Gensler is using a new software program to help optimize social distancing in the workplace for Houston companies returning to the office. Photo courtesy of Gensler

The COVID-19 pandemic has displaced many Houstonians from their office jobs to makeshift work-from-home setups. With coronavirus cases climbing in Houston, the obstacle of returning to work safely is undoubtedly on the minds of business owners across the city.

Thankfully, there's an algorithm for that. Gensler, a global architecture firm, has unveiled its ReRun program as a pandemic response tool to help offices create workspace layouts for safe social distancing.

ReRun allows Gensler to upload a floorplan into the program, which applies generative algorithms to determine safe separation between workplaces by creating circles ranging from six to eight-foot diameters. The tool can quickly generate scenarios and identify the most optimized capacity to meet social distancing demands, easing the role of operations and human resources.

"It's really just a tip of the spear in terms of occupancy planning, because once you know that information, then the next question is what do I do with that?" says Dean Strombom, strategy lead and principal at Gensler's Houston office.

"ReRun is the first tool we utilize to help [clients] determine how many people might be able to come back and still achieve the social distancing side. Then we work with them on how they should come back, whether it's a percentage of employees, staggered shift work or alternating days," Strombom says. Circulation patterns are also taken into account by the Gensler team, who analyze the traffic of hallways, meeting spaces and lounge areas.

Dean Strombom is the strategy lead and principal at Gensler's Houston office. Photo courtesy of Gensler

The international firm, with 50 offices around the world, has rolled out the ReRun tool to its database of clientele. The platform is also available to businesses outside of the firm's existing portfolio, who can use the tool by providing a simple CAD design of their workplace. ReRun is applied through the company's SaaS space management software, Wisp. Using occupancy planning, Wisp provides clients with color-coded floor plans to help visualize and communicate to their teams which seats are available or assigned for occupancy as employees phase back into the office.

The response has been positive among clientele. Strombom is currently applying Gensler's social distancing tool with a large financial services company with locations throughout the Houston area.

"We are loading the information from ReRun into the Wisp program, and then we'll be helping them determine how they will return to work, and specifically where people will sit," he shares. The company plans to come back with 20 percent of the workforce, increasing overtime with the help of Gensler's team. "Who comes back when and specifically where is what they're most excited about."

The company has determined four work modes employees exhibit: focus, collaboration, socialization, and learning. By categorizing the work modes, Gensler is looking ahead at how interior architecture can accommodate these phases.

"More recently, we've been talking about a need for regenerative spaces so that people can become more engaged in the workplace," says Strombom.

As described in a Gensler blog, isolation rooms were optioned as a way to contain an employee who begins to feel symptomatic but these rooms can also serve a different purpose for employees acclimating to a new normal.

"The isolation room is what we often call a wellness room in an office where people can get away from the general tensions that they may be feeling in a workplace where they can relax and reinvigorate themselves in a quiet space," says Strombom.

As the architecture industry adjusts to a post-pandemic world, Gensler is working with developer clients and building owners to share the near-term and long-term changes the company foresees. Strombom says clients have flexibility as a priority.

ReRun allows Gensler to upload a floorplan into the program, which applies generative algorithms to determine safe separation between workplaces by creating circles ranging from six to eight-foot diameters. Graphic courtesy of Gensler

"We have to think about the entire path or the entire entry sequence in office buildings that is true for residential as well. From the moment that you pull into the garage, what are all of those points along the way where you've got to be concerned about contact and cleanliness?" Strombom shares.

Strombom foresees new building systems coming to the forefront, for example air conditioners with a focus on keeping clean air circulation within the office building. He also predicts a need for flexible spaces that can change depending on the circumstances.

"You hear a lot about temperature readings and separations of people within building lobbies during pandemics. We need systems in place that you can rapidly deploy when something like this happens, but the majority of the time it can revert to a more normal circumstance," he says.

Tight spaces also require a new way of thinking.

"We've realized that the elevator cab is really one of the pinch points in office buildings if you're trying to maintain this social distancing," Strombom shares. "There's technology [out there] that can identify how many people are going to be entering a cab and restrict that occupancy. So that is something that's going to need to be done for the near term."

In a Gensler survey of its Houston office, 72 percent of respondents expect a maintained or increased level of virtual collaboration compared to these pre-COVID levels.

"As people have been semi-forced to work at home, they've realized that not only is it possible, but for some people it's the preferred way to work," says Strombom, who predicts virtual meetings will continue on.

While platforms like Zoom and Skype make meetings tenable, company employees are still anticipating a future in the office.

"Those of us that are now working from home, if you ask people the majority of respondents to the question of what they miss most, it's really the people," Strombom says.

From common space to desks and offices, ReRun can help enable social distancing in the workplace. Photo courtesy of Gensler

Memorial Park Conservancy's renovations include some projects that are rare or never been done before. Photo courtesy of MPC

These were Houston's top impact innovation stories this year

2019 IN REVIEW

When it comes to the impact that innovation has had on Houston, a number of things stand out for 2019. And, so many of these top stories from this past year are just beginning.

InnovationMap's most read articles in its impact category include new technologies for flood resiliency, The Ion's development, Memorial Park renovations, and more.

These Houston entrepreneurs and startups are searching for flooding solutions

From a water-absorbing tower to sensor-enabled rubber ducks, here are some flooding solution ideas coming out of Houston. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

The feeling is all too familiar for Houstonians. Tropical Storm Imelda hit Houston with devastating flood waters just two years after Hurricane Harvey did its damage.

With any obstacle or challenge, there is room for innovation. Over the past year, InnovationMap has covered various flood tech startups in Houston. Here are six innovations that can make a difference the next time a storm decides to take its toll on Houston. Continue reading.

Memorial Park Conservancy plans to deliver its first project of its master plan redevelopment next year

Memorial Park Conservancy is gearing up to unveil one if its first projects within its 10-year master plan redevelopment. Photo courtesy of MPC

Memorial Park Conservancy has until 2028 to deliver on its master plan redevelopment project, but if MPC president and CEO Shellye Arnold has anything to say about it, the plan will be completed way ahead of that.

The project is a collaborative effort between MPC, Uptown Houston TIRZ, and Houston Parks and Recreation Department to redevelop the 1,500-acre park. In 2011, a major drought decimated the park and areas saw losses of 50 to even 90 percent of the canopy of trees.

"As tragic as it was, it made people take action," says Arnold.

Following the drought, these organizations looked to the people to see what was needed and wanted by the 3 million visitors and residents of the 170 ZIP codes that frequent the park annually.

"There was a huge outcry to do something," Arnold says. "That something became an effort to define the future of the park in a way that would be powerful, bold, thoughtful, innovative, and very resilient. It would consider Houstonians of the future and Houstonians today. It would consider soils, storm water treatment, the wildlife, and what people want." Continue reading.

Overheard: The Ion breaks ground in Midtown's former Sears building

The Rice Management Company has broken ground on the renovation of the historic Midtown Sears building, which will become The Ion. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The Ion — a to-be entrepreneurial hub for startups, universities, tech companies, and more — is, in a way, the lemonade created from the lemons dealt to the city by a snub from Amazon.

In 2018, Amazon narrowed its options for a second headquarters to 20 cities, and Houston didn't make the shortlist.

"That disappointment lead to a sense of urgency, commitment, and imagination and out of that has come something better than we ever could have imagined," David Leebron, president of Rice University, says to a crowd gathered for The Ion's groundbreaking on July 19.

However disappointing the snub from Amazon was, it was a wake-up call for so many of the Houston innovation ecosystem players. The Ion, which is being constructed within the bones of the historic Midtown Sears building, is a part of a new era for the city.

"Houston's on a new course to a new destination," says Mayor Sylvester Turner. Continue reading.

Third Ward community expresses concerns with The Ion project that's underway

The local community has raised some concerns about Rice Management Company's Ion project's effect on the Third Ward. Courtesy of Rice University

The city of Houston has been buzzing about Rice Management Company's Ion Innovation Hub — a 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub project expected to deliver in 2021 — but there's one group isn't so thrilled with the plans: The Third Ward community.

In a public community meeting on November 12, community members gathered at the Wesley AME Church to plan a Community Benefits Agreement that would legally bind The Innovation District's development team and the Rice Management Company to move forward with the local residents' indicated best interests. According to the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement, a newly formed group to work on the CBA, it would be the first of its kind in Houston.

The coalition is supported by Third Ward is Home Civic Club, the Emancipation Economic Development Council, the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats - Harris County, and the Houston Society for Change. Continue reading.

4 things you need to know from the Greater Houston Partnership's annual report as it pertains to innovation

downtown houston

The Greater Houston Partnership has the facts. Nick Bee/Pexels

Every year, the Greater Houston Partnership — the city's economic development arm — gathers up data and reports to paint a full picture of the Bayou City. In the past few editions, innovation has been a key component.

The GHP's innovation coverage spans three pages under the top industry and sectors category. From tech startup growth to money raised, here's what you need to know from the 2019 Houston Facts. Continue reading.

The Rice Alliance unveiled its new Gensler-designed, 3,000-square-foot office space. Photo courtesy of the Rice Alliance

Photos: Rice Alliance reveals new office space

new digs

Rice University's entrepreneurship-driving entity has a new, updated office on campus. The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship cut the ribbon on its 3,000-square-foot Bill and Stephanie Sick Suite just in time for the holidays.

The space was made possible by a $1 million donation from its namesake couple, Rice engineering alumnus William "Bill" Sick and his wife, Stephanie. Bill Sick was among the first supporters and mentors to the program when it was formed in 2000.

"[Bill is] passionate about building entrepreneurship at Rice University and passionate about the importance of entrepreneurship in driving innovation and economic development in this country," Brad Burke, managing director at the alliance, says. "Bill has watched Rice's program go from an unranked program to the No. 1 entrepreneurship program in the country and felt the Rice Alliance needed a larger, more appropriate space commensurate with the Rice Alliance's impact on Rice and on the Houston community."

Burke says the Rice Alliance's new home — located in McNair Hall, which houses the Jones Graduate School of Business — will be better accommodating for the number of industry professionals that come onto the Rice campus for events, programming, mentorship, and more.

"The Rice Alliance meets frequently with venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, students, mentors, and other members of the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem," Burke says. "The new space is on the first floor of the Jones School and is much more accessible and visible to our guests and visitors."

The Bill and Stephanie Sick Suite has doubled the Alliance's space and has allowed the organization to co-locate with another innovation-focus entity on campus. The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, or LILIE, will have an office in the space, better connecting the two organizations that have worked hand-in-hand for a number of years.

Some visual elements of the space include bright green walls, which sets the Rice Alliance apart from the school with an energetic feel. The space also features a number of Houston art, including:

  • A three-paneled piece by local Houston artist DUAL, which was commissioned by Rice Alliance for the 2019 Rice Business Plan Competition.
  • A neon sign, designed and created by Houston artist Tim Walker of The Neon Gallery adorns the entrance wall.
  • In a way to honor Houston's history, mosaic tile flooring from the Blue Tile Project is also featured in the space.

Gensler designed the space and b. bell builders was the general contractor. Quynhmai Nguyen, Rice Alliance's senior director of operations and event planning, worked with Gensler and made the final detailed design decisions.

Energetic new space

The new space, which premiered with a holiday party last week, features a neon sign, designed and created by Houston artist Tim Walker of The Neon Gallery.

As the city grows, Houston faces more and more challenges from transportation and infrastructure to gentrification and climate change. Getty Images

Overheard: Expert panel weighs in on the future of Houston — from mobility to climate change

Eavesdropping in houston

As technology and infrastructure evolves, Houston is growing and evolving with it — in both good ways and bad.

On October 30, Gensler hosted its annual Evolution Houston forum that brings together various personalities and industries to discuss the future of the city of Houston. The panelists discussed gentrification, climate change, mobility, smart cities, and so many other hot topics Houstonians hear or think about on a regular basis.

Missed the event? Here are some powerful quotes from the discussion.

“I like to think of Houston as an adolescent city, struggling for its identity.”

Peter Merwin, design principal at Gensler, who adds, "If you look at places like New York, London, Paris — those are all luxury cities. They are fully formed, and a consequence of that is that they become unaffordable. It's something that we have to be careful about in Houston."

“One of the things that has been echoed by many of the artists and many of the poor people over the last few years is, [people] ‘want the culture but they don’t want us.’ It’s very reflective when you go [into the communities.]”

Kam Franklin, activist and singer-songwriter of The Suffers. Franklin described how she would move from the various neighborhoods she's lived in after they've grown in culture. She would see such a huge increase in her rent as people were more willing to pay the premium to live in these newly desirable neighborhoods because of the culture, but its pricing out the original inhabitants. Franklin added, "I'm not going to tell any of y'all where I moved."

“We have to continue to support the diversification of mobility options.”

Abbey Roberson, vice president of planning at the Texas Medical Center. Roberson says transportation is something she particularly focuses on considering how many people filter in and out of the TMC on a daily basis. The medical center wouldn't be able to support the traffic with out various modes of transportation — busses, light rails, etc. Roberson adds that this translates to the rest of the city. "We can't just be doing one thing or the other."

“We’re creating this great culture of trail activation.”

Steve Radom, founder & managing principal at Radom Capital LLC, which developed Heights Mercantile off a bike path and is now building out The MKT, which is also along the same bike path. Radom notes that the city has seen a 300 percent year over year in walkability and a 70 percent increase in bike traffic.

“Climate change is not something the city of Houston can change alone.”

Lara Cottingham, chief of staff & chief sustainability officer at the city of Houston. The city's climate action plan is a result of the devastating floods has seen almost annually. The plan is still being drafted but a version is expected to be released before the end of the year. Every city is facing sustainability challenges, and partnerships are what's going to drive change. "In Houston success means partnership," Cottingham adds.

“How do you talk about a city this big and diverse — every neighborhood has its own identity.”

Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge in Houston, discussed how Houston functions differently from other cities in that it its various neighborhoods — the Heights, Montrose, downtown — are different from each other.

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Overheard: Local innovation leaders share what they see has changed in Houston for venture investing

Eavesdropping online

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

Houston's Brené Brown rises strong with new podcast and exclusive Spotify deal

now streaming

For two decades, renowned Houston thought leader and researcher Brené Brown has delved into the human condition, studying and exploring themes such as courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame. Her work has made her a national figure as a five-time New York Times bestselling author and as a host of one of the most popular TED Talks of all time.

Now, Brown is leaping forward with her self-help work with an exclusive new multi-year deal with Spotify. The Houstonian will host a new podcast, "Dare to Lead," which will premiere exclusively on Spotify on October 19, according to a press release. Fans can also look for her beloved "Unlocking Us" podcast to move to Spotify in January 2021.

Brown said in a statement that it was "very important to me to build a podcast home where people could continue to listen for free."

In an added treat for those who love Yacht Rock (and who doesn't, frankly?), Brown is taking over Spotify's Yacht Rock Playlist and has added her favorite tunes (look for smart picks such as Christoper Cross, Doobie Brothers, TOTO, and more).

As for the podcast, "Dare to Lead" will feature conversations with "change-catalysts, culture-shifters and more than a few troublemakers who are innovating, creating, and daring to lead," according to a statement. It mirrors Brown's bestselling book of the same name.

"I've partnered with Spotify because I wanted a home for both podcasts," Brown added, "and I wanted it to be a place that felt collaborative, creative, adventurous, and full of music — like my actual house, where you'd find guitar stands in every room and framed pictures of everyone from Willie Nelson and Aretha Franklin to Freddy Fender, Mick Jagger, and Angus Young hanging on my walls."

When she's not overseeing her multimedia brand, podcasting, writing, hosting, and programming Spotify playlists, Brown serves as a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington Foundation – Brené Brown Endowed Chair at The Graduate College of Social Work. She is also a visiting professor in management at The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.

She is also the author of four other No. 1 New York Times bestselling books, including The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and Braving the Wilderness. Her 2010 "The Power of Vulnerability" TED Talk has consistently been rated one of the top five most-watched of all time, with more than 50 million views. She is also the first researcher to have a filmed talk on Netflix; her "The Call to Courage" debuted on the streaming service in 2019.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.