Pittsburgh's Industrial Commons

Susan Hockfield, president of MIT, makes the case in today's New York Times that rebuilding the manufacturing sector in the United States is one key and perhaps the key to restoring the country's economic health.  We need to get back to the business of making stuff.

Somewhere, Harold Miller is smiling; he's been making that case for and about Pittsburgh for a long time, and I've been (occasionally) disagreeing with him.  Today, I'll grant that Harold and Susan Hockfield are right at least about the idea that restoring American manufacturing would be a good thing, whether or not it really holds the promise of large-scale economic recovery.


The first thing to note, and both people I mention above are explicit about this, is that 21st century manufacturing is not much like 20th century manufacturing.  Contemporary manufacturing is high-tech and high-end, and precisely for that reason it requires an investment in an entirely new industrial infrastructure -- supply chains, innovation chains, labor markets -- that has largely (but not entirely) disappeared from the United States.  America is going to have to import the ability to do this.  Another New York Times story, from last Sunday's paper, makes that case in vivid terms.  It is somewhat paradoxical that reinvigorating domestic manufacturing will require significant willingness to partner with international firms.

If Pittsburgh wants to get moving on this project, in short, Pittsburgh will not be able to grow its own way out its economic doldrums.

A couple of years ago, I put up a couple of posts about what I called the "entrepreneurship commons."  The posts are here, and then here.  I distinguished
between processes and institutions that offer (metaphorically) "retail" economic development services, on the one hand, and infrastructures that support (metaphorically) "wholesale" economic development. I wrote that policymakers should focus on "public and private resources to create infrastructures and environments to which resources (time, talent, money, innovation) can be contributed, in which they can be shared and mixed together, and from which they can be combined to produce new stuff -- knowledge, products, services, enterprises, industries. A university is a kind of commons. The internet is a kind of commons. A library is a kind of commons.
That description consciously echoed the work of Ben Chinitz, the Pittsburgh economist who Chris and I both like to cite.  Back in the early 1960s, Chinitz argued that New York City's relative economic vitality was grounded in the multitude of modestly-sized firms that constituted that city's garment industry (its largest commercial sector, at the time); Pittsburgh's anticipated stagnation at the time was based on the concentration of the steel industry in a small number of dominant firms.  Chinitz's insight has largely stood the test of time; his work is cited admiringly by Ed Glaeser, among others.  Glaeser is a Harvard scholar who writes about the revival of cities. 

Reading the NYTimes articles above, I discovered that right around the time I was blogging about "the entrepreneurship commons," a pair of Harvard Business School professors, Gary Pisano and Willy Shih, were describing the decline of American manufacturing as the loss of the country's "industrial commons."  Read their article here (it's not too long).  The "industrial commons" and the "entrepreneurship commons" are not the same thing, but they have some essential attributes in (dare I say it?) common:  an emphasis on knowledge, skills, training, and equipment that constitutes an infrastructure to support an entire industry, even an entire economy.  A diverse and largely unpredictable economy of firms can thrive atop a robust infrastructure

Pisano and Shih wrote:
Centuries ago, “the commons” referred to the land where animals belonging to people in the community would graze. As the name implies, the commons did not belong to any one farmer. All were better off for having access to it. Industries also have commons. A foundation for innovation and competitiveness, a commons can include R&D know-how, advanced process development and engineering skills, and manufacturing competencies related to a specific technology.

Such resources may be embedded in a large number of companies and universities. Software knowledge and skills, for instance, are vital to an extremely wide range of industries (machine tools, medical devices, earth-moving equipment, automobiles, aircraft, computers, consumer electronics, defense). Similarly, capabilities related to thin-film deposition processes are crucial to sophisticated optics; to such electronic products as semiconductors and disk drives; and to industrial tools, packaging, solar panels, and advanced displays. The knowledge, skills, and equipment related to the development and production of advanced materials are a commons for such diverse industries as aerospace, automobiles, medical devices, and consumer products. Biotechnology is a commons not just for drugs but also for agriculture and the emerging alternative-fuels industry.
Their article gives a number of contemporary examples and offers a series of policy recommendations relative to the contemporary American economy.  I don't necessarily agree or disagree with the specifics of all of those, but in the aggregate the recommendations strike me as sound, and as recommendations that scale down (to the regional level -- say, to Pittsburgh) as well as up (to the national level).  In the aggregate, they argue that public policy and corporate strategy should drive investment toward new and innovative technological capabilities -- to the (re)construction of the industrial commons, or infrastructure -- and not just to specific products, quarterly returns, and distinctive brands.

Pittsburgh, are you listening?


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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 madisonian.net, 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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