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Deloitte exec calls for advancements across the city as Houston's innovation ecosystem evolves

Amy Chronis runs the Houston office of Deloitte and serves on the sustainability board for the GHP. AlexandersPortraits.com

When Amy Chronis, the Houston managing partner for Deloitte, was asked to join the Greater Houston Partnership last year, she immediately started doing some research on some of the bigger picture issues the city is facing.

In March, as the chair for the organization's sustainability committee, she brought together a group of constituents to engage in a Smart Cities study with the goal to identify what Houston needs to focus on — what it wanted to be known for.

Overwhelmingly, the stakeholders wanted the city to be known for its innovation, something that surprised Chronis. The group pared down the eight topics of action into three they felt were most timely and then spent the rest of the time focusing on: clean energy, transportation, and smart infrastructure (technology and communication). Now, Chronis has a better understanding on what the city wants as she leads her committee for the GHP.

In her career, which has spanned the state of Texas, she's always served clients in various sectors. Specifically over her last 30 or so years in Houston, Chronis has seen the tide change within innovation, especially with large energy companies.

"We're not Silicon Valley, but Houston has so much going on in terms of development — in energy but also even in medical with the Texas Medical Center," says Chronis, citing advancements from the likes of Rice University, Houston Exponential, TMCx, Station Houston, and more. "Houston's got a lot more going on than people realize."

Chronis sat down to talk with InnovationMap about the change Houston companies are experiencing and her work with the GHP.

InnovationMap: What did you learn from the smart cities study you conducted for the GHP?

Amy Chronis: I learned a lot. It's affirming how much all types of people with different backgrounds care and are interested in this topic and are highly desirous of our region moving forward. I also learned that things are more complicated or difficult than we would like — in terms of funding initiatives, for instance.

IM: In terms of developing the city's workforce, what aspects of the community does Houston need to focus on?

AC: I think there was widespread agreement that we need to keep improving our educational outcomes for all our people. The issues around workforce development are critical for us to improve. It will take public-private partnerships to make real progress.

IM: What can Houston learn from other cities?

AC: I learned a lot about other Smart City initiatives that are being done and accomplishments made in other cities around the world. What those accomplishments have in common was a concerted effort by the city, region, and business leaders — all the stakeholders — to agree on smaller, attainable goals. Instead of trying to address something in a huge way, they nibbled at the edges, if you will.

IM: Do you think Houston is able to do that?

AC: Absolutely, I love Houston — in particular our manifest destiny and inherent pillar to our culture where everyone can make it. It's why I came here 30-something years ago and why my family and I love it here. I think hard work and opportunity still makes Houston a great city. We have the ability, we just need help bringing actionable steps forward.

IM: Switching gears a little, what's the role Deloitte and its clients are playing within Houston's innovation ecosystem?

AC: We like to think we're a real conduit for innovation and a digital transformation for many of our clients. We're very blessed to serve many of the large energy companies — and across industries — in Houston. It's really gratifying to see how much is being invested in research and development and the focus on innovation catalysts. I think there's an awareness now — more than there was a few years ago — that if you're not moving forward, then you're behind.

IM: How do you see the future of Houston's workforce?

AC: I think we have real progress to be made to make sure all of our citizens can achieve the education and opportunities they need. I'm heartened by public-private partnerships that are already underway.

As digitalization moves along, people talk about whether or not artificial intelligence and machine learning will replace jobs. It will replace some jobs, but it'll be far more important that young people still learn those really critical thinking skills. We will need people to evaluate data and make decisions — that critical reasoning will still be absolutely vital.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Mayor Sylvester Turner talked parks, innovation, firefighter salaries, and more at the Greater Houston Partnership's State of the City. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

In the 2019 State of the City Address hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership on May 20, Mayor Sylvester Turner took the stage at the Marriott Marquis in front of over 1,500 Houstonians.

Some of the obvious topics were of course on the table — pension reform, hurricane recovery, job growth — but Mayor Turner surprised attendees with the announcement of a public-private parks program and again alluded to the re-envisioned of Astroworld.

Here's what all the mayor promised in his address.

Public-private partnerships for Houston parks

Houston's major parks have undergone major transformations lately backed by private investments — Buffalo Bayou Park, Memorial Park Conservancy, and Bayou Greenways 2020, to name a few — but the city would like to shift focus to smaller, neighborhood parks across the city. To do this, Mayor Turner called for 50 companies to sponsor 50 parks.

"Today, I am asking the Greater Houston Partnership, the Houston Parks Board, and the Parks Department, to help me bring together 50 companies to form a citywide coalition for our neighborhood parks — primarily in underserved communities," Mayor Turner says.

Scott McClelland, president of HEB Food and Drug and board chair of the GHP, offered up HEB as a corporate partner for the program on the spot, despite the formal details of the program not yet being disclosed. Mayor Turner did specify that the park sponsorship would be a commitment over a few years.

"The 50 for 50 effort will touch every district in the city. All Houstonians should have easy access to welcoming, well-maintained, safe, and fun parks," he says.

A developed innovation corridor and a resurgence of AstroWorld

In both in his introductory address and fireside chat with McClelland, Mayor Turner talked about the emergence of Houston's innovation ecosystem. He cites the 140 percent increase in technology jobs as well as the 3,000 reported startups that call Houston their home. He mentions that Silicon Valley-based accelerator program Plug and Play is preparing to enter the market and another 25 million investment from the Houston Exponential fund of funds is expected.

"We're not walking; we're sprinting," Mayor Turner says. "There is no better place for an [innovation] ecosystem to take place than Houston."

Mayor Turner also credited Rice University's The Ion project as a major source of growth for the city's innovation ecosystem.

"We are building an innovation hub and corridor — in collaboration with academia, thank you, Rice, for loaning us the Sears building on South Main, and the energy and tech companies."

When discussing the innovation district, the mayor also gave a shout out to Travis Scott for being the "instigator" of a new AstroWorld-like theme park the city has in the works, but no details were disclosed in the address.

Rethinking Houston's transportation system

As Houston's population continues to grow, Houstonians spend more and more time in their cars fighting traffic. The mayor called for action to reimagine Houston's transportation.

"Our city has changed, the region is changing, and our transportation, transit, and mobility must change," he says. "People want options, and we must give them options."

Mayor Turner alluded to the Metro Next plan that will be on the ballot this November. While he didn't go into much detail, he encouraged support for the plan.

A raise for the Houston Fire Department

McClelland started the fireside chat with a question about the state of things after Proposition B's repeal following being deemed unconstitutional. The proposition, which originally passed last fall, would have matched Houston firefighters' salaries with police officers.

The mayor says that with the repeal, no layoffs or job cuts will be made within the Houston Fire Department. He recognizes that firefighters are in need of a raise, but it must be one the city can afford.

"Our firefighters are deserving of a pay raise," Mayor Turner says. "What I've put forth is 9.5 percent over three years, but look, my door is open."

The best is yet to come

Mayor Turner wrapped up his address on a positive note, saying that the city's growth will continue.

"The state of our city is strong, resilient, and sustainable," he says. "The best for us as a city has yet to come."

All of these initiatives on the mayor's agenda are working for toward uniting and enhancing Houston.

"We are building one complete city," he says. "And we work together, we win."