Mayor Bill Peduto and Andre Heinz at the p4 conference. Photo by Tracy Certo.

In the Energy Innovation Center, a newly renovated building that is a model of collaboration, reinvention and sustainability, Mayor Bill Peduto kicked off the p4 Conference last Thursday with a story of the four chapters of Pittsburgh.

Chapter one is rich with tales of George Washington and tells of Pittsburgh’s birth as a frontier town. Chapter two is our time as an industrial giant while chapter three is the story of our Renaissance and subsequent collapse. As for chapter four?

“Planet and people, place and performance—these are the metrics we use as we build up this next chapter of Pittsburgh,” he said, referencing the 4 p’s that make up the conference title. “This is a wonderful, wonderful time to be in Pittsburgh.”

Through two walls of 20-foot windows of the building—”the perfect place” for the conference as more than one host noted—the audience of nearly 300 leaders and experts saw a dramatic view of downtown Pittsburgh on one side and on the other, the first hopeful signs of spring unfolding on the hillside above the Allegheny River.

In setting the tone for the conference, Peduto asked, “How can we make this so it’s an economy for everyone?” and emphasized the need to preserve the treasures of Pittsburgh’s historic past and “that uniqueness, that screwiness” that defines the city as we move forward on making Pittsburgh a world leader among cities. “And how do we measure it so we know we’re doing it and we’re not just talking about it?” he asked.

A collaboration between the Mayor and City of Pittsburgh and André Heinz and the Heinz Endowments, the p4 conference brought hundreds of local, national and international leaders and experts together to hear more than 30 speakers. Here’s the link to the speaker videos. The focus was on the best of ideas rooted in the categories of planet, people, place and performance to help transform Pittsburgh into an inclusive, green and economically competitive city that can be held up as a model for the 21st-century.

In between sessions at the Energy Innovation Center for p4. Photo by Tracy Certo.
In between sessions at the Energy Innovation Center for p4. Photo by Tracy Certo.

In an intense first day, the group heard a wealth of ideas and information in the four categories that started with a close look at Stockholm, one of the most sustainable cities in the world which has become a “factory of ideas.” The most common profession in the city is a programmer, noted speaker Maria Rankka of the Stockhom Chamber of Commerce. And the most universal language of the modern economy? “Programming.”

To achieve true sustainability requires more than focus on the environment, she said. “In the future, there simply will be no place for growth unless it is sustainable and inclusive. Economic, social and environmental needs must be simultaneously addressed.”

Hal Harvey of Energy Innovation suggested that it’s time to kick the fossil habit. “Solar panels run forever and don’t emit anything,” he said. “Low carbon solutions are now cost-effective.” But he warns, “It won’t happen without the innovation and political intensity to drive adoption of these policies.”

Harvey issued four challenges to Pittsburgh, including the need for net zero buildings, phasing out fossil fuels, rethinking the urban grid and focusing on system optimization.

“These are the megatrends we need to land at a reasonable future. Pittsburgh is incredibly suited to do each of these things,” he stated, adding, “If Pittsburgh consciously builds around these goals—it would own it.”

Bruce Katz, Mayor Bill Peduto, Andre Heinz and Grant Oliphant. Photo by TC for NEXTpittsburgh.
Bruce Katz, Mayor Bill Peduto, Andre Heinz and Grant Oliphant. Photo by TC for NEXTpittsburgh.

Bake in Equity 

Angela Glover Blackwell of PolicyLink started her talk about equity with information about the population shift—how, for instance, 2012 marked the first time the majority of U.S.-born babies were of color.

“If you don’t get inclusion right, you don’t have the right to stand as a model—and no one will look to you as a model,” she said. “Every community needs to be a community of opportunity,” she noted, “with good schools and jobs and public transit and healthy environments where you can exercise and have and access to fresh foods and vegetables.”

But first communities must get one thing straight. “We have to bake in equity—not do it on the side. We have to lead with it. Equity is no longer a moral imperative; it has become a national and economic imperative. Equity is the superior growth model.”

The equity agenda will help us, not slow us down, said Glover Blackwell. “When we solve problems for the most vulnerable, we solve problems for everyone.” As an example she cited curb cuts. While the simple and slight ramps now everywhere on street corners were meant to help those specifically in wheelchairs, all kinds of people benefit from them, from cyclists to parents using strollers to those wheeling luggage on streets.

While many of the speakers hailed from Nordic cities known for their advanced progress in sustainability, other speakers included PNC President Bill Demchak who spoke about the dramatic change in downtown Pittsburgh over recent years as well as the bank’s much-lauded green building initiative; and Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop which has a location in East Liberty. “What happens when you give the the creative class the tools from the industrial revolution?” asked Hatch. “They change the world.”

To end the day, Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments rattled off a list of “can’ts” spoken by the naysayers throughout Pittsburgh’s history, from “You can’t rejuvenate affordable design excellence in a rust-built city” to “You can’t get young people to start businesses here.”

“Enough with the can’ts, enough with the naysayers,” he concluded. “There’s one set of voices saying we can’t—and then there’s you,” he said to the audience. “So go be you and lets prove ’em wrong.”

A different kind of event

“I think what’s been invented here today is a different kind of TEDx event,” said Bruce Katz, vice president and director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and speaker at the conference. “It’s not a random set of talks—it’s been curated and really aligned with the priorities and vision of the city.”  (Starting today, the videos of each speaker will be added to the p4  website.)

The next morning Katz summarized the day’s talks by riffing off some of more than 1000  tweets about it.

The goal is to “allow Pittsburgh to be a first mover on a whole bunch of very audacious challenges,” he said, citing the the four challenges offered by Hal Harvey, above.

Bruce Katz summarizing day one of p4. Photo by Tracy Certo.
Bruce Katz summarizing day one of p4. Photo by Tracy Certo.

“A lot of what was described yesterday—even though it was in the language of sustainability, inclusion or equity—was about unleashing market forces in particular ways and having this city become the vanguard of innovation around some really hard—not just domestic challenges, but global challenges.

“Business and sustainability go together,” reminded Katz who joked that sustainability at times sounds eat-your-spinach austere. “But we learned from the Nordics that it can be fun; there’s something playful about this.” Speaker Kai-Uwe Bergmann, partner at BIG, the Bjarke Ingels Group, he noted, called it hedonistic sustainability. And Bill Demchak noted how good sustainability was for their business, including doing right by the communities where the bank is located.

As for the role of government? It can engage people and invite in the hackers, the activists, the techies, the neighborhood, the citizen into problem solving, said Katz. “Cities are not governments, they’re networks,” he said. “Have extreme public participation because there’s wisdom in the crowd.”

While day one of p4 focused on the speakers and ideas while setting the tone for Pittsburgh’s agenda, day two was an intensive for select participants to translate these ideas into action.

The smaller group present that second day—the people who will likely impact the decisions made at any of the three sites—visited one of the following areas: the Eco Innovation District (uptown, between Oakland and Downtown), the Almono site and Envision Downtown project. Read about day two here.

After a breakout session at the Energy Innovation Center. TC photo for NEXTpittsburgh.
After a breakout session at the Energy Innovation Center. TC photo for NEXTpittsburgh.

Here are a few more takeaways from Thursday’s session:

“You never change things by fighting existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete,” R. Buckminster Fuller, as quoted by Greg Watson of Schumacher Center for a New Economics.

“Gentrification is good when it’s about wealth building, gentrification is bad when it’s about displacement.” Tim Duggan of Make It Right.

“Certain things you have to experience to learn.” Jurgen Siebel of Siemens on the apprenticeship model. “You can’t virtualize experience.”

“You need to activate the people. We call this extreme public participation.” Kai-Uwe Bergmann of BIG, the Bjarke Ingels Group.

“We have engineered out of our lives the useful walk.” Jeff Speck, author of the Walkable City. “The idea that it’s not considered absurd to drive to the gym, to park in the parking lot, to take the escalator, to walk on a treadmill is the fundamental root of so many problems in our society.”

“The old model: give tax breaks and lure big companies and hope they stay for five years. Now people matter, assets matter. Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” Bruce Katz summarizing Maria Rankka and quoting Dolly Parton.

We all grew up thinking that art was important—but it wasn’t at the main table.” Peter Hirshberg of San Francisco Gray Area Art & Technology Center. “That role is changing—almost mischievously so—and art has an enormous role in innovation, in urban design, civic participation, clearly in industry and technology design and, ultimately, in economic development.”

“The single unifying, dominant trend on the globe is urbanization. Beijing and Mumbai are urbanizing so fast they literally can’t breathe the air or drink the water. Can Pittsburgh develop a model of sustainable development that can apply to these rising cities and emerging markets? If you do so, you are going to set off decades of sustainable development and growth that can fuel the world.” Bruce Katz

NEXTpittsburgh editor Tracy Certo contributed to this article. 

Woods wanderer who was an an editor at New England’s regional magazine, the research director of a Colorado newspaper and a farm hand in Vermont before returning to Pittsburgh to write about and explore her hometown.