In the early ’80s, Pittsburgh looked like it was headed for the kind of ruin we associate now with Detroit. The steel industry, central to the city’s economy, was collapsing, 17.1 percent of the city was unemployed, and people were leaving the cities in droves. But the city didn’t become Detroit, as Glenn Thrush’s latest contribution to the Politico series on urban reinvention explains:
Improbably for a blue-collar town that seemed headed for the scrap heap when its steel industry collapsed, Pittsburgh has developed into one of the country’s most vibrant tech centers, a hotbed of innovation that can no longer be ignored by the industry’s titans. Carnegie Mellon is Google’s biggest rival in the race to build a driverless car, partnering with GM to build a robot Cadillac that has been humanlessly tooling around Route 19, just outside city limits. In 2011, Google opened a posh, 40,000-square-foot office in an old Nabisco factory in the city’s East Liberty neighborhood, ramping up last year to 350 people, with more on the way. Bill Gates and other Silicon Valley moguls have invested millions of dollars in Aquion Energy, a start-up spun out of CMU that is developing next-generation batteries and producing them in nearby Westermoreland County, not China. Apple, RAND and Intel also have outposts in town and Disney, which has tapped the university’s computer and robotics talent for years, is partnering with the school to improve cinematic graphics and to develop hominid robots that can gently hand objects to people by predicting the movement around them.
Now the city’s population is growing both larger and younger and unemployment is lower than the national average at 6.6 percent (Detroit is 9.3 percent). The rest of Thrush’s piece explores how the city managed to reinvent itself and turn around its economy. Thrush notes several factors: good natural resources, Carnegie Mellon University itself, and institutions and infrastructure that managed to weather the worst of the initial crash.But one factor that stands out from Thursh’s account is the relatively small number of key city leaders and visionaries who moved the city away from trying to seize the last rents of a dying system into actively planning for the future. Thursh goes so far as to trace this to one actor who looms large in his account—Red Whitttaker a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon whose successful work using robots to study the Three Mile Island disaster “set into motion a spectacular, three-decade cycle of innovation, investment and expansion.” But the piece mentions other people as well, and the commitment they had to their home city—many could have moved away but chose to stay to help rebuild it—paired with the free hand they were given to innovate is perhaps the key to the whole story.Many of the particular projects that have been successful in Pittsburgh may not be exportable elsewhere, but that general principle of commitment joined to innovation is. Our economy is hyperdependent on innovation, and the cities that spend time nostalgically pinning for the 1950s style Fordist economy, trying to preserve the blue model for a few years longer, or heaping regulations and taxes on key economic actors, will be left behind by cities that give entrepreneurs more room to operate. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur, but entrepreneurs can lay the groundwork for broad regional renewals. Read the whole thing.