Pittsburgh: A city of possibilities rich with lessons for us all

by Karl R. LaPan, President & CEO, The NIIC

We’ve heard a lot recently how the Rust Belt is taking advantage of its assets to more fully express itself as a node of innovation and entrepreneurship. By capitalizing on its business climate and infrastructure, it makes the former Rust Belt a great place to work, learn, and play. Pittsburgh is a great example of that phenomenon and provides important lessons for communities like ours. This transition didn’t come easy, and as a 2015 MIT Tech Review article asserted, “Thirty years ago, Pittsburgh was a hollowed-out, crumbling Rust Belt city whose economic engine had seized with the meltdown of the American steel industry.” So, how did this city do it? It surrounded its innovation assets with “over 100 venture capital investors, top-notch sports, arts, culture, and outdoor attractions”.

Lesson 1: The community has an intentional purpose and a big ambition. Last year, a small number of SUVs equipped with cameras, radar and lidar sensors were introduced to pick up Uber customers. Why Pittsburgh, you ask? Carnegie Mellon was a significant player, with an advanced robotics program through its National Robotics Engineering Center. In fact, earlier this year, an independent institute founded by the university received more than $250 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to focus on developing robots for the advanced manufacturing sector, the University of Pittsburgh’s more than $426 million of annual NIH funding, and is investing in innovation efforts in renewable energy and self-driving cars.

Lesson 2: Pittsburgh acknowledged their problem and confronted their brutal realities. While exciting, these changes didn’t happen overnight. It’s been years in the making. Pittsburgh was the steel capital of the country. After the steel mills died, the city experienced a mass exodus. Pittsburgh was a shell of what it once was for a long time. Blight, unemployment, and poverty were the norm for some time. Opportunities were a remnant of the past.

Lesson 3: Pittsburgh connected the dots in an inclusive way. They leveraged their assets and didn’t become something it is not. Through a strong work ethos, community leadership and engagement and financial investment, the city has experienced a renaissance and re-branding in recent years. For example, steel mills and shipbuilding yards are being replaced by knowledge workers, think tanks and buildings. A former Nabisco factory now houses Google offices and a University of Pittsburgh facility. They did focus on one geographic area of their community at the expense of building strong arteries.

Lesson 4: Pittsburgh put its money where its mouth was. And there’s more. A well-funded, rich and vibrant entrepreneurial support system of business incubators (like Ascender previously called Thrill Mill and Pittsburgh Gateways, who worked closely with The NIIC when we were started), seed accelerators, university proof of concept and commercialization centers, Foundations (who have been staunch supporters of economic and community development), and specialized labs have been successful at connecting and engaging entrepreneurs calling it “a well-kept secret in the U.S”. Organizations like Ascender recognized the need to engage the entire entrepreneurial stack – VC’s, angels, corporations, universities, and start-ups in an inclusive way very similar to how Certified Tech Parks in Indiana operate.

Certified Tech Parks reflect a tremendous asset to our state and to the communities in which we reside. These “dot connectors” represent an important web of resources and node of innovation that makes our communities stronger, more attractive to talented knowledge workers and a key catalyst for economic vitality by diversifying our industry sectors.

Data from the Kauffman Foundation show Pittsburgh ranks as a top 10 metro for Main Street business activity, with 1,166 established small businesses for every 100,000 residents. With top universities, strong ecosystem partners, public-private investment and a rich and well-educated pool of talent, some of the best and brightest entrepreneurs and workers are inspired to action to reinvent and transform their city.

Likewise, at the Indiana Chamber board meeting yesterday, there was a discussion on its Strategic Plan Vision 2025 – we do well and score high on business climate, taxation, and infrastructure. It was especially clear that all roads to success for world-class employers lead to a qualified workforce. The demand for technology workers is vastly greater than the pool of workers. There are far too many jobs that go unfilled in Indiana, and in order to attract top companies, we need to attract, develop and retain top talent. Troubling, in a recent survey, over 50% of employers in Indiana reported key positions as unfilled. Our talent pipeline is the most critical and precious resource for community success.

For our community to self-actualize, we need to remind ourselves of these important lessons and how instructive they can be on our journey of renewal and reinvention. By doing so, we will create a stronger, more inclusive and dynamic Indiana.


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