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 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 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 of Alpha Lab Gear. Photo by Brian Cohen.