Bill Fulton: How a University can serve a City

As part of the Houston community, Rice University is committed to helping the city address its most pressing issues. That’s why Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research has partnered with the city to develop the Houston Solutions Lab.  The Lab has a single mission: to find innovative ways of making the city work better.

In the fall of 2016, city officials, researchers, and community partners launched the Houston Solutions Lab, building upon the formal relationship between Rice and Houston established as part of the launch of MetroLab in September 2015.  The pairing of the academic research engine with the needs of the city is not an easy or simple task. Such relationships can be derailed by misaligned timetables and misunderstanding of mutual priorities. In Houston, we addressed those issues by investing in the process: City leaders and Rice professors worked together to scope research projects targeting priority issues for the city and topics of intense interest to the professors. The result was clear communication between the city and the university about timelines and transparency.

Building on this framework, the Houston Solutions Lab recently made its first three funding awards. Two focus on flooding, which is top-of-mind as the Houston area recovers from Hurricane Harvey. The projects include:

  • Rice engineering professor and flooding expert Phil Bedient and his team will identify areas vulnerable to inundation following recent flooding in Houston and a recent analysis that showed 25 percent of flood insurance claims from 1999 to 2009 were located outside of 100-year floodplains. Their ultimate goal is to assess whether particular mitigation techniques currently being used throughout the city are successful.


  • Jamie Padgett, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, will develop and implement a radar-based flood alert system as a flood-mitigation tool for the city of Houston and to inform infrastructure risk modeling. The proposed system would allow for real-time visualizations of critical locations and/or inundated areas during storm events.


  • Applied Mathematics Professors Andrew Schaefer and Illya Hicks will partner with the Houston Police Department to determine where new processing centers for arrested people should be established — either by repurposing available buildings or building new facilities.


Funding for the projects — $221,000 in total — comes from three Rice entities: the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the Office of Research and the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology. More details about each project can be found here.

Our takeaways for cities and universities that are beginning to think about more integrative and applied research approaches is this: invest in the process; respond to the city’s needs; and support faculty focused on developing actionable research for the city.  We hope that the Houston Solutions Lab and the projects that it has incubated and supported will prove valuable to city decisions and policy-making.

Bill Fulton is the Director of the Kinder Institute at Rice University and MetroLab’s Steering Committee Chair.