Catherine Mosbacher, president and CEO of the Center for Houston’s Future, explained that the center’s goal is to help make Houston one of the top 10 global regions in which to work and live. She noted that there are language problems when it comes to discussions around sustainability, and that her center couples the word competitiveness with sustainability because this better resonates with the business community. One of the center’s projects is Scenarios 2040, which is a business-led regional public interest scenario that engaged up to 50 people from across the region from many different ages, industries, ethnicities, and political views to work for three years on different scenarios of what Houston might look like in the future.
The scenarios are presented as short films—Learning to Live and Playing to Win—and can serve as tools to identify areas of concern, as well as areas where opportunities exist to better compete and be sustainable. Learning to Live showed that the region has become very inwardly focused, emphasizing quality-of-life issues. Playing to Win showed a vastly increased population, a booming economy, and an increased global presence. Three overarching themes guided the research for the scenarios: Houston’s support system, the economy, and Houston’s relationship to its biosphere. Also important to the research was understanding how Houston relates to other cities in the United States and globally.
The films were created to be neutral and as straightforward as possible in order to engage the intellect instead of drawing on emotions. The films are narrated equally and have the same graphic style in order to emphasize the difference between the content of the films. The films are presented to different audiences, including business groups and nonprofit organizations. One of these scenarios shows a population of7 million and the other shows a population of 12 million, so the films
caught the attention of the business groups in terms of the workforce and infrastructure that may be needed in the future.
John Randolph noted that thinking about the future through such scenario-based storylines allows viewers to identify both the negative attributes of the future that can be addressed, as well as positive elements. These scenarios also enable the conversation around sustainability to continue as a collaborative discussion about the future. He added that some of the topics in the scenarios are debatable, such as the role of energy in the economy and hazard mitigation from natural disasters.
Incentives and Challenges to Pathways to Sustainability
Participants discussed barriers to collaboration in moving sustainability initiatives forward, focusing on external stakeholder collaboration and inter-organizational collaborative models. One of the challenges identified during the discussion was a general lack of awareness about sustainability efforts in the region and about the existence of other potential collaborators. Better dissemination of activities and communication tools to share initiatives with other organizations are needed, some participants noted. Also mentioned was the need for a process that can develop trust and serve as the foundation or underpinning of collaborative efforts among organizations. One step in beginning that process is to recognize that many people share common goals even though they may approach issues differently. It is also important to recognize privacy in the collaborative process, and that when engaging the private sector, proprietary information may need to be protected.
Collaboration is an important process as it builds social and intellectual capital, some participants stressed, noting that collaborations that are done well lead to further collaboration. If they are not done well, however, then barriers to more collaboration are created. Participants discussed the need to preserve the value of a collaboration created during the process once a given activity is over so that a collaborative network can be continually expanded. This allows for engaging new participants, and bringing in knowledge from new communities and different socioeconomic backgrounds. During collaboration it is important to create a vision, many said, and once the vision is created, it is possible to share leadership, goals, message, planning, and the many other steps needed in the collaboration process.
Some participants emphasized that a functional collaboration is a process and a practice. Organizations must remove themselves from their own silos in order to learn from the process and improve it moving forward. It is important to be cognizant of the goal while moving through the process, and to keep expanding the network into new communities. Noting that there are challenges in finding funding sources for collaborations, several participants discussed a network model in which funding is provided to support the collaboration of different organizations and further build collaborative capacity within those organizations. It is important to have funders at the table, they stated, in order to provide updated information and expectations of the collaboration.
Participants also discussed incentives to advance sustainability, which revolved mainly around communication. Many participants reinforced the importance of the three pillars—environment, economics, and social equity—in order to find the best way to engage others and discuss what is needed to best maximize the benefits from the three pillars. A collaborative engagement is needed to identify co-benefits and commonalities among the pillars, and to closely consider the language used in communicating visions. The audience is important too. Engaging developers and the business community is just as important as involving other organizations.
Major Themes for Moving Forward
Jim Lester, president of the Houston Advanced Research Center, summarized what he saw as some of the major themes voiced by many participants in the workshop:
- The poverty rate, underdeveloped areas, substandard housing, and health issues are all linked, and a more sustainable Houston will address all of these elements, resulting in a happier, healthier, and more prosperous population.
- Houston’s political and regulatory legacy may be problematic in moving forward. There still exists an anti-regulatory culture in the Houston area, and so the pathways to sustainability will require a long time and creative approaches to affect change in land use decisions, infrastructure development, policies, culture, and regulations.
- To engage political leadership, it is important for decision makers and elected leadership to understand that it is in everyone’s interest,
including their constituents, to move in the direction of a more sustainable metropolitan region.
- Better communication is important in identifying commonalities among organizations and across ethnic communities in Houston, but tremendous challenges remain given the complexity involved in interfacing with diverse audiences and economic groups.
- A common language is needed for more effective communication around sustainability, so that the social, economic, and environmental conditions are all addressed
- The components for making the region sustainable already exist, but need to be brought together and integrated at all scales—from larger neighborhood projects down to backyard projects.
- Implicit in collaborations are networks, and multiple collaborations mean multiple networks, but the challenge is connecting all of those networks. A functional collaboration is a process and a practice, and there is a role for social media in making these bridges. It is not practical to bring tens of thousands of people together to hold a meeting on making the region more sustainable, but through social networking it is possible to have many smaller meetings that can ultimately be connected and informed by other meetings and individuals.
- To change legacy issues, it will be important to integrate economic development, social progress, and environmental stewardship by maximizing the benefits in each of these pillars of sustainability.