The New, New Economic Development Plan

The Heinz Endowments has a new director of "Innovation Economy Programs," and the Post-Gazette is very, very impressed. Christina Gabriel has an excellent background for work in the start-up sector -- former CTO at CMU, former CEO of her own tech firm, close personal relationship with the head of one Pittsburgh's hottest small tech companies -- so I wish I were more impressed by the interview she gave to the paper.
She wants to take a "fresh look" at existing economic development programs -- such as the Digital and Life Sciences Greenhouses and Innovation Works --and talk to a broad range of people "not necessarily in the loop" about whether such programs are working and how they might be changed or improved.

That's an excellent start.
Among her frustrations is that some sound ideas for economic growth don't fit neatly into the existing programs that provide government funding and business assistance.

"I'm looking for ways to be more flexible to fit things that come along. The important thing is that foundation dollars are flexible so they can be used to go after opportunities that just can't be funded any other way.

"We ought to be a place where a brilliant person with a great and timely new concept can come to get a receptive person to listen, and then find ways to support ... hard work to make it happen," Dr. Gabriel said.

Also right on -- though brilliant people with great and timely new concepts often need more than just money. They need focus, strategic direction, good management advice, and customers. And they may need those before they need more money. If local foundations want to be real contributors to the new economy in Pittsburgh, they need to be more than funding sources. But I suspect that she knows that. Or at least I hope she does.

Here's the worrisome part:
"A lot of listening has to be done," said Dr. Gabriel. "One school of thought says [the economic development infrastructure] needs to be larger; one school says to start over. I think it's somewhere in between."

Oh no. There's your false dichotomy quotation. "Economic development infrastructure"? I assume that the phrase got bracketed because the P-G was combining a couple of independent statements; I assume, in other words, that this is Christina Gabriel's phrase. But what does this mean? If it means that the Innovation Works/Greenhouses/PTC/PRA/Foundation/etc. "infrastructure" needs to get bigger -- then look out. Any reader of this blog knows that I think that this is a bad idea. But what's the alternative? "Start over"? Does that means what I think it means -- we need "better" versions of Innovation Works/Greenhouses/PTC/PRA/Foundation/etc.? Bad idea again. Over and over, Pittsburgh's movers and shakers seize on the idea of "yet another organization" as the means to jump-starting our technology economy; over and over, the idea has flopped.

She's right to say that neither of these extremes is the right one, but I hope that she doesn't mean that we just need a little of the old and a little of the new. That way lies more of what we've seen over the last 5 years, and we know that not much comes of that.

There is a third way, but it doesn't lie between her two poles: Facilitate networks of private money, university research, and management talent. These three things all exist around Pittsburgh, but they have no easy way of finding each other. ED institutions can assemble resources, make those resources salient, and build ways for those resources to find each other -- without, necessarily, being directed by ED institutions themselves. An example: In the last week alone, in random conversations (one with a former law student, in my office; the other over pizza and beer following my weekly soccer match) I've learned about two experienced Pgh area managers -- former CEO and COO-level folks -- who have been trying to figure out how to plug in to the local tech economy. Maybe I should start a job bank. Or maybe the Heinz Foundation should set up a management bench -- talent that goes with the funds; talent that comes without strings. Need a consultant to package your idea into a proposal that angel investors might take a hard look at? Call Heinz (for example). That would be far better and more directly productive that starting (yet another) new economic development initiative.


2 Responses to "The New, New Economic Development Plan"

Rustbelter said... 2/18/2006 1:10 PM

Here's a development idea. We have the world famous Nationality Rooms at the University of Pittsburgh, so let's take Fifth & Forbes and transform it into the Nationality Shops.
You could have the Irish shop, the German shop, the Italian shop, the English shop and so on until you run out of nationalities. It would be a big draw. Throw some bars into the mix and you could have the beers of the world all in three blocks downtown.

Amos_thePokerCat said... 2/22/2006 5:42 PM

The article talks about how she arrives early in the morning, sometimes as early as 4:15 am. Personally, I think she needs the sleep with comments like this:

"We should look at the Steeler Nation. It says there is a diaspora out there, and if there were jobs, many of those people would come streaming back."

I know the diaspora. I am one of the diaspora. It does not look back, except for 16 Sundays.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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