rolling out

Innovative library on wheels brings tech lab and resources to Houston communities that need it most

When seven Houston Public Libraries were damaged during Hurricane Harvey, the library system rolled out its resources to the communities that needed it most. Photo courtesy of Houston Public Library Foundation

To those that think the Houston Public Library has a dearth of innovation, think again.

"If people don't think libraries are relevant, they just need to visit one," says Sally Swanson, executive director of the Houston Public Library Foundation. "The 21st century library really is a technology hub.

"The libraries here in Houston have been around over a hundred years, but regardless of what decade it was in, it has always kept up with the needs of the community, therefore it always has to be innovative."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, seven libraries across Houston were forced to close due to extreme flood damage. To mitigate the loss, the HPL decided to modernize its Mobile Express Unit, a custom-built technology lab and library on wheels designed to bring access to technology and programs to high-need neighborhoods.

"Even though the hurricane was two years ago, the damage in Houston was so extensive, that only one of those seven locations has reopened," says Swanson. "The other ones are still in need, so having the Mobile Express now will bridge that gap until the city is able to reconstruct or reopen those closed locations.

"Thanks to the renovated Mobile Express, we'll be able to go to community centers, to schools and to other events. Basically, we're bringing the library to the people."

With the help of The Brown Foundation Inc., John P. McGovern Foundation, The Powell Foundation, corporate partner Crown Castle and thousands of donations from generous Houstonians, the HPL will use the $325,000 vehicle outfitted with advanced programmatic features to expand services to a growing waiting list of neighborhoods in need.

"We couldn't have done this without the generosity of the Houston community," says Swanson. "The vehicle itself was $325,000 and there was another $30,000 added in for technology. I would really like to thank our significant donors that made this vehicle possible. Thanks to that outpouring of support, this is now our reality."

The Mobile Express Unit, which will begin venturing out and serving the community in early February, has three touchscreen monitors, one desktop tower, 12 student Apple MacBook laptops and 10 iPads in a training room, eight tech lab workstations and a 3D printer.

"Even though we've had the public debut, it hasn't started accepting appointments yet," says Swanson. "The Mobile Express is operated through the Houston Public Library's Community Engagement division. They will have the online schedule and they have a driver and a program team that will go out and bring activities to people. The beauty of this is that it's free to the public."

As a fun way to get the word out, the HPL is sponsoring a contest for kids to name the Mobile Express Unit's robot mascot. Kids that enter the vehicle will be able to use the mascot to learn robotics and whoever wins the naming contest will receive that same robot, with five runners up receiving five slightly smaller versions of the robot.

"The beauty of the Mobile Express is its versatility," says Swanson. "There is a need for getting kids engaged in STEM activities and while some kids are very computer proficient, there are others that don't have access to the equipment. There will be learning at every stage and kids will be able to go on the vehicle, experiment with the different platforms and be part of the technology.

"There will be computer classes, coding classes and 3D printing workshops, so anyone, no matter their level of skills will be able to go on and actually have a real positive hands-on experience."

The Mobile Express, which can serve up to 24 participants or expand its interior walls to accommodate more, has an outdoor flat screen for dance sessions or for showing the instruction that is being held on the inside.

With its improved classroom flow and comfortable and engaging environment, the Mobile Express is able to offer English as a Second Language classes, workforce development classes, sewing workshops and pop-up library activities.

The mobile library and technology lab on wheels has no restrictions on its service area, so it can go into every neighborhood and corner of Houston and serve the public where it is needed the most.

"Every stop the Mobile Express makes is a continued investment into the Houston community," says Swanson. "A lot of people take for granted that everyone has equal access to online resources, but there's a lot of families that are having trouble making ends meet and they don't have internet in their home.

"The Houston Public Library has always been really good about finding creative and innovative ways of bringing services to the community."

For those that can't wait to make an appointment with the Mobile Express, there's always the neighborhood brick-and-mortar library.

"I welcome everyone in Houston to just go visit their local library," says Swanson. "They will be very surprised when they walk in and they see how many people are there reading or on computer terminals. They'll also be surprised by the library's focus on technology."

Houston-based Goodfair takes clothing that would otherwise end up in landfills and turns it into a "mystery shopping" thrift experience. Photo courtesy of Goodfair

A Houston-based online retailer for second-hand clothing is quickly growing, aiming to make "No New Things" the mantra of the fashion world.

As the popularity of "Fast Fashion," or cheap clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers, begins to decline, brands are refocusing on upcycled, recycled, and sustainable clothing — and Goodfair has bet its business plan on this movement.

"I realized that there was too much stuff out there," says Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Goodfair, "and there is an environmental crisis being caused by the clothing industry. They're manufacturing so many items, they're using slave labor, they're pumping dyes and other chemicals into rivers. It's absolutely wild."

The fashion industry contributes 10 percent of the world's carbon emissions, is the second-largest user of the earth's water supply, and pollutes the oceans with microplastics according to a report from Business Insider in October 2019. Additionally, the outlet reports that 85 percent of all textiles go to the dump every year.

"Still, we have an enormous demand for these clothes that are being thrown away and that demand is just being filled by more cheap new clothes at malls and things like that, instead of reintroducing second-hand clothes," says Luciani. "I've been working really hard on creating a way to make a frictionless process for reintroducing those clothes."

Luciani, tells InnovationMap that he predicts the size of the recycled clothing industry will grow to $51 billion by 2023. Following in the footsteps of second-hand online retail giants such as thredUP and Poshmark, Luciani takes things to the next level by focusing on adding ease to the online shopping experience, telling InnovationMap that it should be as easy as clicking one button.

The idea of Goodfair was surprisingly not inspired by the apparel industry at all. Luciani tells InnovationMap that he was influenced by the founder of Uber, Garret Camp, and Camp's idea for a one-click car service.

"Their whole concept was to just hit a button and a taxi comes, says Luciani. "I wanted to look at a thrift store through that lens."

Goodfair, which launched in 2018, adds to the trend of second-hand clothing with the introduction of "mystery shopping," shipping all of their clothing in variety packs chosen according to a customer's size and taste. This eliminates the cost of photographing, measuring, lowering the price for both the customer and the company.

"I had this idea that not only would mystery shopping eliminate the paradox of choice, but everyone loves a surprise," he tells InnovationMap.

Luciani tells InnovationMap that he sees a trend among Gen Z, individuals born between 1995–2009, for buying second-hand, noting that about 90 percent of Goodfair customers are between the ages of 18 and 25. thredUP also reports that Gen Z and Millennials are driving the growth of used clothing retailers, noting that "18–37 year-olds are adopting second-hand clothing 2.5 times faster than other age groups" in the company's 2019 Resale Report.

"This was the generation that was forged in the Great Recession and they saw the ills of decadence," says Luciani. "They saw the ills of not having financial literacy. Ultimately, these woke kids are aware that branding is kind of a heist."

Goodfair taps into this market, leaning into social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat to promote the company. The company recently kicked off an Instagram series called "In the racks, in the rags" where followers can win a random item from their warehouse, located in Houston's East End.

Goodfair joins the growing roster of local companies focused on sustainable fashion. For example, Magpies & Peacocks, the nation's only nonprofit design house, opened a new store in the East End last year. Houston is home to a number of brick-and-mortar stores which line Westheimer Boulevard in the heart of the city, including Buffalo Exchange, Leopard Lounge, Pavement, and LO-FI.

Luciani, who moved to Houston from Brooklyn, New York, leads Goodfair with Emily Keeton, COO. Keeton joined the company in October 2019, leaving her previous leadership role at WeWork. The company announced in January 2020 that they will be adding a vice president of marketing to the team.

In the coming years, Luciani tells InnovationMap that he hopes to launch an app for the brand, and also expand into offering other goods.

"I have a vision of essentially creating a used Amazon," says Luciani, "Everything that gets donated to thrift stores can get donated in this mystery mechanic."

Luciani has a long history in the textile industry. In 2004 while in college, he launched a men's polo shirt brand, Sir Drake.

"When I reflected on the experience and as I educated myself about the clothing industry, this was right when fast fashion was taking off, I realized that if I launched another fashion brand that I would just be contributing to industrial pollution problem," he says.

He tells InnovationMap that he then started selling used neckties on eBay, launching his mission with sustainable fashion.

"We expect that a year from now we will be generating five times the sales we did in 2019 and become a multi-million dollar business," Luciani says.