Two faculty-led projects that exemplify a commitment to “innovating well-being” have been awarded seed funding by the IC² Institute, a “think-and-do tank” at The University of Texas at Austin.
Joel Adler, M.D., MPH, assistant professor of surgery and perioperative care at the Dell Medical School, and Sean Upshaw, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations, will examine the disproportionate impact of end-stage kidney disease in communities of color.
And Erhan Kutanoglu, Ph.D., and John Hasenbein, Ph.D., operations research and industrial engineering professors in the Cockrell School’s Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering, will focus on the disparate effects of severe climate events on marginalized populations.
“The focus on the well-being disparities in chronic diseases and severe climate events represents our commitment to driving research that can lead to innovative solutions and stakeholder engagement that is deployed for real-world application and social impact,” said S. Craig Watkins, executive director of the IC² Institute, which explores the broad economic, technological, and human factors that drive innovation and economic development.
IC²’s investment in these two projects is part of its new initiative to leverage cutting-edge research, innovative problem solving and stakeholder engagement to address disparities in what’s referred to as the well-being economy.
In a recent book, Gallup CEO Jon Clifton explains that this well-being is much more nuanced than the economic haves and have nots. It’s about the haves and have-nots of a quality life, and that inequality can be demonstrated in a variety of ways including the racial wealth gap, the digital divide and access to health care.
To that end, Adler and Upshaw will use the seed funding to identify the social determinants of health that drive disparities in end-stage kidney disease. Their findings will be used to create a series of interventions—public health awareness campaigns and engagement with community health workers—to mitigate the barriers some populations face in accessing kidney transplant waiting lists, a real life-or-death matter.
“We hope that this project will help patients with kidney disease, especially those from underserved and vulnerable populations, to better understand kidney culture,” Adler said. “By better understanding both culture and barriers from multiple perspectives, we are working to improve their access to kidney transplantation.”
Similarly, Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina and more recently Hurricane Ian offer clear evidence that marginalized populations are especially vulnerable to the downstream impacts such as the failure of electrical power distribution, inadequate heath care, and limited financial resources. Kutanoglu and Hasenbein design computational models that can predict where severe climate events are likely to happen and, as a result, which communities disproportionately suffer the “social costs” of those events.
With support from IC², Kutanoglu and Hasenbein will build decision support models and strategies to help policy makers, grid operators, and community stakeholders develop policies and decisions that address disaster-related structural inequities.
“Building on previous work, we propose building a model that incorporates weather forecasts, flood models, power grid networks, and optimization modeling,” Hasenbein said. “A major difference between our work and previous research in this domain is that we consider measures of equitability when deciding where to enhance storm resilience and allocate resources. We believe that using such models to allocate government or private resources will lead to a more stable and robust level of community well-being in disaster-prone regions.”
Watkins said IC²’s well-being economy initiative reflects its longstanding mission to invest in research and knowledge creation that can be translated into real-world applications through innovation, stakeholder engagement, and the entrepreneurial mindset.
“This is an opportunity to mobilize our assets to test solutions that impact people, place, and prosperity,” Watkins said. “We want to pursue our work through a human-centered perspective that considers the well-being of communities, regions, and the planet. And we can’t forget economic dimensions like entrepreneurship, corporate responsibility, and inclusive innovation that generate value and well-being equity at the same time.”