Unleashing innovation for resilience is more urgent than ever, says Houston expert
Greater Houston and all of Texas have faced enough persistent challenges over the past seven years that communities and businesses are at a breaking point. Not just financially and economically, but at societal and emotional levels expected from repeated natural and man-made disasters.
Increasingly, the focus on "resilience" as a call to action has become a buzzword rather than measure of performance by public and private sector decision-makers. Simply, our version of resilience is defined as pre-disaster risk mitigation and investment, not recovery and rebuilding after the fact, which is precisely what is being debated across traditional and social media.
As families, small businesses, larger corporations, neighborhoods, and communities require stability, predictability, and frankly reliability, there is now disappointment and disillusion across party lines for our public agencies, programs, officials. When the last major freeze and snowfall hit Texas, the state's power grid ERCOT and the legislature were warned that unless immediate steps were taken to invest in our electrical grid, an expected collapse of the entire system would leave entire cities and potentially the state in darkness with life-threatening consequences. Review any of the published recommendations from previous disasters and each conclusion identifies necessary and urgent investment, re-engineering, and technological innovation. And yet many of those findings are but another can kicked down the road.
While finger-pointing, investigations, hearings, reports, studies can be the actions of our elected and appointed officials, we turn to entrepreneurs, inventors, innovators, and investors as the path forward. Want to add to your blood pressure? Read all the After-Action Reports and Lessons-Learned Analyses — from as far back as Hurricane Andrew to the most recent disasters, including snowstorms, derechos, wildfires, and now COVID-19. Very little changes in these documents regarding the failures of government and/or the significant gaps between alerts, warnings, preparation, response, recovery, rebuilding. More recently, analysis and assessments provided by Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania and the Insurance Information Institute suggest a 1:4+ return on investment for pre-disaster resilience.
Communities often are asked to rely upon hydrological engineering and science as the holy grails in response to our floods, storms, hurricanes. And yet, there is a new "class" of data scientists, analytic tools, curated information, and significant user interfaces that have changed how government, industry, civic, academia and philanthropy can allocate their resources in more efficient and effective ways to unleash innovative resilience. Emerging enterprises and organizations to watch that are driving the "new resilience data science" for entrepreneurs and innovators alike to develop the next generation of insight include Jupiter Intelligence, HazardHub, ResilientGrid, and EcoMetrics.
What is rarely captured in the post-incident studies and gatherings is the powerful impact of the "GSD" networks — "The Get Shit Done" relationships, partnerships, tools and resources mobilized by unleashing innovation! And the good news is that Greater Houston as well as across the nation, a number of companies, products, integrated data-equipment, digital platforms, and best practices have emerged from several innovation ecosystems that should be brought to the forefront of any next steps for community and civic leaders seeking to address a 21st century resilience agenda.
There are the data and platform folks — Umanity, FoodBot, GotSpot, Crowd Source Rescue (all based in Houston) along with Harbor, R3Water, and a host of other national firms — for example that have addressed the speed by which needs, resources, information and actionable intelligence can align to assist volunteers, neighborhoods, philanthropy, and small businesses. As previous senior leadership of FEMA have admitted, the public sector can no longer be the go-to resource during every disaster, incident, and threat.If we are to democratize resilience because no one entity can afford continued losses — such as the insurance and reinsurance sector — nor is there enough taxpayer dollars to fix our critical infrastructure, then we must spark private-philanthropic-public partnerships through innovation.
If COVID -19 taught us anything, it's that we continue to face inventory management supply-chain, and resilient inventory problems that have been identified during and after previous disasters. With blockchain, advanced sensors and monitors, robotics and remote screening, reopening Greater Houston and the US can be done with innovative health technologies such as San Antonio-based Xenex.
In regards to the challenge before us, we must recall that the demand and intersection for an energy, water and data "nexus" began to take off in response to the Texas and California droughts, rose again to the forefront during multiple hurricanes in the US, and are a now the latest critical infrastructure focus in the post snowstorms of 2021.
Why is having Elon Musk's GigaFactory in Texas so vital to resilience innovation? Because the research and product development of batteries to retain solar and wind produced power can directly impact the load-demands in advance of an oncoming weather or worse a cybersecurity threat to the grid. Sunnova — another Houston brand — has been proving the benefit of storage capacity from its work in Puerto Rico and now exhibits the unique performance for future off-grid resilience of homes, medical offices, and vital services.
Until and unless the public sector opens the doors for these and other innovators through immediate and permanent changes in procurement and contracting, strategic partnerships, incentives and credits — while frankly sharing the leadership function with entrepreneurs, inventors, and investors — we will all pay the price for the failure to act.
There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face. The Insurance Information Institute's National Resilience Accelerator Initiative and Resilience Innovation Hub Collaboratory (with its flagship in Houston) is working to unleash the best of Texas', the Nation's and the World's best ideas, resources, information and investments.
Richard Seline is the co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub.