In a city famous for reinventing itself, it’s smart thinking to always consider what’s next for Pittsburgh.

Who’s got the next big–or not so big–idea that will help shape our region and change our future? NEXT checked in with four visionary CEOs to get their thoughts and see what they are working on.

Each is in a position to know. Each is an encourager, an enabler. Each heads a clearing house—for food, technology, entrepreneurship, visionary ideas.

it is worth mentioning that their very names symbolize how Pittsburgh has reinvented itself. Fifty—even 30—years ago, every one of these CEOs would have been a man. Not anymore. It was not intentional but everyone we talked to happened to be a woman.

Many of their ideas involve youth — encouraging, empowering, training, preparing. And many discard older, compartmentalized thinking in favor of—not so much interdisciplinary thinking but multidisciplinary thinking.

It has to. This is 21st-century America. With jobs evaporating—or being shipped overseas—at an alarming rate, there is no alternative. To survive—to succeed—Pittsburgh will have to outsmart and outwork the world.

Julie Pezzino of Grow Pittsburgh. Photo by Brian Cohen

Julie Pezzino
Executive Director, Grow Pittsburgh

For Julie Pezzino, the vision is urban agriculture — urban ag, in the argot. It begins with the twin premises that the city hosts a great deal of vacant, arable land — and for too long people have been kept apart from it. Turned loose, and encouraged, people will return to form, operating urban-scale farms and community gardens, opening an array of ag-oriented cottage businesses.

It all starts at city hall. “There’s a new spirit of cooperation — and of progressive thinking — in the mayor’s office,” Pezzino says. “The administration is innovative and capitalized. Legislation, programs, funding — that kind of support enables urban ag projects.”

As such, the city has grown a bumper crop of urban farms and community gardens on many spaces, including former baseball fields. They’re perfect for farming: no rubble, no contaminants. “On the South Side, the Bandi Schaum Field Community Garden alone,” Pezzino points out, “has 88 10×10 beds — and a two-year waiting list.”

Across the region, there are now more than 70 such community gardens. “Clearly,” she says, “people need to grow their own food.”

What’s more, more young people are interested in urban farming. “To meet the need,” Pezzino says, “Grow Pittsburgh is sponsoring a farm apprenticeship program. We’re now in the third year. Eighty people applied for four positions.”

“What that means,” Pezzino adds, “is that we’re going to see some very interesting changes in food production. Urban ag is the potential game changer — for all of us.”

Audrey Russo of the Pittsburgh Tech Council. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Audrey Russo
Chief Executive Officer, Pittsburgh Technology Council

As the head of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, with 1,300 members the nation’s largest regional IT trade association, Audrey Russo recognizes that today even techies are foodies. “How we eat and what we eat,” she says, “makes a region attractive. Where food is grown, and how it is consumed, matters so much to people when they decide where they want to live.”

If that seems a minor matter, it isn’t. Since PTC has a decades-long history of helping develop business, retain talent, and encourage high-tech growth, Russo is acutely aware of what it takes to turn ideas into successful businesses, how to attract and retain talent.

What will bring and keep them?

“Start with security and cyber-security,” she says. “Those are Pittsburgh specialties, and they’re not stopping. Technology for our homes means that could be the next serious breach. It means that we’ll need remote security systems integrated into technologically advanced houses. We’re seeing a growth of sensors, data collection devices.”

And, Russo adds, “robotics has finally come of age. From strollers to Mama Roo — which can coddle a child with a beat that emulates its mother — we’re seeing far more there. Pittsburgh is the nation’s — if not the world’s—top number-one or -two robotics center. Roboburgh! The time is now.

“What’s really out there is the collision. The smash-up,” she adds. “Art. Technology. Design. It’s ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. How people experience technology, applications, information. How a device feels. How information is presented. How to collect and use it in meaningful ways. That’s the game changer. That’s happening here.”

Ilana Diamond of Alpha Lab Gear. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Ilana Diamond
Director, AlphaLab Gear

That collision is just what they’re talking about these days at AlphaLab Gear, says Ilana Diamond. As director of the hardware spinoff of AlphaLab, Pittsburgh’s nationally recognized startup accelerator, Diamond is at Ground Zero, trading investment for equity — and an eight-month program where ideas are mentored in all disciplines — carpenters to CEOs, sculptors to software engineers.

In a large, open space, all wood floors and windows, artists to entrepreneurs are very much engaged. Here, a kiosk for 3D printing — make it work, make it usable, above all, make it attractive. There, a shoe insert that captures energy to charge cell phones. Or a thermoplastic molding machine. Or a phone case equipped with a 120-decibel assault alarm.

“Game changers?” Diamond asks. “Start with the idea that we help people get ready to manufacture. And that anything they can create can be funded and manufactured here, within 100 miles of Pittsburgh. I always say, ‘we’re from Pittsburgh. We build stuff.’”

Even more exciting about AlphaLab Gear, she says, is its summer camp for neighborhood kids. In the heart of East Liberty, they troll for teens who want to become entrepreneurs or engineers. Under AlphaLab Gear tutelage, the teens spend three hours a day making things (welding, wood working, and the like), three hours learning entrepreneurship (business models, funding, and so on.)

“They’re in the community,” Diamond says. “They’re really engaged.”

Cathy Lewis Long of the Sprout Fund. Photo by Peter Leeman.

Cathy Lewis Long
Executive Director and President, The Sprout Fund
Youth engagement, The Sprout Fund’s Cathy Lewis Long agrees, is what it’s all about.

“Pittsburgh builds off a spirit of innovation,” she says. “We think about pathways. We have a willingness to work together, to test new things, to work outside the box, to deliver dividends.”

On her plate now — the game changer — is the Pittsburgh Kids+Creativity Network.

Calling on regional leaders, youth workers, engineers, artists, et. al., they’re asking what sets of tools will people need for the future? “What will drive the body of knowledge,” Long asks, “what innovative spaces and knowledge sharing?”

The goal, she says, is learning not education. The latter, Long says, is school, and institutional. The former, is personal and holistic. “Learning doesn’t end at 3:00,” she says. “Learning does not end with a degree. Learning is lifelong.”

And it’s all-encompassing, academic, peer, and social. “We’re working to support connective learning,” she says, “to harness resources in the community, to create relationships without school-connected activities.

“The next step,” Long continues, “is credentialing this informal learning.”

One way is with digital badges, indications that capture competency, skills, and knowledge. “If employers need a particular set of skills, we can create that pathway. That will mean more access and equity than traditional education. Which is especially good for kids who spend a lot of time out of school. Especially for such 21st-century skills as digital literacy.

“The great part of this,” Long adds, “is that it meets kids where they are. It sparks their imagination and provides learning experiences they need to succeed.

“Pittsburgh can become a national — an international — leader in this,” she adds. “Re-Imagining classrooms — the intersection of tech, science, and art. It’s a game changer.”

Abby Mendelson

Abby Mendelson is a veteran Pittsburgh writer and reporter. A novelist and short-story writer, he is also the author of numerous Pittsburgh-related books, including Arena: Remembering the Igloo, Pittsburgh:...