In a long and thoughtful article about the “technovation” underway in Pittsburgh, Philly Magazine delves into why Pittsburgh is “the One City in Pennsylvania poised to crush the 21st Century.”
Yes, Philly Magazine.
Starting his tour of Pittsburgh in a self-driving Uber, author John Marchese begins his piece by launching into an overview of robotics and tech in our city and declares, “And somehow, as this brave new world begins to take shape, Pittsburgh is not only right in the middle of it all; it’s one of a few cities poised to lead it. Yes, Pittsburgh—the place out there past the Allegheny Mountains where they talk funny and that just three decades ago was the choking canary in the caving mine of America’s deindustrialization.”
After a quick look at the decimation of the steel industry in Pittsburgh decades ago and the start of a comeback through Eds and Meds, Marchese highlights in clear detail what has taken hold recently in the city.
Google has 450 people working in a converted Nabisco cracker factory that’s helped anchor a redevelopment project changing the part of town called East Liberty. Amazon just moved into a former steel plant on the south side of town to research its voice-controlled products. Apple is in the city, as is Disney. Ford announced in February that it would buy a CMU spin-off company called Argo AI for more than a billion dollars — and spend another billion dollars over the next few years developing its own autonomous-car program in the city. Microsoft is teaming with Pitt, CMU and UPMC to bring Big Data innovations into health-care delivery.
The author then takes a step back to write about the recent Chamber of Commerce event in Philadelphia, where John Fry, the president of Drexel, talked about Pittsburgh and it’s sense of urgency in competing for the first-tier position as a tech and inno hub:
He cited analysis by the Brookings Institution that predicts a Darwinian world in which cities that thrive will have to be tech and innovation hubs, magnets for investment and talent. There would only be room for about two dozen of these cities around the globe, Fry explained. Philadelphia had all the assets in place except one: “a sense of urgency about competing for the first-tier position that is further complicated by complacency. . . ”
Good line. But could it really be true? Pittsburgh? Eating our lunch? This isn’t a padded contact sport we’re talking about here, where being outscored on the ice or the gridiron by our more diminutive Commonwealth cousin is embarrassing but not life-threatening.
Yes, Bruce Katz of The Brookings Institution, told him. It could be true.
“Both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh can and will compete in this sweepstakes,” Katz adds. The thing about Pittsburgh is that it’s becoming a playground, a sandbox for innovation there.
Yes, we agree. Great pull-quote. But there’s more, coming from the author:
Let’s leave some of the policy-wonk stuff aside. Pittsburgh is just plain buzzy right now. Since being named the best place in America to live in the mid-2000s by both the Economist Intelligence Unit and Places Rated Almanac, it has become a perennial overachiever in quality-of-life surveys. Zagat named it the nation’s top restaurant spot in 2015. Lately, publications like Vogue are urging weekend visits….
Add it all up—the robots, the rivers, the restaurants—and the hype about the Pittsburgh Renaissance is getting so loud that it’s almost comical. “I was talking to this guy in New York a couple weeks ago,” a Pittsburgh real estate developer told me, “a very sophisticated real estate guy. And he was saying, ‘Everybody wants to invest in Pittsburgh. In my mind, out there there’s like cars in the sky driving themselves.’
The author does more investigating, talking to people like Dick Zhang who moved here three years ago from Philly after pitching a company dealing with drones to AlphaLab Gear. His tech company, Identified Technologies, now has 25 employees and $3 million in funding from a Pittsburgh venture capital firm.
And what about living there, asks Marchese? “It’s been a little bit of a culture shock,” Zhang said. “But living here—I think the right word is ‘delightful.’ We’ve recruited people from the San Francisco Bay area, from Texas cities, from Boston and New York, and it’s noticeable to them, the livability of this city.”
Zhang noticed something else that differentiates Pittsburgh.
“In my world,” he said, “it’s all about customer discovery—who are you going to help? And our mayor here in Pittsburgh is big on understanding the concerns of the customer. One thing I will give Mayor Peduto credit for is that we’ve had multiple conversations where the context is: ‘What can the city of Pittsburgh be doing to support you?’ You’d be surprised how many governments don’t have that mentality.”
There’s more in the article but in the end, the author asks our mayor outright:
“. . . are you folks out there—are yinz—preparing to eat Philadelphia’s lunch?
“After 50 years of being off the global stage,” says Peduto, who still skates in an ice hockey league, “Pittsburgh is ready for its reentry. We want to compete, not as a post-industrial city, but as a 21st-century city. And just like a great Pens-vs.-Flyers game, we always look for great competition with our neighbors to the east.”
I’ve been trying to avoid sports analogies even more than mentioning cheesesteaks vs. french fry sandwiches. But now that I’ve been to Pittsburgh and back, and per Peduto, it seems to me that while Philly lays claim to Rocky Balboa, Pittsburgh is that character’s civic analog—down on its luck, battered against the ropes, but now back in contention and, by all appearances, ready to punch above its weight.