Russ: Hi, I’m Russ Capper and this is The BusinessMakers Show, coming to you today from the City Hall Annex where my guest is Amanda Edwards, City Council Member At-Large and the person that initiated the Mayor’s Technology and Innovation Task Force. Amanda, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show.
Amanda: Thank you for having me, Russ.
Russ: Ok, you’re an at-large member, right?
Amanda: That’s right. So, on City Council we have eleven district council members who cover specific geographic jurisdictions and then you have five at-large members who cover the entire city of Houston. I’m one of the five.
Russ: Ok, at-large, that probably prepares you more to run for Mayor at some point, right?
Amanda: Russ, no, no, no. It prepares me to serve on the city-wide basis. And so, I’m getting an opportunity right now to really focus on city wide issues, and so I currently serve as the Vice Chair of the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee, and I’m sure you have heard a lot about what’s happening with respect to our budget and our fiscal affairs (Russ: And the challenges), oh yes, and the challenges that we’re facing. So, that has kept us pretty busy, but in addition to that, I serve on the Economic Development Committee, and then also on the Technology, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the official committees for the city.
Russ: Ok, and we’re here because the Technology and Innovation Task Force. What does that task force do?
Amanda: Ok, so there’s a specific task force of the Mayor’s Technology and Innovation Task Force that is charged solely with the question of how do we go about building a stronger, more robust ecosystem for technology and innovation? That committee, or task force, is actually comprised of what I would consider to be experts in the Houston area in terms of their respective fields, and it covers cross discipline of folks. And so, we are working very hard to make some recommendations as to what we need to do as a city to actually move the ball forward and build a stronger, more robust innovation economy here.
Russ: Ok, and you initiated this and got it approved through City Council, right?
Amanda: That’s correct. So, last year, around this time, I had gone on a number of tours, if you will, or introductory meetings across the city, and some of which included the technology sphere and innovation sphere. So, I toured places like TMC, which has the new TMCx, TMCx+ and JLABS facilities, Station, a litany of spaces. I had always asked at the end of those meetings what they needed me to do as a city council member, and the answer to that question was always to support us. I couldn’t necessarily understand what that meant, and recognized that there was a need, and a growth that was happening here, but a need to address it in a very specific, strategic way. And so, because I didn’t know exactly how we should go about assisting and being supporting of these initiatives, I thought it was a good time to put forth a budget amendment to our budget, since we were in the budgeting process, that would create a technology and innovation task force. The mayor liked the idea and signed on to that idea, and so what we’ve done, instead of just having a budgeting process where we focused just on cuts and austerity measures, we had an opportunity to think about, at least, begin to think about some growth opportunities. So, while it might not have affected the bottom line, per se, it was a statement of also thinking about growth for our city. And so, we’ve been meeting since the fall, and it is comprised of Texas Southern, University of Houston, Rice, we have representatives from TMC. I won’t name all, but we’ve got about twelve people who serve on the task force, and we’ve been touring various sites of places where innovation economies have really taken off, like Cincinnati and Chicago.
We’ve been meeting, we’ve been reading, we’ve been doing tours even here in Houston and having lots of meetings to discuss what our recommendations will be for the City of Houston. I want to also note that there are some separate efforts, so kind of this is an alignment of the stars, if you will, in terms of various efforts happening across the city, and we’re collaborating with each other. One of which is the GHP’s roundtable. So, they are working pretty closely with Accenture in terms of broader recommendations for a broader ecosystem, strengthening it, if you will, and we’re focused a little bit more on what the City of Houston as a governmental entity will be doing in that space as well.
Russ: Ok, well we know quite a few members on your task force. I’ve interviewed quite a few. To Accenture, also, GHP, TMC, but back to your tour, the thing that sort of motivated the idea to do this; What triggered the idea for you to go out and visit Station Houston, TMCx?
Amanda: Well, in my view, it’s my job. My job is to be aware of what’s happening in the City of Houston. How do you identify problems or opportunities if you’re not present? So, you have to be present and become aware of the things that you may not already know. So, when we get, we get a litany of invitations to come out, meet people, introductions, those types of things, and it really is a tool of me being an informed decision maker here in the city. And so, I had not run on a platform to address tech and innovation. I wanted to build our economy, but that wasn’t necessarily a specific pledge that I had made while on a campaign trail. But as I came across this burgeoning space and the growth that I was seeing, I was inspired by it and thought, surely there’s more that we can do as a city to help build this space, because it’s a good time to do it. We’re further diversifying our economy at this particular moment when the energy sector is doing what it’s doing. I think it’s just a perfect time to do it and you’ll get a lot of people’s attention as now you’re hearing with having so many different efforts happening across the city.
Russ: Right. Now, we support it, we champion it, we feel like we’ve been championing it for ten years, but it’s really great to see what’s happening. You mentioned already the city is going to be doing something different really, sort of, than GHP, but there’s a lot of overlap, too, correct?
Amanda: Yes. We’re working very closely and they’re consistent. What we are focused on is within this broader plan for building the ecosystem for tech and innovation, which GHP is kind of answering that question. Within that broader context, what role, specifically is the city playing and what initiatives, what policy recommendations do we have for the city of Houston in terms of effectuating a strategy that will really help us realize the potential that we have. So, we’ve gone, even when we’ve visited Cincinnati and Chicago, everybody played a different role. You have your academic institutions, you have your corporations, who are often times your customer base, you have the startups themselves, you have your investors and then you have the role of government. So, it’s not necessarily the case that the government is going to drive the tech and innovation ecosystem, or the creation of it, but it does play a role, and so we’re exploring various roles that the city of Houston can play in really strengthening the tech and innovation space here.
Russ: You know, it’s kind of almost an enigma to me that it didn’t happen automatically. I mean, when you look back at the history, the world’s fastest high tech startup happened right here; Compaq Computer corporation; Michael Dell was born here; Jeff Bezos spent time here; Matt Mullenweg of WordPress was born in Houston and went to the University of Houston. Why didn’t it just happen automatically?
Amanda: You know, it’s an interesting question and I don’t have an answer, but I think you highlight something really important that we’re not actually getting away from our roots, if you will, by concentrating on building this innovation economy. If you look back at some of the biggest and most profound innovations in our country, they happened here in Houston. I mean, look at NASA, look at, I mean, now we say the Astrodome is not necessarily the example, but at that time it was cutting edge (Russ: Most definitely.). And so, a lot of things, I mean, look at the port. We’re fifty miles in and we decided to dredge this port in this way. So, a lot of innovation is part of our DNA and our roots, if you will. And so it’s really, in my view, really connecting back to those roots of innovation because we’ve always been big thinkers, thinking outside of the box, not being limited by our imagination. We just knew as much as we wanted and we’re going to be willing to work for to pursue is what we would be able to achieve as a city. And so, we shouldn’t ever get to a space where we are comfortable or think that we don’t have to continue to evolve, or change, or push for more, and in this case push for more in the tech and innovation space, more there as well.
Russ: You know, when you talk about technology and innovation today, and the digital economy, a great portion of it is software, really, just software. And so, your comment about roots, and you go back to the roots, is anybody looking at like HISD or, why don’t we try to encourage them to teach software programming at a very early stage? I remember I had an experience like 25 years ago, a leading-edge guy thought we might want to be teaching DOS in schools, that it would make a difference for the future. I’m sure it would have, but in addition, you know we’re looking at the present moment, which is very important, but if we really wanted something going we’d start at an early age.
Amanda: Absolutely. I think you’re absolutely right, and having exposure to something makes you more comfortable with it and makes you dream and have aspirations toward it. If you don’t know something exists, how could you go about pursuing it, and particularly that’s not connected to you directly. And so, exposure is a key component. We have not necessarily, we have not come out with our recommendations yet, but I have not heard a lot about doing that type of school district exposure, but certainly there are STEM programs, there are a variety of programs that we do, but that is a very interesting concept that I’ll take back to the group.
Russ: So, before I let you go, share with me what your vision would be, say, five years from now from this initiative.
Amanda: Well, five years from now I certainly see the City of Houston being ranked much higher on the rankings than 31 in venture capital investment, ok? I see us having the potential to go light years beyond that and really be a space where people think of Houston as a mainstay for tech and innovation, in that we’re supportive of just innovation as a whole. So, not just necessarily technology, but if you want to be on the cutting edge and then fill in the blank, you think of Houston. And so, I really think that we have the potential to get there. It’s going to take a lot of work and strategy, and right now we’re at the strategizing and working phase, and so we just really then need to concentrate on implementing and effectuating things that we need to do, put into place in order to make it happen. I think we’ve got the raw material, if you will, and so you’ve got to now go forth with a plan that will really put it together and make it gel.
Russ: That’s real cool. So, five years from now, you think you’ll be the mayor then?
Amanda: Oh no, you keep on Russ. No, no I hopefully will be serving in my role as City Council Member At-Large, and we will be fiscally sound as a city, and we continue to think about how we will be moving the ball forward in terms of innovation. I really see that being, one of the reasons that I wanted to be a public servant was the fact that I think that we have the potential to be so innovative as a city and the world really is our oyster in a variety of regards. So, I see that with respect to transportation, seeing us moving the ball forward in that regard, seeing that happening with our Complete Communities Initiative that the mayor rolled out a couple of weeks ago. And so, I just see a variety of ways in which we’re really going to be being innovative and a model for other cities across the country.
Russ: Ok, thank you so much.
Amanda: Thank you, Russ.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Amanda Edwards, City Council Member At-Large. And this is The BusinessMakers Show.
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