When Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution came to town last fall, he praised our city for its beauty, charm and many assets. And then he issued a stern warning. Unless we come up with the next big idea, as other progressive cities are doing, he said, we will be left in the dust.

His book, The Metropolitan Revolution tracks big idea-success in other cities, making the case that “more and better jobs are driven by innovation, exports and sustainability.”

No matter how impressive and laudable our recent transformation has been, Pittsburgh can’t rest on its laurels. So what’s the next big idea for our region?

In the first of a series, we bring you suggestions from a number of people leading the way in their respective fields. In this segment we focus on those in universities and foundations.

We want to hear from you, too. Let us know your ideas by emailing us at info@nextpittsburgh.com and look for more to come soon in this series.

Pat Getty, President, Benedum Foundation

We have to do a better job of utilizing our very competitive research assets to create a more vibrant and effective early stage environment to create more entrepreneurial businesses.

Because funding for research is not as solid as it once, we also need to be collectively finding more and different ways to sustain the research assets including more corporate and R&D relationship with universities and more early stage investment to capitalize R&D.

One can argue that the combination of universities, NETL (the National Energy and Technology Laboratory) and corporate research in this region is superior to that which exists anywhere in the country except Boston and northern California but we‘re not even in the top 25 in terms of investments of startup communities.

Ed Engler doesn’t understand why we’re comparing ourselves to Detroit, Cincinnati and Indianapolis. None of them have our research assets. We should be in the top 10.

Lenore Blum, Founding Director, Project Olympus, Co-Director CMU Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Professor Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University

Robotic in every way could play a big role.  It’s not a brand new idea but it’s building on our strengths and giving us an opportunity to surge ahead. It builds on Pittsburgh’s history of manufacturing, as well. And it can happen overnight.

I think robotics ties together a lot of things—manufacturing, technology, medicine, our manufacturing history.  We have some really great stuff like 4 Moms and Red Whittaker who is going to take us to the moon. We could have a resurgence and we have the base.”

Don Carter, Director, Remaking Cities Institute, Carnegie Mellon University

The future is clearly about technology. Many regions are chasing the identical dream of becoming an urban incarnation of Silicon Valley. So how does Pittsburgh separate itself from the crowd? At CMU we are looking at how to develop the region’s own talents and industries, something I like to call “Home Grown.” What would that involve?

Let’s start with what we have:

1. Two major research universities, CMU and Pitt (the only second tier city that can claim that).

2. Carnegie Mellon conducted more than $2.9 billion in federal research and contract work between 2002 and 2012, the bulk of it for the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation (Trib Review)

3. UPMC Is in the top five medical research centers in National Institute of Health federal research dollars ($424 million in 2010)

4. 95,000 undergraduate and graduate students are in the 25 colleges and universities in the Pittsburgh region (Trib Review, 2010)

5. 48.1% of Pittsburghers age 24-34 have obtained at least a bachelor’s degree (Pitt study 2010). This puts Pittsburgh in fifth place nationally after Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Austin.

6. Stable economy

However, we have deficiencies in K-12 public education and venture capital to fund new enterprises. And there are geographic, racial, and class disparities in participation and opportunity in the knowledge economy. The national economic pundits are concerned that our future workforce will not have appropriate and adequate skills. Those regions that have a pool of talent will out perform those regions that do not, and as a consequence, will attract the best and brightest from the less endowed regions.

How can Pittsburgh, far from being a destination city, position itself in this marketplace for talent and investment? Richard Florida’s Creative Class theory of the four T’s, (talent, technology, tolerance, and territory) is well known. Pittsburgh has depth in all those areas, especially when compared with other second tier cities. As you know, Pittsburgh is near the top of everyone’s list for its transformation from an industrial to a knowledge economy in the last 25 years.

So where do we focus now? My concept of “Home Grown” is:

1. Invest in K -12 and adult technical and digital skils training that can lead to high-paying jobs for high school and technical school graduates and to higher education for those who want to pursue it. The new buzz word in public education is STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math). Such an advanced workforce development program must reach out especially to under served children and families in poor urban neighborhoods and mill towns. How much talent are we wasting because of lack of access to training and technology? If it is home grown, it stays and grows.

2. Develop a robust regional financial strategy with public and private money for investing in startup businesses and expansion of existing businesses rather than chasing after and offering concessions to outside companies that ate being pursued by every other region. If it is home grown, it stays and grows.

That way we can control our destiny by growing and retaining our own talent and our own job-producing companies.

John Rohe, vice-president of Philanthropy, Colcom Foundation

The Next Big Thing might just be the Last Old Thing. Today’s big issues will require us to become less dependent on resource depletion. Life will be run on a softer carbon footprint with fewer consumables.

Priorities are already changing. People are returning to urban centers where employment and family life can be experienced on a pedestrian scale. This suggests time is becoming a more cherished commodity, our appreciation for community is on the rise, and quality of life can be achieved with fewer resources.

Pittsburgh’s historic urban design was calibrated to these objectives. It preceded automobility. The template carved by Pittsburgh’s 18th century street grid, parks, and community centers represented the highest state of the art in human habitation at the time. It resulted from lessons learned during 10,000 years of civic life following the domestication of plants and animals. And it’s all still here. The enactments of this civilization remain etched on the land.

The next big thing, community life with a softer ecological footprint, awaits no discovery, just rediscovery.

Lynn Brusco, Executive Director of the Disruptive Health Technology Institute
Last June, Carnegie Mellon University formed the Disruptive Health Technology Institute (DHTI) with support from Allegheny Health Network and Highmark to create  an environment where healthcare innovations can be clinically tested and rapidly delivered to patients.

“Disruptive technology is the driver behind innovation. Quite often, whenever a breakthrough approach is introduced, industry incumbents find innovation to be impractical and even disruptive to the status quo. But over time, many disruptive technologies prove to be better and more cost effective than conventional products or services they are replacing. For instance, disruptive technology has transformed the auto industry by introducing safer vehicle design at a more reasonable cost.”

Disruptive technologies can spur innovative changes in healthcare. Highmark and Allegheny Health Network have provided $11 million to CMU’s Disruptive Health Technology Institute to develop science and engineering that can simultaneously increase the affordability, simplicity and accessibility of health care for the people in our community and beyond.

Our projects are based on the results of more than a year of strategic horizon-mapping with CMU researchers, health care providers, physicians and industry leaders. Seven key areas were identified as the first focus for DHTI – accessibility of medical diagnostics, behavior change, chronic disease management, data mining, improved endoscopy, improved diagnostic ultrasound and infection prevention.  Five additional areas of focus will be added in 2014.

DHTI has launched its first series of research grants that span everything from helping patients with Parkinson’s Disease to development of a rapid diagnostic tool for detection of infection during surgery. There are promising possibilities for transforming the way healthcare is delivered to patients. At CMU, we are excited to be a part of this pioneering paradigm shift.

Tracy is the founder and Editor at Large of NEXTpittsburgh which she started in March 2014 and sold in December 2020. She is passionate about making Pittsburgh a better place for all and connecting people to do the same.