Houston 2035: A Bold Future

Houston 2035: A Bold Future

10 Minute Read

As we hurtle along the path of progress, the distinction between the present and the future becomes increasingly hazy. Will the landscape still look familiar in 20 years? What can we do to cast a spotlight on major, high-growth areas that are key to ensuring our collective development? What can today’s stakeholders do to position Houston as a beacon of global innovation?

At Houston 2035, a unique, daylong conference designed to look 20 years into the future, attendees will probe the possible as they address those questions. Developed by Xconomy, a news and events organization focused on the business of technology, and hosted by TMCx, the event will take place on May 21.

“The concept of exploring 20 years into the future is something that we’ve been thinking about for a long time,” noted Robert Buderi, founder, editor-in-chief and chief executive officer of Xconomy. “Everyone’s always so focused on their near-term goals, whether those are quarterly projects or even one to two years out. There was less and less of the long-term, fundamental thinking that’s so essential to the growth of cities, industries, regions and economies. To counter that, we wanted to encourage thinking about what you have to do to grow the areas you’re leading in already, while still considering emergent new areas.”

Four of those leading areas—health care and life sciences; energy; education and talent; and infrastructure, design and architecture—have been selected as conversational focal points, giving featured speakers a platform to speculate, collaborate and, most importantly, innovate.

“On one level, those four areas of focus that we selected are fundamental drivers of anything,” explained Buderi. “In conducting research here in Boston when we studied long-term planning and the future of cities, those areas kept coming up, along with some other ones like transportation. In education, there’s a lot of innovation going on both in terms of how people learn but also in whom you’re teaching and how people who haven’t been included in education are incorporated. We also have to tackle these big questions surrounding energy, which underpins everything. If you look beyond that to health care and the Texas Medical Center, there’s importance there not just to the region but also relating to big problems in the world.”

“We need to get a critical mass of management-level talent in the life sciences,” said Robert C. Robbins, M.D., president and chief executive officer of the Texas Medical Center. “It’s essential that the many students, trainees and faculty members across all of our institutions understand that the fundamental discoveries they’re making every day can be translated into new, commercializable drugs, devices and digital solutions to improve the health of humanity.”

In the medical sector, several major advances are underway that will continue to advance knowledge and improve patient care. Unlocking the mysteries of the genomic profile will give way to a clearer vision of the unique aspects of every disease. We will surely migrate from describing a disease class—such as breast cancer—to defining each case by the individual’s genome and treatment will truly be “personalized.”

“Take a look at the genomics programs at Baylor College of Medicine and MD Anderson Cancer Center,” said William F. McKeon, executive vice president and chief strategy and operating officer of the Texas Medical Center. “These are some of the top thought leaders in the world and they are driving DNA sequencing and analysis to be the gold standard of care at the Texas Medical Center.”

McKeon thinks that harnessing the information from genomic analysis will pave the way for more targeted therapies, providing the capability to preemptively attack diseases before they can cause harm. He noted that this is also an appealing option as the costs to sequence the human genome have reduced significantly, and could soon cost less than a conventional blood test.

From minimally invasive surgery to the miniaturization of medical devices, advances in technology continue to benefit both patient and practitioner. Pacemakers, first introduced as large devices perched on a cart outside the patient, now reside comfortably under the skin, the size of a quarter. Technology today even allows for some medical devices to be remotely monitored for performance.

According to McKeon, the next few decades will allow for tremendous strides in cultivating a proactive, personalized approach to patient care. “When we think of proactive measures and prevention today, we think of eating less fats and getting more exercise,” he said. “We are already identifying genomic nuances that allow us to better select the most effective targeted therapy. Twenty years from now, we will understand more sooner, and, where appropriate, intervene.”

Wearable and implantable sensor technology will become fundamental in the future, woven throughout the fabric of our lives from both a health and fitness standpoint. These sensors will be capable of communicating and routing information, providing physicians and researchers with crucial, objective data.

Looking 20 years down the line, industry leaders speculate on what the future holds

Health Care: Robert C. Robbins, M.D.President and Chief Executive Officer,Texas Medical Center

ArchitectureDavid J. Calkins, Regional Managing Principal, Gensler

Technology: William F. McKeon, Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Operating Officer, Texas Medical Center

EducationGeorge L. McLendon, Ph.D., Howard R. Hughes Provost, Professor of Chemistry, Rice University

McKeon is confident that this evolution will be used to validate potential conditions, chronicling them as they develop. “Twenty years ago, cars had fewer than 10 sensors,” he added. “Today, each car has over 1,000 and they monitor and provide us with essential information. Sensors are continuously becoming smaller, more accurate and less invasive. Imagine a future when your sensors and home dashboard provide you and your doctor with a diagnosis before you leave home.”

This evolutionary trajectory has similar counterpoints in education, especially as education and technology become more intertwined.

“Since we’re talking about 20 years from now, let’s look at 20 years in the past,” said George L. McLendon, Ph.D., Howard R. Hughes Provost and professor of chemistry at Rice University. “Back then, one of the measures of a great university was the size of your library. Today, basically everyone has the same library because it’s all digitized and freely available, everywhere. In the future—and this is happening right now—the things you learn will be processes instead of information.”

McLendon affirmed that experiential learning and process might supplant our current classroom-based model, coupled with an increasingly personalized focus on individual preferences and learning styles.

“Today, there are some precursors to that,” he observed. “If you do a key word search on your device, whether it’s a phone or a computer, you will not get the same hits as someone else. It’s learned what we’re most interested in and is delivering customized content. All learning is going to start to work more and more like that.”

At the same time, McLendon concedes anything that disrupts the status quo will undoubtedly be met with some resistance. “Familiarity breeds content,” he laughed. “People are usually happy with the way things are. Anything that portends significant change in things that they’ve taken a long time to get used to is going to be hard. It’s going to be hard on teachers, students and families alike, but it’s inevitable. Part of our job as educators is to say, ‘This can be really exciting; let’s make this really exciting and move forward.’

“One thing we can do today is to let go of our defensiveness and think about what good things are made possible,” he added. “To think about the benefits that might emerge, go all the way back to the time of the monks—they owned all the information. They were the only ones who could read or write, so they had disproportionate authority, and associated with that, disproportionate power. It’s really important that we make sure that the kids coming into school now are empowered to be these future, independent workers. That’s going to require a lot of social support and a lot of resource commitment.”

Within the constantly shifting landscape of infrastructure, design and architecture, David J. Calkins, regional managing principal at Gensler, envisions self-perpetuating construction materials with the capability to grow, heal and clean themselves, enhanced three dimensional visualization tools that enable the user to experience environments before a hammer is raised, and large-scale 3-D printing capabili- ties that render the hammer itself irrelevant.

“We’ll be able to highly customize spaces based on people’s real perceptions walking through them, in simulation,” said Calkins. “In the case of manufacturers, they might be able to try out manufacturing processes before they’re ever put together in reality—you can almost live in it before it’s even built.”

In addition to construction processes that make our current methodology seem practically primitive, Calkins thinks a trajectory towards self-reliance will sketch the model for future cities.

“There’s a whole trend towards resilience,” considered Calkins. “How do you make a city resilient and sustainable? How does it keep going? It’s not just about saving energy but how we perpetuate ourselves. Somehow, our buildings being more self-contained, more self-sufficient, and producing fewer waste products that need to be hauled off to other locations—that would be a real benefit.

“Then we’re talking about net-zero buildings that don’t consume energy, whatsoever,” he added. “If you move beyond that, you get to buildings that actually produce an oversupply of energy that would be available for others to use.”

Calkins thinks that in addition to generating an excess of energy through photovoltaic technology—the process of converting solar energy to electricity—it might be possible to construct buildings that actually restore the environment by harvesting photosynthesis.

“I think we need to keep taking risks, challenging ourselves and moving ahead while trying to be a leader,” he said. “We’re trying to push the envelope here. If the public demands sustainable buildings and the government demands more sustainable structures, then we’ll be moving along the right path. We just have to ask for these things. We have to push for them.”

At Houston 2035, which will feature national and local executives, entrepreneurs, educators and other innovators from startups, venture capital firms, universities, and leading technology, life science and energy companies, the deck is stacked to enhance the city’s role as a hub of progress.

“For this kind of conference, we really think that the multidisciplinary element is key,” said Buderi. “Framing the issue as looking out 20 years and identifying the really important areas that everyone needs to know about was critical to the concept. So many new things come out of the intersection of existing things. Look at computer technology and life sciences; those have led to the emergence of health care technology based on information technology, whether applying to genomics or electronic medical records. What is energy plus nanotechnology going to yield? It could be a whole new field.”

“I hope that this event begins the conversation—I don’t know that we’ve had Houston involved in a dialogue across all these lines,” added Angela Shah, editor of Xconomy Texas. “In the short term, I think it’s crucial to start by getting these kinds of people in the same room together. The conference provides an opportunity for them to bounce ideas off each other. Hopefully, down the line, we’ll be able to watch things progress and evolve going forward.”

In addition to the four key areas of focus, Houston 2035 will address opportunities in software, nanotechnology and entrepreneurship, as well as venture capital and angel investing. More importantly, it will help industry leaders and innovators reflect on the past and together envision a bold future.

“I’m excited because we rarely take an opportunity to stop for a moment, reflect, and look over the horizon for the next 20 years,” concluded McKeon. “It is important to recognize the patterns and trajectory of the past as a guidepost to the velocity of change we anticipate in the future.

“I’ve always been working on the innovation side of companies, and there are always these lovely surprises in the present,” he added. “I love the opportunity to look at education, health care, energy, and these other major categories with experts around the table—we can take a breath, look back, and then look forward to make bold predictions and say, ‘I think this will happen.’ We won’t all be right, but I think many of us will. The cadence of change gives us some insight into the speed at which it will evolve moving forward. If anything, we’ll be too conservative in our guesses.”

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