Pittsburgh Technology Then and Now

Mikes last post on anchor tenants seems to have evolved in the comments to a short discussion on innovation in the region. Some may my oped in the PG on Sunday that talked about the G20 meeting coming up. That oped wasn’t really about the G20 at all of course (shh), but it got people’s attention. In it I talked about some of the best economic research ever done on the Pittsburgh region which dates back to the 1960’s. That research included some study of the Research and Development landscape in Pittsburgh back then. You have to believe there was some point in time when Pittsburgh had not only one of the greatest industrial concentrations in the nation, but also the greatest concentration of R&D as well. What may be the biggest question about the region’s inability to grow in the latter half of the 20th century is not why steel went away, which I think we generally understand, but why all that R&D didn’t generate new growth vectors. Let’s use the phrase of the day: green shoots, as it were. It may not be such a mystery. Others will phrase it differently, but I bet many will have answers that are corollaries to Chinitz’s hypotheses on why innovation and entrepreneurship lagged in the region.

Just for context, here is a map produced almost a half century ago showing the major R&D activities in the Pittsburgh region. If you want to see the actual list of sites plotted on that map here is both a high res and low res version of that. You can click on the map for a higher res version as well. Sorry, the HiRes versions are scanned inefficiently and are pretty big files.


2 Responses to "Pittsburgh Technology Then and Now"

Anonymous said... 6/05/2009 3:00 PM

Obviously, one of the tools that had yet to reach Chinitz in 1961was spell-check.

Another is agent-based modeling. He lays out a lot of plausible explanations for the way things were in Pittsburgh at that time. But he didn’t have the tools to understand the relative importance of the impact of those factors, or how they affected different mixes of individuals with different interests. I’m sure he would have found them very helpful in his argument.

If I understand him correctly, a region with diverse industries is likely to stay that way, because the factors that encourage diversity are reinforced and further developed. Similarly, with implications for Pittsburgh, dominate industries affect the factors that influence a lack of diversification (transportation, the business infrastructure, childhood aspirations, and social networks), and therefore these regions will tend to become less diverse and more dominated by large companies in basic industries over time. Rather than a tendency toward the middle, once you are past the tipping point, the tendency is toward the extreme.

Whether it is Chinitz or something else, there is a strong perception that even with the dominate industries in decline, the practices of the remaining companies and the habits of the workforce are based upon the business practices of the 1950’s and ‘60’s, and still define the prevailing culture and infrastructure of the economy. A shift to an economy based upon innovation and entrepreneurship will occur only when those industries, people and institutions become the minority. Either that, or a new big player needs to come in to change things (like the universities).

But there are some problems with this conception. First, hasn’t the Pittsburgh economy achieved a state of diversity that’s now being trumpeted by civic boosters? Shouldn’t that diversity, along with substantial changes in national and international business practices and R&D methodologies, mean that there should already be corresponding shifts to the region’s culture and business infrastructure? If their importance to the economy has changed, why hasn’t their influence?

Second, if the practices of the large corporations are the most significant impediment to increasing regional innovation and entrepreneurship, why are these very same corporations leading regional economic development efforts? Conversely, if these corporations are serious about growing and sharing wealth in the region, why aren’t they exploiting their game-changer positions and initiating new business practices that promote innovation and entrepreneurship? Wouldn’t changing business practices be preferable to these large corporations than recruiting new industries that would compete with them for labor and political power?

Then again, there has always been innovative, entrepreneurial talent in Pittsburgh. Why can’t there be a successful minority presence in the region, and the heck with the majority? I mean, who really cares if they can’t get a table at the Duquesne Club? New York City is big enough for everyone, no matter how weird, to find a group with common interests. Sometimes those on the outside find themselves in a very good position as times change (see Gladwell). Why does Pittsburgh need to be a monolithic culture? Is size necessary for tolerance, and acceptance by the majority necessary for success?

Anonymous said... 6/15/2009 5:00 PM

Thanks for the props for Chinitz -- he and Hoover constituted a powerhouse team in Pittsburgh for regional economic planning and research.
However, they were likely the best assemblage of such talent in the world, and yet we did not follow their advice.
There are no doubt many complicated reasons for this. But the simple ones would seem to be: Allegheny Conference opposition to investment in new industries; a union climate far more robust and therefore destructive than any of the places that emerged as tech centers; and a business(tax and regulatory) climate that discourages investment here. So the government-labor-big business axis destroyed the promise of Pittsburgh's R&D future.
Will we do it again?

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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]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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