A Map to Houston’s World-Class Future (part 1 of 2)A couple years ago, Bob Sanborn of the Children at Risk nonprofit asked me to write an essay for a book they were publishing titled "Growing up in Houston." My theme guidance was Houston's economic future, kids, and the ever-elusive "world class" moniker. My essay was published, and I've been saving it to put on the blog at some point when there's a lull in other topics (um, like now). It's a bit long to cram in one post, so I will break it across two.
Houston has always been an ambitious and energetic city. The peaks scaled by our 20th-century predecessors have put us within sight of that ever-elusive tallest of peaks – the Mount Everest of “Top-Tier World Class City” populated by greats like New York, Paris, and London. The bad news is that our recent rejection for the 2016 Olympics reinforces that we have some distance to go. The good news is that we have the potential to ride this second energy boom to new heights. But the ascent path is unclear. Previous climbers used trails appropriate for different times that have long since been wiped out by avalanches of social and technological change. Houston will have to carve its own path in the 21st-century amid far more frequent and accelerating landslides of change. Focus, innovation, and rapid adaptation will be essential.
At their core, great cities have always been both creators and aggregators of talented people. They have drawn talent through the power of government (i.e. capital cities), or universities, or a pleasant climate, or natural beauty, or, most commonly, through vibrant commerce – historically due to geographic advantages in trade or natural resources, but more recently through “industry clusters” where a critical mass of talent in one field grows and builds upon itself (energy being the most notable one in Houston). And Houston’s ambitions will undoubtedly rely on a substantial increase in our talent base. The 2015 Strategic Plan by the Greater Houston Partnership has the goal of creating “nationally recognized centers of excellence, innovative projects and targeting initiatives in aerospace, alternative energy, biotechnology, education, energy, entrepreneurial enterprises, health care, information technology, nanotechnology and petrochemical.” Add to that energy trading with its financial skills and international trade with its language skills, and we’re clearly facing a tremendous talent-development challenge.
Rule #1 for developing strategy is to gain a deep understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, then mitigate your weaknesses while building on your strengths. Houston will never attract talent with pleasant weather or natural beauty like Austin, Boulder, Portland, or pretty much all of California. Further working against Houston are an evermore aesthetically sensitive society and telecommuting technologies that let people work from wherever they like. Why would talent choose to live in Houston? It will take a pretty compelling package of amenities to compete.
But make no mistake, Houston starts the 21st-century with a set of 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 (26); 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); global diversity; a young and growing population; 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). It’s a package I like to summarize as “Global Village, American Dream, Texas Spirit.”
Unfortunately, our “amenity package” is not immediately obvious to outsiders making a short trip to Houston, which is a rare event in any case because Houston lacks a strong tourism draw. It’s not easy to explain to others, despite many attempts to market our fair city. It’s a subtle experience that takes time living here to appreciate. And it’s the kind of package that most appeals to older, more mature adults with families – exactly the group least likely to pick up and move because of deep social and economic ties into their existing hometown, especially in two-income households. Twenty-somethings are the most mobile group in our society, and Houston is simply not on their radar. A recent survey had two-thirds of young college graduates picking their city first, and then searching for a job. If we can get them here, they’re likely to be quite happy longer-term as they settle down, marry, buy a house, and start families. So what tactical improvements can Houston make to keep its talent pipeline full with young professionals?
Continued in Part 2 here.