Cupcake Innovation

This week's Pop City features a colorful piece on "Innovation" and what a wonderful thing it is, too, for cities and universities and people who inhabit both.

As someone who studies creativity and innovation for a living, this sort of thing always makes me nervous, because "innovation" has an inescapable "I know it when I see it" character. Innovation is hard to define, and it's hard to measure, and it's especially hard to figure out how to get more of it. Look at the huge patent law case now pending in the Supreme Court, KSR v. Teleflex, which was argued yesterday. American patent law requires that inventors can patente inventions that are "nonobvious." (Patent laws in other countries have similar requirements but use somewhat less obtuse language.) What is "obvious"? What is "nonobvious"? Patent lawyers and patent judges have spent more than a century trying to figure this out, and the best they can do, really, is "I know it when I see it." The transcript of yesterday's oral argument in KSR is online here, and what you read is three very accomplished, sophisticated advocates (one for each side, plus one for the federal government) in dialogue with some federal judges who understand deeply what's at stake (and a couple of federal judges who don't). The stakes couldn't be bigger -- yet there is an astonishing lack of consensus about how the patent system should behave.

We like innovation (and "we" means not just Pittsburgh, but society in general), and we like it a lot, and it is certainly worth celebrating that Pitt and CMU rake in tons of federal research dollars and have managed to attract major private R&D efforts from the likes of Intel, Google, Seagate, and Siemens, among other firms. Cupcakes, of course, are part of this equation, too, but cupcake innovation seems to have little to do with intellectual property law. For more on that, see my post here.

But does it all really add up to anything in terms of regional growth? I hope so, but in the end, who knows?

The Rise of the Cupcake Class

Yes, Chris Briem actually used the phrase first, but he knows that I was thinking along the same lines and yet understandably reluctant to say it out loud.

Now that I think about the phrase, though, it makes perfect sense. Cities that want to compete economically in the 21st century need to attract and retain The Cupcake Class: People with the time, money, and taste to consume small portions of upscale baked goods.

Take a look at my small but expanding list of cupcake retailers; run a search on Google for cupcake blogs. What you find are cities laden with people who are energetic and entrepreneurial -- San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Washington DC. You find growing economies. These aren't necessarily the hippest places, but they are places that any city today would be proud to emulate. And these are cities that are putting away gourmet cupcakes by the truckload. Clearly, the more cupcakes-sold-per-capita, the better off a city is likely to be.

Next, and dovetailing only semi-seriously with my nascent series on The New Pittsburgh: Cupcake Class strategies. If we bake it, will they come?

More on immigrant entrepreneurship

Worth a read is this report just out on the impact of immigrants on entrepreneurship: American Made: The Impact of Immigrant Entrepreneurs and Professionals on US Competitiveness, by Stuart Anderson and Michaela Platzer and commissioned by the National Venture Capital Association.

The Urban Cupcake Experience

In this corner, Pittsburgh does poorly (again) in a recent report on how cities fare in the battle to attract and keep the 25-to-34-year-old professional population. (Harold Miller breaks down some statistics here.)

And in this corner, Pittsburgh finally has an "urban cupcake" store to call its own -- Dozen Cupcakes, which opens a retail storefront soon, in Squirrel Hill. Gourmet cupcakes are the foodie fad of the moment -- check out Seattle's Cupcake Royale, Chicago's Cupcakes, and San Francisco's Citizen Cupcake.

What's the connection? My guess is that food fads follow the 25-to-34 professional demographic. If Dozen Cupcakes can carve out a niche in retail, that will be good news for Pittsburgh on two fronts. More cupcakes for all of us -- and a small sign that there's enough money coursing through at least one slice of the Pittsburgh economy to give the city some hip cred.

UPDATE: Thanks, Anon (in the Comments) for helping to round out the master cupcake list:
Babycakes (New York)
Magnolia (New York)
Sweet Mandy B's (Chicago)

Cake Love (Washington, DC)
Citizen Cupcake (San Francisco)
Cupcake Cafe (New York)

Sprinkles Cupcakes (Los Angeles)

Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving everyone, and a special thanks to all of you Pittsblog readers and commenters for your patience, indulgence, and even criticism!

Do Institutions Matter?

An anonymous comment below made the following argument:
Universities grow the region.
Foundations drive change.
The Conference facilitates dialog.

At times, some do their job better than others.

Where's the problem?

So many things that I disagree with! I'll pick just one: The idea that institutional change doesn't matter.

Universities don't grow the region. Private enterprise grows the region. Foundations don't drive change. A wide variety of organizations (public, private, blended, small, large) and people (individual, and group) drive change. The Conference facilitates dialog. (Sorry -- had to stop laughing and get up off the floor!) Really, no, it doesn't. (There's another post on this that I've been holding, but maybe I'll toss it in soon.)

Institutions do matter to economic and cultural growth. Pittsburgh has a lot of them, most of them holdovers from earlier eras when people accepted being told what to do by other people who were wealthier than they were. Fortunately, we don't -- or shouldn't -- accept that any more. I blog observations about what the region needs, but I have no money or power and no ability to coerce anyone or anything. If Pittsburgh continues to rely foundations and the ACCD to tell people what to do, Pittsburgh will get what it has now. Pittsburgh's universities need to step up, but not because the universities drive economic growth (they don't), but because the universities are among the handful of institutions locally that have an asset base that should give them a stake in political and economic decisionmaking. And as the last couple of posts make clear, there are lots of other, diverse institutions that need to become bigger voices here.

More, maybe, later.

Voice for Pittsburgh

A friend sent me the following information. For more, go to the Voice for Pittsburgh website.

Voice for Pittsburgh is a technology, health and information fair providing information on assistive communications solutions for those with severe speech disabilities. Sponsored by DynaVox Technologies, Mayer-Johnson and Mass Mutual, this free family event will also provide information on the professional and personal support, and financial assistance that is available to families who wish to explore this exciting way to help a loved one find his or her voice.

Information and activities include:

• Hands-on Speech Device Showroom
• Financial Planning
• Books and Learning Resources
• Kid’s Activities
• Success Stories
• Refreshments
• Funding Solutions
• Se habla espanol
• Child Care Available

If you are challenged by or care for someone challenged by a severe speech disability, you won’t want to miss this event!

Saturday, December 2, 2006
9:30 AM – 1:30 PM
Doors open at 9:00 AM

Holiday Inn Greentree
401 Holiday Drive
Pittsburgh, PA 15220

To register for this free family event, call 1-866-XPRES 01.

The New, New Pittsburgh

Next in my recently-initiated series on who stays, and who grows, in the New Pittsburgh:

Six (in a list of institutions and communities that will, or should, become more important in the region) -- the Latino community. Simply put, without Latino immigration to Pittsburgh, and without an embrace of the Latino population by the current community -- business, culture, neighborhoods -- the region will continue to stagnate.

There are a number of business and community organizations in Pittsburgh that serve the Latino population:
The Pittsburgh Hispanic Center
The Pittsburgh Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
Latinoamerican Cultural Union (LACU)
Chilean Community in Pittsburgh
Venezuelan Community in Pittsburgh
El Coro Latinoamericano de Pittsburgh

Easier said than done, of course. This is a disparate group of not-particularly-visible institutions, which needs coordination and salience and respect from local government, local business, and local media. And the immigrants themselves -- where will these people work? (Actually, looking at the job postings at the Chamber of Commerce, it seems to me that there are jobs to be filled.) Why encourage in-migration when Pittsburgh today doesn't do a particularly good job of serving its existing residents? Because Pittsburgh has tried two alternative strategies -- rely on the existing population to drive the local economy (doesn't work; the existing population gets old, and innovation inertia takes over); and try desperately to keep "young people" from leaving the region (doesn't work; they leave anyway, as they do everywhere) -- and those strategies don't work. The Latino community is the fastest growing part of the fastest growing American cities. More than a century ago, Pittsburgh relied on immigrants to build its world-beating economy. It's not likely that Pittsburgh will be world-beating again. But immigration can give Pittsburgh a heartbeat.

Who (or what) goes:

One -- The Old Pittsburgh. This doesn't go without saying, though I add that I'm not pushing anything or anyone out the door; The Old Pittsburgh is long gone already. What I mean by The Old Pittsburgh is a city dominated by strong central government, a big-business economy centralized financially in the Downtown core and with employment concentrated in large integrated plants and works. Old Pittsburgh had lots of successful civic organizations, and churches and other congregations, all of which had close ties to their neighborhoods and communities and lightened the load on that strong central government, which could be strong precisely because it didn't have to do all the things that we now expect government to do. (I'm reading Doug Rae's fantastic book City: Urbanism and Its End, which describes this late 20th century dynamic via a case study of New Haven.)

Pittsburgh's neighborhoods and communities and civic associations are much weaker than they once were [the point of the link is this sentence: "A consortium of nonprofit groups has said it doesn't plan to give the city money after 2007, but the city's plan counts on $5.7 million a year from such organizations through 2011."]. City government is both poor, and deeply factionalized, and quite weak. It is simply incapable of doing things like building or rebuilding Pittsburgh. The financial end of Pittsburgh's economy is now distributed across the region, and large plants and works are almost entirely gone.

It is customary in conversations like these to recognize the historical importance of Steel and the Honest and Hardworking People Who Made Steel and Who Made the Pittsburgh Region Great, so that anything that Pittsburgh does today builds on strength and character and recognizes its continuity with history. Old Pittsburgh, in other words, is sometimes equated with Pittsburgh's Glorious Blue Collar Past [PGBCP], and the code of public conversation requires Respect for the past. The flowering of affection for Mayor Bob O'Connor was, I think, largely an effort to recognize that continuity in a single, very genuine human being. Bob O'Connor was what we wanted the best of Pittsburgh to have been, so that Pittsburgh could be that good again.

That version of Old Pittsburgh is a myth, in both the backward-looking and forward-looking senses of that word. The backward-looking mythology is this: The contemporary view of Old Pittsburgh often has an unjustified rose-colored hue. The forward-looking mythology is this: Whatever the glories of Pittsburgh past, rose-colored or otherwise, it is not true that Pittsburgh can grow and become great again by doing the things well that it did well for a century. Innovate like Andrew Carnegie and George Westinghouse innovated? Be steered by the wisdom dispensed captains of industry and government? That's not going to happen. The peak of Old Pittsburgh -- the first half of the 20th century -- was a historical moment that has simply passed. We can honor it, but we shouldn't (and can't) try to repeat it.

The New Pittsburgh

Sharp-eyed readers of my last couple of posts have put some agenda items on my plate. Benjamin, in the Smart City post, challenged me to respond to my own (not so) rhetorical premise:
What I'd love to see, but doubt I will: A consultant on urban redevelopment who comes in and says: Look, you can't avoid the pain. This city [and you can pick your city; this isn't only about Pittsburgh] won't get off its back unless politicians and business and other community leaders start talking about and making some hard choices. Some people in town are going to lose out, and they're going to be very unhappy, and their unhappiness will simply be a cost of longer term progress. Leaders can avoid making those choices consciously and deliberately and they can avoid doing what they can to miitigate the damage. People will still be unhappy and people will still suffer, but the unhappiness and anger and suffering will seem random and unjust and eventual recovery will be delayed even further. So choose now, or choices will be forced on you later. And here are the options . . . .

An anonymous commenter yesterday wrote:
Pittsburgh needs a new institutional infrastructure to help the region become economically relevant. The weak performance of the ACCD was highlighted very clearly in the RERI report, and since that time there is even less competition in economic development ideas.

I couldn't agree more.

This will take many more than one post, but I'll take a shot: Who are the players of the New Pittsburgh? Who should stay, and who gets cut? Think of this as draft day, and we're going to identify our strengths and our needs, both short-term and long-term.

Who stays (and may get a bigger role):

One -- As I wrote yesterday, UPMC, Pitt, and Carnegie Mellon. These are franchise players for the region, and not just because they're big and they're already here. Duquesne is knocking on this door, but it doesn't have the resources or the international reputation as a research university to play consistently at CMU's and Pitt's level.

Two -- Pittsburgh's corporate R&D economy. This is not particularly visible, and it's not even particularly large as a percentage of the overall regional economy (though Chris Briem and Harold Miller will keep me on the straight path here). But corporate R&D can be an important complement to university research, and it can provide an important connection to money and people outside the region (see Google, Seagate) and outside the U.S. (see Siemens).

Three -- Arts and culture. The Cultural Trust isn't just about the traditional institutions of the Cultural District (which, by the way, is looking pretty nice these days). And the Cultural Trust doesn't exhaust the arts in Pittsburgh. For example, when I travel outside of Pittsburgh, one of the first names I often hear (in the context of "what a great place Pittsburgh must be!) is Bill Strickland.

Four -- the Airport (PIT, not the County). Development out there may finally be getting under way, and it desperately needs to accelerate. I know nothing about the Allegheny County Airport Authority (I can read the website, of course, but that doesn't tell me much). My ignorance itself tells me something. Would it make sense for the Airport Authority to play a bigger public role in regional development? And while we're at it, is there a compelling reason (political, perhaps) for the authority to operate both PIT and the Allegheny County airport? Is this the rare case where consolidation is a bad thing?

Five -- Innovation Works, the Pittsburgh Venture Capital Association (and its members), Blue Tree, and (maybe) the Life Sciences Greenhouse. Right now, and outside the university and KIZ environments, these seem to be the key players in tech-oriented, start-up oriented economic development in Pittsburgh. Some of these are short-term players. Ideally, the more successful IW becomes in boosting new companies, the less necessary IW is. But I don't see IW disappearing any time soon.

The football metaphor isn't perfect. In economic terms, Pittsburgh doesn't need a quarterback [not that it has one; rather, economies don't need quarterbacks]; and it doesn't need a playbook [same reason], and most important, there is no TV contract, no licensing revenues, and no revenue sharing among the big clubs. But there is a core of important institutional players, and there are players who can come in off the bench, and there are players whose best years are behind them and who should retire to a life of playing golf on the Senior Tour.

There are more of each of these than I've sketched above. This is just a start. What about local and regional government? The media? Manufacturing? Jobs in general?

Yet to come: Who goes, or becomes a role player.

What I Missed While I Was Away

I've been out of town much of the last couple of weeks, and it's taking a little while to catch up. One thing that I didn't miss, it appears, was the annual meeting of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Oh the meeting happened all right, but from what I can tell, the ACCD has gone into milquetoast mode. Last year, I was all over the ACCD for an its overinflated sense of self-importance. This year, the self-importance remains, even if the organization wants us to believe that it's eaten humble pie. In a phrase, the ACCD now wants to be the region's therapist. It can help us feel better about ourselves.

From a pre-meeting interview by ACCD and PNC head Jim Rohr:
But with regional employment again on the rise, closing in on 2001's all-time high of 1.54 million for the seven-county metropolitan area, and attributes such as low housing costs and low crime rates, "things are much better than people think," Mr. Rohr said.

"A lot of myths that people think about Pittsburgh are just factually not the case. We're moving in the right direction," he said.

The conference tried to drive home its point that the region is perceived better by outsiders than those who live and work here by opening the meeting with a short musical number, "The Grass is Always Greener," performed by members of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.

The region needs to better promote itself and consider its benefits compared with larger and glitzier locations such as San Francisco or Boston, Mr. Rohr said.

The Post-Gazette editorial board is on board with this. I'm still a skeptic. I'd still like the ACCD to acknowledge its past successes and then bow out gracefully, ceding the stage (and the therapist's chair) to the institutions that really should exercise regional political, economic, and cultural leadership: UPMC, Pitt, and Carnegie Mellon. If you want to know why outsiders think so highly of Pittsburgh, it's largely because of what Pittsburgh is doing in higher ed and medicine.

Meanwhile, in other news that I almost missed, native Pittsburgher Tom Vilsack, governor of Iowa, recently announced that he's going to take a shot at the top job.

Bright Ideas II

Just following up on Mike's last post. Here is a peresentation that came out of a conference at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago:

A Framework for Understanding How Higher Education Influences Regional Economic Growth. by Richard K. Lester, Director, Industrial Performance Center, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

also of note are these:

Bridging the Gap between the Academy and the Economy: The Role of Intermediaries. by Randy Eberts, Executive Director, Upjohn Institution


Defining a Role for Community Colleges in Economic Development. by Brian Fabes, President, Civic Consulting Alliance

Bright Ideas and Universities

October was a bear of a month, which explains the light posting. November isn't looking much better. Here's a quick link to an interesting piece about university technology transfer, from Sunday's New York Times. The Times interviewed the president of Johns Hopkins University. Here are what I think are the two best exchanges:

Q. What’s wrong with the way universities are commercializing technology?

A. From the university’s perspective, it’s mostly a money-losing operation. The fees that universities get don’t cover the expenses involved in licensing and marketing the inventions. That’s because only a very small fraction of licenses actually generate much revenue. In the year 2000, universities had about 21,000 active licenses with industry. But only 125 generated more than $1 million in licensing and royalty income. Unless you have a big hit like Gatorade, which came out of the University of Florida, or a drug that the University of Wisconsin had many years ago to prevent blood from clotting, or the recombinant DNA patent that the University of California at San Francisco and Stanford share, the aggregate income doesn’t cover the expenses.

. . . .
Q. What should we conclude from this?

A. When you ask “Where are tomorrow’s ideas?” they are things you and I would look at and say, “That’s not going anywhere. That’s worthless.”

It’s hard to predict. What I say is that research is about planting seeds and watering them and occasionally pulling the weeds out. Every now and again you’ll get a prize-winning rose. But you have to water everything.

Is Pittsburgh Smart?

The most recent Pop City issue includes a feature on "Smart City" promoter Carol Coletta, who has a formula for reinvorating cities. The formula has four pieces, most of which will sound familiar to fans of Richard Florida:
--attract young, talented professionals
--focus on innovation in business
--emphasize community connectivity
--appreciate the city's distinctive sense of place

The great thing about these four metrics is that they don't threaten any established interests in any city, no matter how damaged its culture and economy may be. The four-factor Smart City template is a feel-good solution. That makes the template the perfect fit for community leaders and politicians. These four things are all upside and no downside. Hold on to college grads! Develop hip neighborhoods! Get people engaged in the community! Play to local strengths! No reasonable person could possibly object.

What I'd love to see, but doubt I will: A consultant on urban redevelopment who comes in and says: Look, you can't avoid the pain. This city [and you can pick your city; this isn't only about Pittsburgh] won't get off its back unless politicians and business and other community leaders start talking about and making some hard choices. Some people in town are going to lose out, and they're going to be very unhappy, and their unhappiness will simply be a cost of longer term progress. Leaders can avoid making those choices consciously and deliberately and they can avoid doing what they can to miitigate the damage. People will still be unhappy and people will still suffer, but the unhappiness and anger and suffering will seem random and unjust and eventual recovery will be delayed even further. So choose now, or choices will be forced on you later. And here are the options . . . .

My name got spelled correctly

in this P-G story about anonymous blogging. Unfortunately, some sausage-makers on the editors' desk made it look as if I said that the Federalist Papers were published during the Revolutionary War. That sort of thing happens from time to time when complicated stories get shortened to fit the page. No real harm done.

The Pittsburgh Narrative

Well, not *everyone* is on board with the new Pittsburgh renaissance (small "n" on purpose). I'm told that the most recent episode of the Showtime series "Weeds" was titled "Pittsburgh," as in, "nothing interesting ever happens there." And last next Sunday's New York Times runs a book review titled "Pittsburgh Pirates" that covers the era of Mellon, Carnegie, and Frick in distinctly nostalgic terms (while reviewing two new books, "Andrew Carnegie" by David Nasaw, and "Mellon: An American Life," by David Cannadine). The Economist's review of Cannadine's book includes Westinghouse and Heinz in its list of early 20th century Western PA industrialists and captures the sentiment romantically and succinctly:
Mellon was more than a mere shareholder in blue-chip businesses or a supplier of loans to them. He was the leading, risk-taking, venture capitalist in Pittsburgh, the Silicon Valley of its day.

During the burst of industrialisation between the 1860s and 1920s that transformed America into the world's leading economic power, Pittsburgh led the way.

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About Pittsblog

Updated September 2020:

Pittsblog 2.0 was written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, from January 2004 through December 2011.

Since then, Pittsburgh-themed essays have appeared from time to time at, on law and technology, and in some of Pittsburgh's classier professional media venues.

Chris Briem of Null Space drops by Pittsblog from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.


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