Bruce Katz is enthusiastic about Pittsburgh, but he’s not caught up in the hype.
The Centennial Scholar at Brookings Institution, where he focuses on the challenges and opportunities of global urbanization, calls Pittsburgh “a competitive middleweight city.” Research at the University of Pittsburgh, UPMC and Carnegie Mellon University puts Pittsburgh in “the right sectors” — life sciences and robotics — but civic leaders must work at developing these businesses and jobs, Katz says.
In a recent report, “Capturing the Next Economy: Pittsburgh’s rise as a global innovation city,” Brookings examines Pittsburgh’s opportunity to become a world-class innovation city and a global destination for technology-based economic activity. The culmination of an 18-month study, the report found that Pittsburgh’s innovation economy is strong and growing, but city leaders can do more with existing assets to compete globally and grow innovation clusters in the region.
“Some of this is a timing issue,” says Katz, who is an author of the study and predicts it will take five to 15 years to see the real effects of employment in new industries. “You’re in the right sectors, the right technologies. I’m very bullish about this, but I do think it needs a level of intentionality because you’re dealing with cities much bigger than you, or countries that have the backing of national governments.”
In other words, “You’re on the map now; the question is, what do you do with it? You really have to play your hand well here.”
Brookings found that in 2016, the Pittsburgh region’s per capita university research and development spending was nearly two and a half times the national average. But research is one thing and reality is another, the authors note. The city needs greater investment and activity in four broad areas: innovation clusters, the Oakland innovation district, high-growth entrepreneurs and workforce development, the report says.
“You need more people around who get up every day and think about how to project out your special advantages, the products and technologies that are evolving here,” says Katz. “You’ve got to be more proactive. You don’t want to sit back and see what comes over the transom. In each of these tech sectors where you have a competitive niche, you want to be seeking out partnerships and relationships with companies.”
For example, although Uber shined a spotlight on Pittsburgh with its self-driving vehicle tests and Advanced Technologies Center in the Strip District, Jerusalem is the “driverless car center of the universe,” Katz says, as it’s home to Intel’s newly acquired Israeli firm Mobileye, which makes cameras, sensors and software that enable cars to detect what is ahead.
“You need more people in the game to do that,” says Katz. “For a city and metro of this size, you need a few more people — experts, practitioners really — helping your industries to grow and partner at a faster pace.”
Specifically, Brookings recommends:
- Building Pittsburgh’s innovation clusters in robotics and advanced manufacturing, life sciences and autonomous systems to link the city’s research capacity with the regional economy;
- Defining and connecting the Oakland Innovation District with other innovation clusters throughout the city, and developing a strategy to attract firms in advanced industries;
- Providing better support to high-growth entrepreneurs, and attracting world-class startups in the health care sector;
- Creating a talent alliance that identifies critical occupational gaps within anchor employers and develops training programs for under-skilled workers in neighborhoods surrounding Oakland and in the broader region.
Brookings suggests launching an initiative called the InnovatePGH partnership, composed of public, private and civic leaders, to issue a call to action to support the report’s recommendations.
“Pittsburgh really is in transition,” Katz says. “We’re catching you [Pittsburgh] at a certain time where you’re beginning to get the fruits that have been underway for decades in robotics. It takes significant long-term investment to develop these technologies. You’ve made very smart investments and received substantial federal investments from Defense, NASA, NIH, etc. They’re beginning to have significant effect but there’s more to be done.”
The report notes that Pittsburgh’s population remained stagnant between 2009 and 2014, and says the average worker in Pittsburgh is older than the national average, with a quarter-million people expected to retire over the next decade. But 2016 census data from the American Community Survey shows the proportion of 25-to-34-year-olds in the city grew from 16.7 percent in 2010 to 20.6 percent in 2016, bringing more than 11,000 young people to Pittsburgh.
“I think it’s unbelievably helpful that you’ve become a magnet for millennials, particularly talented, excited workers, some of whom are coming through the universities,” says Katz. “But you also need to shore up some of these other demographic cohorts that might actually help you as companies start up.” Growth companies need experienced workers as managers, he says.
It’s important that Pittsburghers not simply revel in all the recent publicity about the city, Katz notes.
“Google came 10 years ago or so, now you need to go out and seek [companies],” he says. “You need to be playing both sides of the table. If you’re going to be a serious competitive place, you don’t want just the hype. If everyone just serves you hype, then you’re going to get complacent. … You have these specialized areas that you’ve invested over time and gotten really good at, but you’re playing with some substantial, technologically-sophisticated places. The market isn’t just going to deliver it to you.”
It’s also important to ensure that Pittsburghers don’t get left behind, he says. Government, education and business leaders need to reach out to people in underserved neighborhoods to train them for new industries and include them in the city’s growth.
“This is going to help you build up a robust tax base so that you can invest in some of those places,” he says. “A portion of the jobs can be filled with people with technical skills. The community colleges and vocational education are really important, and they need to be at the table and need to be respected. That’s part of the intentionality of all this. This economy isn’t just for the Carnegie Mellon and Pitt grads.”