guest column

Clutch City: Is 2020 a time of devastation or doubling down for Houston?

Houston has proven to be resilient time and time again. In a guest column, Amy Chronis explores if 2020 has the potential to be Clutch City's breaking point. Photo via Pexels

"Clutch City" may be Houston's most befitting nickname — and it has proven to stand the test of time. Whoever coined the term likely had no idea in how many ways this moniker would be tested and upheld over the next 20-plus years.

Time and time again the fourth largest city in America has proven to be resilient, whether it be a natural catastrophe, tough economic times or the global pandemic. But, will the multi-dimensional stresses of 2020 break the city's winning streak?

Houston is also well known for being The Energy Capital of the World, a qualifier that has meant record revenue and jobs growth, as well as weathering several oil and gas economic down cycles. While the city has taken many hits from previous downturns, it has always been able to recover. The oil, gas and chemicals downturn of 2020, however, is unlike anything we've ever seen before — and could fundamentally transform the energy industry, as well as Houston's economy.

This year, the industry has been grappling with the energy transition while it is also is facing the "Great Compression," sustained low oil prices on top of diminished oil demand from the global pandemic, and the "Great Crew Change." The confluence of these simultaneous challenges could have profound impacts on the workforce and future of work in the oil, gas and chemicals industry. According to Deloitte's latest report, 70 percent of jobs in the industry lost during the pandemic may not return by the end of 2021.

The silver lining "clutch" play may be that Houston already has been on the path and is continuing to diversify its businesses, even within the energy and industrial sectors. The Greater Houston Partnership touts Houston's key industries beyond energy, including advanced manufacturing, aerospace and aviation, life sciences and biotechnology, digital technology and transportation and logistics. Notably, the common thread linking these industries is the need for greater digitalization of and within business models.

The encouraging news is that Houston has anticipated this need and factored it into its future planning. For example, the development of Ion Houston is designed to be the anchor of a 16-plus acre Innovation District in Houston dedicated to innovation, entrepreneurship and technology. This could be the type of investment the city needs to focus on as we grapple with a hard-hit economy. At this point, it is beyond choosing to prioritize moving to what's been called Industry 4.0 — digitalization should be a priority for companies wanting to survive and stay competitive.

According to an analysis conducted by the Greater Houston Partnership of the largest Texas cities, the following sectors had the most VC deals in technology over the last 20 years: life science, oil and gas, oncology, B2B payments, infrastructure and FemTech. The analysis also showcased the top niche tech specialties outside of oil and gas spanned multiple industries including life sciences, legal, space, environmental and FinTech. Houston's dual effort of industry diversification and focus on digitalization has been prescient.

COVID-19 has further accelerated the importance for companies across sectors to get on the fast track to Industry 4.0. The time for transformation is now. The oil, gas and chemicals sector, as well as all sectors, should start building a workforce for the future in order to survive and break the barriers to entry to Industry 4.0. This effort typically includes attracting people across generations by promoting sustainability, offering new digital ways of working, making flexible/remote working a permanent reality while building a sense of pride amongst the workforce toward the work product and organization itself.

Organizational agility is one way through this downturn. Challenging traditional ways of thinking and functioning will likely be required for companies to remain competitive.

The advance work and planning Houston has undertaken to diversify its economy by expanding its industries and focusing on digitalization and the future of workforce, together may ensure that we keep Houston strong and that the "Clutch City" lives up to its name.

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Amy Chronis is the Houston managing partner at Deloitte.

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Building Houston

 
 

For over a year now, scientists have been testing wastewater for COVID-19. Now, the public can access that information. Photo via Getty Images

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

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