Guest column

Houston needs to overcome its lack of density to continue to develop as an innovation ecosystem, says expert

Houston's density is possibly its biggest challenge when it comes to developing its innovation ecosystem, says a Houston expert. Getty Images

From the front porch of Houston, Texas, we solve some of humanity's hardest challenges. We're the ones who put humans on the Moon and rovers on Mars, go subsea in search of hydrocarbons, and are discovering a cure for cancer. We solve complex challenges, because of a characteristic seemingly embedded deep within our DNA — we are all explorers of the unknown.

Today, a new challenge is rallying our attention, inspiring us to push the boundaries yet again. And, that's the hard challenge of population density. Houston is fourth in population in the country, and yet 89th in the number of people per unit of area.

Why is this an issue, one might ask? Houston, like many other cities around the world, is racing to become a hub for innovation, a critical catalyst fueling the next generation of growth and economic prosperity. And, density is a key component of innovation — it brings divergent mindsets together to look at challenges from multiple perspectives and creates an environment that brings big bold ideas to life.

However, the nature of our geography has created silos that are not easily broken down and separates us by industries, communities, interests, mindsets, and access to transportation, among other things.

But, let's not underestimate our true spirit — and our ability to explore the unexpected, push the boundaries and tackle the challenges the world throws at us.

If I learned anything from living here my entire life, Houston has grit, imagination, and motivation and knows what it means to be a trailblazer. Houston is the most diverse city in the United States. Our culinary landscape is constantly pushing the boundaries of creativity and imagination. Local graffiti and modern art installations are reshaping the visual identity of our community. Our sports and performing arts "rockstars" consistently deliver real-time experiential immersion.

We need to recognize and embrace how these colors of Houston connect us all regardless of our geographic silos and push innovation forward. Said another way, we have all the colors; we just need to converge and paint the canvas together.

True to our nature, some of our Houstonian friends have begun chipping away at this challenge already. Central Houston is attracting world-renowned incubators and accelerators like MassChallenge and Gener8tor — and this scene alone is ever-expanding. The Cannon, The Ion, Impact Hub, Launchpad, Headquarters, and other players are creating environments that bring people together and meet the needs of an ever-evolving workforce through experiential community. We even have a dedicated publication for all things innovation — Innovation Map — sharing resources across our vast city and ensuring no great story is left untold.

Our rich diversity means we have access to human beings from a multitude of backgrounds, which in itself is a force to be reckoned with. By interacting with a variety of human beings, we become more empathetic, understanding, and celebratory of new ideas. This is fundamental to continuous innovation — how we interact and approach challenges, engage in new experiences, and become an inspirational leader in life and work. So, break down the silos and access the diversity of thinking that's already outside the door.

At the same time, the challenge of density must be tackled not only physically but also digitally. By converging the physical and digital ecosystem through a neural network, we can intelligently connect the activity with centralized access to start-ups, corporations, nonprofits, free-lancers, incubators, accelerators, maker-spaces, academia, local influencers, and public partners. Digitally bridging all of us can make one of the largest and most spread-out cities in the U.S. feel like a small Texas town with big ideas and an ever-stronger dimension of inclusivity.

So, join the movement, strike up a conversation, grab your metaphorical spray paint and converge with all the vibrant colors of Houston as we energize the future of humanity, navigate to Mars and back safely, and annihilate the existence of cancer.

As Steve Jobs said: "The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do." Are we ready?

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Brad Rossacci is creative director at Accenture's Innovation Hub in Houston.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kyle Judah is executive director of Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Photo courtesy of Lilie

When Kyle Judah accepted his position as executive director at Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, he had spent less than 48 hours in the city of Houston. In fact, his first two months in the role have been spent completely remote and out of town.

Still, his limited in-person interaction with the city and with Rice made an impact.

"One of the things I found so exciting about what's going on in Houston right now that, quite frankly, was incredibly attractive about the opportunity to come and join Lilie and Rice was that Houston has these big pillar companies in energy and health care and all these critical areas that the world, the economy, and the society needs," Judah says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That's all in Houston right now."

Judah and Lilie's goal is to help identify the innovation happening on campus at Rice and bring it to the world. And, he says, Rice as a whole has a huge place in the greater Houston innovation ecosystem. The challenge is identifying what industries Houston and Rice have an opportunity to disrupt.

"We can't just copy and paste what works for the Bay Area or what works for Boston," he says. "We have to figure out what is going to be the authentic right sort of centers of excellence for Rice and for Houston — areas like energy, health care, space. It just so happens that these areas that Houston and Rice have historically done better at than anyone else — those happen to be the most grand challenges for all of humanity."

Another priority Judah has leading Lilie, which was founded at Rice in 2015, is to make sure opportunities are available for everyone. This month, the university launched the Rice Experiment Fund — a $500 semesterly stipend available to all students. The funds are meant to be used on early market testing and experiments, which can be prohibitive obstacles for students.

"We want to make sure that the diversity of entrepreneurship at Rice speaks to the diversity of the city in our backyard," says Judah, adding that diversity and inclusion is at the top of mind for programs like this.

Judah shares more on where he plans to lead Lilie and his early impressions on Houston's startup scene in the podcast episode. Overall, he's found it extremely welcoming.

"I found that everyone here wants Houston to win," he says. "We're really playing as a broader collective, and that's incredibly special."

You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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