It’s summertime in Houston, and mixed in with the stifling humidity, there is hopefulness in the air.
I’ve felt this before: It’s like the slow-growing warmth that returns each spring or waking in the morning on a day you’ve been looking forward to for a while. It just feels good. It is not, however, without the promise of a challenge ahead. But Houston isn’t afraid of that. In fact, hard work and determination are our trademark—and maybe that’s what gives me so much hope.
Over the last five years or so, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to Houston and her future. Many local people, organizations, and companies have been consistently working hard to help create a compelling and bright future for our great city. Recently, significant efforts like the formation of Houston Exponential and the planned Innovation District, along with many other projects and stories, both told and untold, promise to help make Houston into the world’s leading city for the 21st century. You have a story. Your family has one. We all do.
I was raised in a hardworking family. My mother is a fierce woman who carved a new life for herself and her family after moving from a small Indian village to the town in England where I was born. She knew little English and had to figure out how to do everything all over again in this new city—buy groceries, pay the bills, get the kids to school. She was also one of the few people in a community of other Indians—men included—who learned how to drive. She was and is a pioneer, unrelenting and bold. My model of a woman.
My dad was a pipe-fitter until he retired. He worked for more than 40 years all over the world. Come rain or shine, he woke up before dawn and went to work. I can’t remember ever hearing him complain about it, although I am sure he had reason to. At work, he made things. In the evenings, he sat on the couch with a cup of tea, reading books about pipe-fitting. He wasn’t satisfied just knowing what he knew. He was also a pioneer, like my mother. Both were quiet and determined. They did not seek fanfare; they just did honorable work. I am so grateful that they taught me this.
Because they modeled what it means to do good things, I am driven by one central purpose: to make the lives of working people around the world better through my actions.
Currently, Houston claims one of the top spots on lists for the space industry, the oil industry, the healthcare industry, and others. We are one of the most diverse cities, home to the second largest veteran community in the country. We also have the ship channel. Not bad for a city founded less than 200 years ago!
However, when I think of one of the most important moments in Houston’s past, I think of President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University more than 50 years ago. In that speech, Kennedy said,
“The vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered and the unfinished still far outstrip our collective comprehension ... We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
I am so moved by the idea that doing hard things is worth it, that there is so much to discover, and that setting a bold and difficult goal that “serves to organize and measure best of our energies and skills” matters more than making money or receiving recognition that it literally sends chills down my spine. Braving the unknown and doing something difficult, plowing new ground or being a pioneer—these feats take tremendous faith and unfailing commitment to a purpose. A purpose we may not be able to clearly articulate, driven by something overwhelmingly powerful to us, and underscored by a sense of wonder about what is possible.
Choosing to do something hard over something that is easy is perhaps one of the most hopeful characteristics of the human race. And it’s the most apropos description of what makes Houston so special. It is in our DNA to pick a bold goal and then go about building it. I would argue that no one does this better than us. There are so many viewpoints on what is the right path for us that it’s hard to say who is right. But it MUST be bold. We must be uncompromising in that decision while we debate the direction: daring, unafraid, and unfaltering.
There is a time for thinking and a time for doing. Both are important, but doing creates movement, inspires more action. So, with that in mind, I decided to do what I think is best. Not instead of what other people are doing, but with them. So I am taking this opportunity to put my stake in the ground and share my ideas. Maybe to see what people think. Maybe to clarify my thoughts. Or maybe it’s one form of doing that makes sense to me.
SO, HERE IS WHAT I THINK...
Houston is a city that makes real things. Makes big things. Makes things you can see, touch and feel. Things that are complicated, sometimes expensive, and often heavy. We aren’t like Silicon Valley where ideas exist in the ether and where money can rain from the clouds. For Houston, it doesn’t exist until you can put it on a flatbed truck and ship it somewhere. Our ideas have to materialize, literally. And we have people who know how to dream up these new things and know how to make them. There is a certain sanity that comes from having to make something real. It creates a sense of accountability to reality that can have harsh consequences if something goes wrong. If you tell an engineer in the oil field or a chemical plant to “iterate and fail fast,” you’ll get a sideways look and possibly some colorful language coming your way. You might also consider ducking. We don’t just change a few lines of code. We arrange atoms. I’m not trying to diminish pure code writers (maybe a little) but, instead, to elevate the makers of real things. These are the people I understand. The people I love.
THE NEED TO MAKE LOTS OF THINGS...
How we make things must change in order for us to meet the growing need to produce things around the world. Currently, we fall desperately short of the capacity—both machine and manpower—to make what the world will need in the decades to come. According to a recent Huffington Post article, three (3) to five (5) billion new consumers will join the global economy over the next decade. That’s billions of people who will one day want to buy a car, build a different kind of home, consume energy, buy real things that are part of our lives today. That is a lot of stuff to make.
It’s with that backdrop that I see remarkable opportunity for Houston, a city that knows how to make real stuff and send it all over the planet (and even into space). We’ve been doing that for decades. Rather than try to become something we are not, I say we deeply embrace our strengths and build on them!
Let’s become the new manufacturing leader for the planet. We can do it. I just know it.
That being said, being satisfied with just the making of things isn’t good enough. We must embrace making things differently by integrating technology without losing sight of the human factor. We have to understand that IoT is not a small town, 21 miles south of Dripping Springs, and that coders (gulp) might actually be very important.
Several exponential technologies go hand in hand with making real stuff, like the Internet of Things, additive manufacturing, robotics, and others. Houston can become (and must become) the leader in incorporating these kinds of technologies. We have the largest set of “use cases” for these technologies within a few dozen miles of downtown. In fact, I think advanced manufacturing technology companies should be flocking to Houston, just to solve problems for the asset owners who live here. Manufacturing 4.0 describes the next generation of making things. How about we add on to that term and say, The Future, Made in Houston?
What can we do to make The Future, Made in Houston come alive? I don’t have all the answers, but I am working with other members of the Manufacturing 4.0 tribe in Houston on a few things to get us started. These include building a manufacturing 4.0 company called APS Plastics, a traditional machine shop that we are transforming using technology. I am also working to help other people in the ecosystem like the people at TXRX, Houston’s leading makerspace, to build something good. Finally, I’ve chosen to help rethink the American shop class because we need kids—the next generation of makers—who love to make good things. Lots of them.
I hope this list serves as a call to action for other manufacturing leaders in our city to build great companies and to help build the manufacturing 4.0 ecosystem. Many are already, and I’m inspired by them every day.
Before I close, I thought I would share part of my “why”: I believe everyone should find a way to define their transformative purpose. The thing that drives them. I also think everyone should have a personal moonshot, something they hope to accomplish with no immediate benefit to themselves. These ideas, reflected in Kennedy’s speech, crystallized for me thanks to Peter Diamandis, as part of his A360 group of innovative entrepreneurs.
WHERE WE GO FROM HERE...
My heroes are the people, like my parents, who do the work, often in obscurity, sometimes in harsh conditions, and regularly battling machines and processes that are poorly designed for them. Engineers like me make machines for a specific function, but rarely with the human who has to operate them in mind. I want to change this by building companies, making products, and developing processes that have the human worker at the center of design. These are the people who will make all the things we need in the future. I believe there exists a massive and untapped cognitive surplus within the minds, hearts, and souls of these hardworking people as they bend under the weight of unwieldy machines. What if we liberate them? Imagine what they can achieve!
This is my moonshot: I want to help make the lives of a billion workers better through my actions. This is not a short-term goal. Rather, it is a 25-year goal. I don’t know exactly how I am going to do it, just that I must. I don’t care about falling or failing. It’s worth it to me. They are worth it to me.
At the same time, an opportunity on a global scale is available for Houston. We can become the brightest light in the new world of making things. The vast stretches of discovery await us. We can decide to call on the best about us and to set the boldest of visions. And, in doing so, we can “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” in service to literally making the new world… better.
Billions of people are counting on us.