New Projects, New Leadership for Planet Texas 2050
A message from Heather Houser, outgoing Chair of Planet Texas 2050:
It is with some sadness but also pride that I bid farewell to the leadership team of Planet Texas 2050, a UT initiative that I helped found three and a half years ago with the aim of making Texas more resilient in the face of unprecedented demographic and climate change. As I say goodbye, I reflect on the lengths we have traveled since Dan Jaffe, then-Vice President for Research, convened us in February 2017 to propose this first Bridging Barriers Grand Challenge. I found myself in that room after answering a call for concept papers that addressed with urgency the enormous problems on our hands: extreme weather, strained resources, and environmental injustice.
My motivations were two-fold: 1. The climate crisis continues to accelerate in Texas and around the globe, and the impacts fall especially hard on the poor and people of color and 2. we need the intelligence and creativity of artists and scholars in the humanities to address the systemic inequities that lead to these uneven harms and to create resilient and equitable futures.
The devotion, innovation, and interdisciplinary spirit in the founding meetings of Planet Texas 2050 are evident in the successes of the past year and in the new directions we are taking in the years to come. Planet Texas’s grand challenge is to understand how climate change affects natural, social, and infrastructural systems, especially under the pressure of demographic shifts like those taking place in Texas. As if that weren’t enough, we’re also working with community partners to develop strategies for resilience that address — rather than exacerbate — systemic inequities.
From its inception, Planet Texas 2050 has invested heavily in science, engineering, and technology that integrates environmental and social data on past and current conditions and provides tools for assessing risks and planning for the future. These investments paid dividends last year. The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) has developed and enhanced the Planet Texas 2050 Cyberecosystem, which offers ways to integrate complex data and produce models for participatory decision-making. Engineers have produced high resolution terrain data to better evaluate flood risks. And community planners have created the Texas Metro Observatory (TMO) platform, which gathers and communicates metro-scale data to better understand and solve the problems facing rapidly urbanizing areas.
A week-long TACC Institute on Planet Texas’s Cyberecosystem, as well as a workshop and report from the TMO, have increased the technological capacity among campus and external partners. Grants from Microsoft, NSF Coastlines and People, NSF Smart and Connected Cities, and the Mitchell Foundation have supported these projects and others, such as one using integrated modeling to improve decision-making around coastal climate hazards. We also pursued a series of hires supported by the Provost’s Cluster Hire initiative and have recruited three new faculty who bring invaluable expertise and accomplishments in the areas of integrated environmental modeling and regional governance and planning for resilience. Between June 2020 and January 2021, we are welcoming Dev Niyogi (Jackson School of Geosciences), Patrick Bixler (LBJ School of Public Affairs), and Matt Bartos (Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering).
The arts and humanities have always been at the heart of Planet Texas 2050’s efforts as well; they grow knowledge of the cultures, values, and identities that shape climate experience and resilience and offer creative interventions for action. Last year, the portfolio of projects falling in this domain expanded from three to eight — from gathering present and historical stories of how Texas farmers, indigenous communities, and border dwellers experience water and water infrastructure in Texas to a study of how ancient societies responded to resource stress and how those responses can inform resilience today. New projects include an escape room experience produced by faculty and students in theater and design that engaged audiences in disaster preparation and response and a virtual reality project that imagined a future Texas based in present data and knowledge of past societies. With a Mellon-funded grant from the Consortium of Humanities Centers & Institutes, Planet Texas 2050 is working with the UT Humanities Institute and partners in the U.S., Lebanon, Australia, and South Africa to build climate justice by overcoming the problems of vast scale that the crisis presents.
Planet Texas 2050 researchers have generated numerous publications, presentations, and exhibitions, including one study of how teachers instruct about climate change in a Central Texas kindergarten classroom. These are the bread and butter of academic research, yet they are only part of our reach. I’m proud of the partnerships with strong community advocates such as Community Powered Workshop and Go! Austin/Vamos! Austin that have taken root and grown this past year. Such partnerships, which continue to flourish and expand as Planet Texas 2050 enters its next stage, ensure that resilience strategies are driven by the expertise and needs of communities and not only by academic research agendas.
Among other things, these partnerships are helping address underinvestment in flood infrastructure and response in Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood. Through a new series of Resilience Roundtables on topics such as environmental justice, flood modeling, and antiracist research, Planet Texas 2050 has created a meeting ground for interdisciplinary exchange among UT Austin affiliates and with external partners such as GAVA. These meeting grounds are essential to stimulating collaboration, sharing tools and methods, and building shared languages and goals across disciplines.
As Chair for 2020–21, Fernanda Leite, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, will lead the implementation of six multi-year “flagship” projects that build on past successes of Planet Texas 2050 while expanding into areas that can integrate academic research and community power to address some of Texas’ biggest climate resilience challenges. These are the result of a long-term strategic planning process that our leaders began in November 2019, and they will encourage knowledge and resource exchange between the university and the communities and groups that rely on our research. Fernanda is a leading intellect in construction engineering and has built robust collaborations with TACC, Architecture, Community and Regional Planning, Communications, Computer Science, and Arts and Entertainment Technologies. With this expertise and her years of serving on the Planet Texas leadership team, she is perfectly positioned to lead flagship implementation and more. Just as important, her curiosity, humor, empathy, and strategic thinking will guide this team into its transformative future.
A message from Fernanda Leite, Chair of Planet Texas 2050:
This is an exciting time to take the helm of Planet Texas 2050, as we consolidate our research portfolio into six flagship projects, which we hope will result in deeper engagement with local communities, such as Dove Springs in Southeast Austin and Southeast Texas. As Chair, I hope to leverage my skills with project management, positive spirit, and passion to help co-design more equitable and climate-resilient cities as Texas undergoes unprecedented growth and change. The six flagships are a result of focusing our efforts within Planet Texas 2050 into a smaller, more refined set of projects, which are bolder and tackle bigger issues, more in line with a grand challenge initiative. The topic areas have resulted from converging our various cross-disciplinary research initiatives into a half dozen topics. They include:
Sustainable Texas Communities: Partnering with diverse populations to research and discover locally led solutions to the climate crisis while identifying new green career pathways out of poverty.
Biodiversity and Changing Landscapes: Pioneering new methods to explain and predict changes in ecosystems by monitoring wildlife, weather, soil, disease-carrying pathogens, and more to better understand the effects of climate change and human activity on nature and human health.
Resilient Cities in a Post-Carbon Future: Reimagining more equitable and resource-efficient metropolitan areas while safeguarding the food, fiber, fuel, and water that people and the planet depend on.
Networks for Hazard Preparedness and Response: Preparing for floods and heat waves by designing new maps and tools that can be used by first responders, neighborhood associations, city governments, and planners.
Integrated Models for Complex Decision Making: Developing new models that enable scientists, policy makers, city managers, and communities to harness vast amounts of data from a variety of sources to make effective and timely climate-related decisions.
Stories of Ancient Resilience: Reexamining the past to inspire a new vision of human resilience and effective response to the climate crisis.
I am so excited for what lies ahead for Planet Texas 2050. We have matured and narrowed our focus. With the flagship projects, we are set up for a year of bold research initiatives, which I am certain will lead to grander collaborations beyond our University. My hope is that our flagships will help contribute to changing the culture of cross-disciplinary research across the University of Texas and beyond.
Please join us on this journey.
Planet Texas 2050 is a research grand challenge at The University of Texas at Austin. We’re a team of more than 150 researchers across all disciplines working together over the next decade to find ways to make our state more resilient in the face of extreme weather events and rapid population growth. Follow us on Twitter, visit our website, and come back to our blog for updates.
Heather Houser, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of English, whose focus is on 20th- and 21st-century fiction, environmental literature, science and technology studies and data in narrative and new media. She is the previous Chair of Planet Texas 2050 and author of “Infowhelm,” which analyzes how artists transform the techniques of the sciences into aesthetic material.
Fernanda Leite, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, with an expertise in construction engineering and project management, including building information modeling, information technology for project management, building energy performance and information technology-supported construction safety management. She is the current Chair of Planet Texas 2050.