Houston’s Future has been leading HETI’s clean hydrogen initiative with the goal of making Houston a global clean hydrogen leader," says Brett Perlman, CEO of the Center for Houston’s Future. "We’re now pleased to work with Mission Possible Project and leverage the MPP team’s deep subject matter expertise in clean hydrogen and experience in creating hydrogen ecosystems."

In October, HETI released a report calling for the region to aim for $150 billion in capital earmarked for the sector by 2040. The report indicated that about $15 billion in energy transition capital is flowing into the region each year and about $25 billion is flowing out of the region. Of the $25 billion, oil and gas players with headquarters or a significant presence in Houston account for more than 80 percent.

“Increased energy transition capital commitment from energy incumbents raises investor confidence in Houston’s potential for energy transition leadership,” reads the report.

The Center for Houston's Future had a report of its own that published earlier this year and makes the argument of how Houston-based assets can be leveraged to lead a global clean hydrogen innovation.

“It should come as no surprise that Houston, the energy capital of the world, is taking the lead in the emerging low emissions energy ecosystem,” says Bryan Fisher, director of hubs at MPP and managing director of RMI’s Climate-Aligned Industries, in the release. “MPP’s work with HETI and the Center for Houston’s Future will focus on a portfolio of solutions, including low carbon fuels, clean hydrogen, and CCUS to drive sustainability and equitable economic growth for the region.”

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