The Story Behind Pittsburgh's Revitalization, Part X

[Part I is here] [Part II is here] [Part III is here] [Part IV is here] [Part V is here] [Part VI is here] [Part VII is here] [Part VIII is here] [Part IX is here] [Part X is here]

Part X is here, the final part, the one post to explain it all: How did Pittsburgh reinvent itself?

I've already answered that question in large part. Pittsburgh didn't reinvent itself at all. Reinvention has happened. The difference between those two statements is important, and that difference is the theme that I want to touch on here and use to close this series. "Pittsburgh," if that name means "the government, business, and educational leaders of the city and region," didn't decide upon and execute a strategy of economic diversification and real estate development. Some cities are born to diversification; some cities have diversification thrust upon them. Pittsburgh is one of the latter.

The people of Pittsburgh, over a long period of time and in fits and starts involving people who were already here, people who moved in, and people who have since moved on, invested time and money in things that they were and are passionate about. Some of that is scientific and technological research; some it is the arts; some of it is starting and growing businesses; some of it is building institutions; some of it is building buildings; some of it is nurturing communities and families. Some of it is an intense desire to get rich; some of it is an intense desire to give back. That collective energy is no longer tethered to the fact or the mythos of the steel industry. The literal tethers largely disappeared by the mid-1980s. The metaphorical and emotional tethers have been fraying for some time. That collective energy is now tethered instead to the idea of a new Pittsburgh, built on the foundations of the old Pittsburgh. Revitalization is bottom up, not top down.

As usual, I have more help than I need in making this case from writers who are paid to serve up at least bits and pieces of the big picture. The Post Gazette recently pointed out the transformative impact on Pittsburgh's economy of women entering the workforce in large numbers. That's a classic piece of bottom-up data, and the overall impact of the development is undeniable yet undeniably incremental. It is no surprise that the recent Wall Street Journal gloom-and-doom perspective on Pittsburgh simply does not account for the phenomenon; the change in the demographics of the local workforce is something that happened while a lot of armchair commentators weren't looking.

As important as the raw number of women in the workforce is something that's missing from the PG story but in greater evidence today than ever before: The number of women in leadership positions around the region, in government and especially in business and in not-for-profits. I don't think that it's a coincidence that Pittsburgh's recent flourishing has been accompanied by a very visible diversification in the offices of the CEO, president, and executive director. More women in leadership positions mean that fewer histories are keeping talented people from bringing their skills to the public table. That's a good thing.

The other piece of essential evidence here is Pittsburgh's start-up and entrepreneurial economy, which often focuses on high tech ventures and which is starting to mature, at long last. When CM's Luis von Ahn sold his company to Google the other day, there was a distinct lack of "rats! there goes another future savior of Pittsburgh" crying in local boosters' beer. That's progress, whether or not Google takes the technology to California. (I have no idea what will happen, but my guess is that Google bought the company in part to keep it here.)

The poster child cited most often as the engine behind the gradual emergence of Pittsburgh's start-up scene is Innovation Works, the state-supported early investment fund and business mentoring organization. The Economist, for example, called out IW for its role in Pittsburgh's economic resurgence. IW, though, is a great example of the wrestling between top-down and bottom-up when it comes to Pittsburgh's future.

As welcome as IW's success in recent years has been, and as welcome as contributions from the many other economic development organizations often are, it's important not to overstate either their role in getting the region to this point or, more important, their roles going forward. If Pittsburgh's entrepreneurial / high-tech community is going to have real traction, if it is going to scale, then IW and its counterparts either should become comparatively unimportant, or they should find new missions, or both. What Pittsburgh should want, and what Pittsburgh needs for its nascent "revitalization" to take hold and grow on its own, is for the entrepreneurial economy to become self-sustaining: ideas, entrepreneurs, and capital find each other without federal, state, or local government-sponsorship. This doesn't happen by magic; it takes work, and folks in Pittsburgh who want to see this happen need to build -- and in some cases, are starting to build -- the infrastructure that will support it. The entrepreneurship community needs to become more authentically bottom-up, and less supported from the top down.

I described what I mean by all of this in some earlier posts this year:

The tech and start-up community in Pittsburgh should focus on building and sustaining what I called an "entrepreneurship commons." That commons is related to but distinct from something else of great importance, what I called Pittsburgh's entrepreneurship "Darknet." I gave some illustrations in those post and the comments. Both of those things stand in contrast to something that I criticized when I rained on the entrepreneurship parade. I decried the fact that entrepreneurship-oriented organizations in Pittsburgh are driven by public funding imperatives (that is, top-down imperatives) to focus on short-term employment gains, or what I called "retail economic development," rather than on building structures for success, or what I called "wholesale economic development." (Remember, the retail/wholesale distinction here is a metaphor.) Companies come and go; jobs come and go. Those are facts of the 21st century marketplace, and Pittsburgh isn't immune to them. Pittsburgh needs to focus on ensuring that there is a steady supply of new firms and plenty of opportunities to create and grow them. An entrepreneurship commons can do that. And an entrepreneurship Darknet is a network that leverages the value implicit in a commons in order to build new firms -- without reliance on or celebration of innovation brokers such as IW. No offense to my friends there, but Pittsburgh would be a healthier economy if its tech firms didn't need to celebrate IW as much as they do. A thriving entrepreneurial economy is a more thoroughgoing bottom-up economy than the entrepreneurial economy on display in Pittsburgh today.

Women in the workforce and a steadier drumbeat of entrepreneurship signal similar things: The growing and occasionally unnoticed acceptance of the new. The story of Pittsburgh's revitalization, going forward, really is the same story that has been and will continue to be repeated over and over in cities around the world: Identifying and building value from new people and new ideas -- which will come along, like it or not. The question is whether they are stifled or unleashed. Pittsburgh is full of both kinds of new, and increasingly they are unleashed. They aren't numerous or visible like they are (people and ideas) in New York, but Pittsburgh doesn't need them at that scale, and they are far more numerous and visible than they were even a handful of years ago. There is grumbling in some quarters that the newcomers can't and shouldn't find their way around a town where "turn left where the Isaly's used to be" still carries both metaphorical and literal significance. So, yes, knowing where the proverbial bodies are buried is still important in Pittsburgh.

But not as important as it has been in the past. Some of us have started to unlock the secrets, and we're happy -- more than happy -- to share. If you want to know where the Isaly's used to be -- seriously -- check this link. Use it in good health.



1 Response to "The Story Behind Pittsburgh's Revitalization, Part X"

Mark Arsenal said... 9/22/2009 11:44 AM

Good show. I'll take a tech-savvy steam locomotive repairman long before I'll accept a life without tech-savviness *OR* a life without steam locomotive repairmen...

Diversity, no?

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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.

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