Digital Innovation for the City of Houston – HighDrive Network

Russ: Hi I’m Russ Capper and this is The BusinessMakers Show, coming to you today from the City Hall Annex, once again, where my guest is City Council Member At-Large, Amanda Edwards. Amanda, welcome to The BusinessMakers.

Amanda: Thank you for having me again.

Russ: You bet. So, we were in here talking serious digital innovation probably about six weeks ago, and from what I read and see, you guys at city council have made progress on this initiative which you played a leadership role in, right?

Amanda: We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress and I’m super excited. We just presented, last week, the Task Force for Technology & Innovation, the Mayor’s Task Force for Technology & Innovation presented its recommendations to the mayor and to city council on how Houston can build its innovation economy and what the city’s role in that will be.

Russ: Ok, and how did they receive it?

Amanda: It was well received. One of the things that people commented about was how comprehensive it was. We had recommendations ranging from the creation of an innovation district, in which you can create some of those collision points that you need to have in that space for a startup community. But it also got into some other details like creating possibly an innovation week, looking at how we can bring some disruptive technologies into Houston for making Houston a testing ground for that, and just kind of recrafting or rethinking our brand, having our mayor be very much a focal point and leader in that branding and discussion of what’s happening with tech and innovation in the city.

Russ: It was impressive from the beginning that Mayor Turner seemed to embrace it. Maybe it was your persuasive skills that got him to that point (Amanda: Or my muscle.), maybe. And he continues to champion it and loves the work that the task force did?

Amanda: Yes, absolutely. The mayor, recently, it was all perfectly timed but not on purpose. The mayor had just gotten back from a trip to Israel, in which, Israel and Tel Aviv were (Russ: Major innovators.) startups, oh absolutely. It’s one of the startup hubs of the world. He had just gotten back and was feeling very eager to compete in that space, and so, having gotten back to Houston and seeing all that Israel and Tel Aviv, in particular, has been able to do in that space and then saying, ‘Ok, now we have a plan here in Houston of strategies that we can use to implement a strategy to become an innovation hub here.’ I think that was just really well timed and he received it well. He’s just kind of digesting that information now, it was a lot, and so as a city council we were able to present it at the Technology Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

Russ: It also seems like pretty interesting timing from the standpoint of the financial challenges that the city has these days that he seems to be taking on head on, and he’s kind of backing off of the property tax issue, but what this is, which people that kind of believe like I do really think it’s the right thing to do, it’s sort of planning and building an infrastructure for the future that really pays off. Not tomorrow, probably not even next year, but after that it really starts. I mean, do people think that way now in city council and the people that followed it?

Amanda: It’s part of our jobs to think about not problems as they present themselves today, or not opportunities as they present themselves today, but opportunities and problems that will be presented tomorrow. This is an opportunity for us to do some long-range planning for how we can really build a robust economy here in our city. We’ve seen downturns before in energy and each time you saw diversification of our economy, diversification of our economy. Here is our opportunity to further diversify and further support our existing economy. This does not displace the existing strongholds that various sectors have within our economy, it simply enhances those as well as build upon and hold a new different job creator, which is the tech space. That’s why we’re so excited about this, and we look at cities, different models. With the task force, we’ve got a chance to not only read a lot, but we got out in the field. So, we visited not only our own assets in the city but we went to places like Cincinnati, and Chicago, and looked at how could they quickly build such a strong innovation economy in those respective cities. One of the things that was paramount there, in those cities, was having that political will, having that foresight to put that energy into place and then having the right strategy, and that’s what we have here as well.

Russ: Well, that’s fantastic. And, once again, you’ve already mentioned this but I know part of the strategy is to have this geographical center location of innovation, and that’s sort of been endorsed by the task force, right?

Amanda: Yes.

Russ: And then I keep reading that the Eastside, the city council member from the Eastside says, ‘Hey, what about over here?’ And everybody’s thinking about that. I mean, is that a foregone conclusion?

Amanda: It is not a foregone conclusion, but we are very excited to hear that people are anxious and eager to have this innovation district created in their respective districts. I was eager to see council members get excited in that way. That’s exactly what we need, we need leadership who is excited, who is willing to take ownership and who is going to embrace this. The worst thing that could happen is if you have leadership that’s not embracing this concept. So, to have that discussion take place so early, even at the council table as we were presenting the recommendations, I thought was fabulous. We have not made any conclusions. What we did in our report is actually identify what would be the criteria that such a district would need to have in order to be a successful district. And so, we identified that but we were not in the business, in our recommendations, of picking winners and losers, but rather looking at ways we can provide a direct enough guidance so we can get it right in the future.

Russ: Ok, I think I read a quote where J.R. said, ‘I’ll go wherever it’s going to be.’ Or something like that.

Amanda: That sounds like J.R..

Russ: Well that’s what he should do. Ok, so this part, this chapter is done. You’ve done an excellent job and I think everybody feels that way, but what’s next? Those of us that get into the business and build businesses roll our sleeves up. This is just the beginning.

Amanda: Right. I think with any, and you use the analogy of a business, I think with any next step you have to be thoughtful, and so right now we’re processing this. How do we want to tackle this? This is a pretty big, thick document that we’ve produced, but how do we tackle this? What’s the most strategic way, based on all the other considerations we have to deal with at city hall, what should we do first? What’s the best way to approach it? And so, we’re going to begin having those conversations in the coming weeks about how do we move or transition into the implementation phase of the strategy that we’ve put forth? We’re really proud of the product. We had a very broad spectrum of people who were represented on the task force, and I think it really lent itself to having a really comprehensive set of recommendations that we were able to present and it was well received.

Russ: Well, Amanda I really appreciate you bringing us up to date and I encourage you to keep doing what you do.

Amanda: Thank you, Russ.

Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Amanda Edwards, Houston’s City Council Member At-Large. And this is The BusinessMakers Show.


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