guest column

Unleashing innovation for resilience is more urgent than ever, says Houston expert

Looking back on the past few days of low temperatures, ice, snow, power and water outages, and more, it's time to focus on innovation for resilience. Photo courtesy of ABC13

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.

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Richard Seline is the co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub.

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Building Houston

 
 

It's hurricane season, and you need to make sure the tech you have is prepared. Photo courtesy of Kinder Institute

Houstonians are no strangers to hurricanes. We've already seen some activity this summer, and we still have a few months to go. Although we can't prevent every negative situation when it comes to weather, AT&T has picked up a few tried and true tips that can help you stay safe prepared during this hurricane season.

Tips to plan ahead:

  • Save your smartphone's battery life. In case of a power outage, extend your device's battery life by putting it in power-save mode, turning off Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, deleting apps, or putting your phone in Airplane Mode. This may prevent you from using certain features but will ultimately save battery power.
  • Keep your mobile devices charged. Be sure to have another way to charge your smartphone if the power goes out. One option might be using your car's USB port or a USB car charger.
  • Keep your mobile devices dry. Mobile phones can be a critical lifeline during a storm. To protect yours, store it in a water-resistant case, floating waterproof case, or plastic bag. A car charger or back-up battery pack can come in handy. If you have multiple devices to keep charged, consider a multi-port back-up battery pack.
  • Back up important information and protect vital documents. Consistently back up insurance papers, medical information and the like to the Cloud or your computer. With cloud storage, you can access your data from any connected device.
  • Have a family communications plan. Choose someone out of the area as a central contact in case your family is separated. Most importantly, practice your emergency plan in advance.
  • Store emergency contacts in your mobile phone. Numbers should include the police department, fire station, hospital, and family members.
  • Forward your home number to your mobile number in the event of an evacuation. Because call forwarding is based out of the telephone central office, you will get calls from your landline phone even if your local telephone service is down.
  • Track the storm on your mobile device. If you lose power at your home during a storm, you can use your mobile device to access local weather reports.

Likewise, we take a series of steps to ensure our Houston area network is ready to withstand the storm season each year.

Preparing our network in Houston:

When we know a storm is coming, we immediately assess what is needed to prepare our network. Some of those measures include:

  • Engaging Network Operations Center to monitor the network and partner with local personnel for recovery efforts.
  • Maintaining backup generators at cell sites and switching facilities in case of power loss.
  • Staging portable generators at strategic locations for deployment after an event.
  • Working with State and Federal Emergency Operations Centers to ensure first responders have the mobile connectivity they need before, during and after an event.

Keeping first responders connected:

Communication is critical to rescue and recovery efforts. That's why we were selected by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) – an independent agency within the federal government – to deliver FirstNet® to first responders and the extended public safety community. FirstNet is the only nationwide network built with and for America's first responders. In the Houston area, agencies using FirstNet include Law Enforcement, Fire, EMS, and Emergency Management, among others. FirstNet is used in day-to-day operations and during emergency response, including hurricane preparedness and response. In addition, organizations and agencies that could be called on to help support public safety also use FirstNet. These include healthcare, public works, essential government services, school security, utilities, energy, and transportation that operate in support of primary public safety entities and are critical to the response efforts. Together, these agencies utilize the FirstNet network for broadband connectivity for voice and data to prepare for and respond to hurricane events. FirstNet provides the connectivity they need with:

  • Priority & Preemption: In emergencies and disasters, commercial networks can quickly become congested. That's why FirstNet is the only nationwide network that gives first responders always-on priority and preemption. It puts them at the front of the "communications line."
  • Greater Command & Control: Public safety agencies have access to a fleet of more than 100 dedicated mobile cell sites that link to FirstNet via satellite and do not rely on commercial power availability. New this storm season, there's a giant addition to the FirstNet disaster response arsenal: FirstNet One – an approximately 55-foot aerostat, more commonly known as a blimp. And, to give first responders greater command and control of their network, the FirstNet Response Operations Program aligns with the National Incident Management System to better guide the deployment of these assets.
  • Enhanced Coverage and Capacity: We've also deployed FirstNet Band 14 spectrum. Band 14 is nationwide, high-quality spectrum set aside by the U.S. government specifically for FirstNet. We refer to it as public safety's VIP lane- during an emergency, this band can be cleared and locked just for FirstNet subscribers.

Recovery and relief:

During those unfortunate times when recovery response is needed, our Natural Disaster Recovery program and FirstNet Response Operations Group have technology and equipment to help with relief efforts such as:

  • Mobile cell sites and mobile command centers, like Cell on Wheels (COWs) and Cell on Light Trucks (COLTs)
  • Emergency Communications Vehicles (ECVs)
  • Flying Cell on Wings (Flying COWs)
  • Drones
  • A self-sufficient base camp: complete with sleeping tents, bathrooms, kitchen, laundry facilities, an on-site nurse, and meals ready to eat (MREs)
  • Hazmat equipment and supplies
  • Technology and support trailers to provide infrastructure support and mobile heating ventilation and air conditioning
  • Internal and external resources for initial assessment and recovery efforts

Together, let's have a smart and safe hurricane season.

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Luis Silva is vice president and general manager at AT&T.

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