This post originally appeared in Houston Strategies on March 8, 2012.
Today is the 7th anniversary of Houston Strategies After 947 posts (cream of the crop here), almost half a million visitors, and thousands of comments in an epic dialogue about Houston, I thought this would be a good time stand back, look at the big picture, and ask “What should be next for Houston?” while linking back to some of the gems from that archive.
First, let’s look at where we are currently. Our foundation is in great shape. Houston has started the 21st-century with a set of rankings and amenities 99% of the planet’s cities would kill for: a vibrant core with several hundred thousand jobs; a profitable and growing set of major industry clusters (Energy, the Texas Medical Center, the Port); the second-most Fortune 500 headquarters in the country; top-notch museums, festivals, theater, arts and cultural organizations; major league sports and stadiums; a revitalized downtown; astonishing affordability (especially housing); a culture of openness, friendliness, opportunity, and charity (reinforced by Katrina) the most diverse major city in America; a young and growing population (fastest in the country); progressiveness; entrepreneurial energy and optimism; efficient and business-friendly local government; regional unity; a smorgasbord of tasty and inexpensive international restaurants; and tremendous mobility infrastructure (including the freeway and transit networks, railroads, the port, and a set of truly world-class hub airports).
To those I’d add:
- A philosophy of Opportunity Urbanism, with the highest standard of living among major metros in the country and probably the world (i.e. how well the median income household lives)
- A great competitive advantage in free market land-use regulation
- We’re mostly following the ten principles for developing a great city
- We offer a “best of both worlds” between a big, multi-ethnic, international city with great amenities, culture, and opportunities, while also being affordable and fast-growing with a feeling of community (the “big small town”).
With all that, it’s really easy to get complacent. In fact, in some ways I think we might be coasting a bit now. But coasting is definitely not how we got here. Big initiatives are a proud tradition here: dredging the original port, founding the Texas Medical Center, establishing the Johnson Space Center, and being the first in the world to build a gigantic, futuristic, multi-purpose domed stadium – just to name a few examples. But what should be next? Where should the world’s Energy Capital put its energy, so to speak?
I was recently inspired by the Urbanophile’s post on Indianapolis’ 40-year economic development and tourism strategy built around sports. Starting with nothing but the Indy 500 they’ve built a string of wins all the way up to hosting one of the most successful Super Bowls ever last month. We need that same sort of sustained, long-term strategy that goes beyond specific projects to a theme we can weave into everything we do over the decades ahead. We need to take the energy boom we’re currently enjoying and invest it to secure our long-term prosperity no matter how technology shifts in the future (most especially energy technology).
In an unpredictable world, the only safe bet is a talent base that can adapt. With the Texas Medical Center, we concentrated health care talent in a district that has grown and adapted into the largest medical concentration in the world with an array of world class facilities. We’ve done the same on an even larger scale with energy and engineering talent. The next step is to take that strategy and generalize it to focus on being the global capital of applied STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) talent. We need to mobilize the city around a common purpose of building this human infrastructure. We need to embed it into our education, tourism, cultural and economic development strategies. It’s just a perfect fit for Houston on so many levels:
- Fits our existing industries and those we’re targeting for the future
- A unifying umbrella over energy, health care, aerospace, and education
- Matches our engineering competencies while also differentiating us from other cities
- It fits our brand
- It provides metrics we can measure to track our progress, like STEM degrees, jobs, tourists, and students
- There seems to be a broad consensus across the community about its importance
- Our diverse set of ethnic and national communities means all cultures can be comfortable here, attracting both talented students and foreign subsidiaries from around the globe
In particular, I think we should focus on applied STEM – systems-based problem solving (engineering) over pure knowledge (where we are at a competitive disadvantage with many university clusters around the country). Facilitating man’s progress through innovative problem solving.
- Addressing the 14 Grand Challenges of Engineering and inspiring our kids into STEM careers through those challenges.
- Building on two of the most famous Houston quotes from the Apollo 13 mission: “Houston, we have a problem” and “Failure is not an option” – the greatest single instance of problem solving in Houston’s history.
- What aspirational message would we be sending our citizens? (vs. other cities): “You should be solving bigger problems.”
Part of this strategy includes tourism, articulated in more detail here. We need the big tourism experience of other world class cities, and STEM is a unique niche we can build around, with a primary focus on families, schools, and STEM-related conferences. We already have some of the assets in place – JSC and Space Center Houston, the Natural Science Museum, the Health Museum, the Children’s Museum, Moody Gardens – and others with more potential, like the Texas Medical Center. But we need that signature attraction: the world’s largest institute/museum of technology. Not just a history-focused museum, but an institute actively involved in the community with a strong focus on the future. Local kids should spend frequent school days and summer camps there on fun and inspiring STEM activities. It could provide educational STEM experiences both online and on-site, helping to attract talented global youth to Houston for amazing experiences that draw them back later for college or after graduation. It should have the world’s largest hackerspace. It should be an inspiring space that attracts global academic and professional STEM-related conferences (building on the OTC) – groups trying to solve big problems and contribute to humanity’s progress (imagine a Davos or G8 of STEM…). Each conference could leave behind a new exhibit on its subject area, building the collections over time. And since it has the event space, we might as well open it up to festivals to expose more of our community to that same inspiration.
The natural place for such an institute is clearly the Astrodome, our historic icon looking for a second life. We should embrace the Astrodome as Houston’s architectural icon like Paris does the Eiffel Tower, New York does the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building, Rome does the Vatican or Coliseum, and San Francisco does the Golden Gate bridge. It can find a second life as our inspiring cathedral to man’s technological progress (along with some fun mixed in – Robot Rodeo anyone?). Most importantly, it has around a million square feet of space. Here’s how it compares to other top museums:
But unlike every other museum in the world where exhibits are carved up into a series of halls, almost all of them could be visible in a giant 360-degree panorama while standing on the floor of the Astrodome. How amazing would that space be
The cost, you ask? Easily in the hundreds of millions. But if LA can come up with $1.2 billion to build the Getty Museum, I have no doubt that Houston can muster the needed resources. It’s a tiny fraction of the wealth of Houston’s 14 philanthropic billionaires, much less the broader base of wealth in this booming city. We can come together to make this happen before the Astrodome’s 50th birthday in 2015, and it can put us on a path to greatness for our bicentennial in 2036 that Houston’s and Texas’ founding fathers could never have imagined.
We, the citizens of Houston, aren’t the types to get complacent and rest on our laurels. That’s not the legacy previous generations left us. It’s time to step forward and tackle our next great challenge. Are you in?