When I’m not blogging here, I blog elsewhere, and especially at Pittsblog, where I write about economic and cultural development in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is one of a number of faded industrial centers that are pretty nice places to live, all things considered, but are struggling to find their economic niches in the new high technology world order. Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Milwaukee, among other places, share some of Pittsburgh’s character, and some of its problems. Above all else, Pittsburgh wants to be a high tech center. It wants to be, if not the Silicon Valley, then Boston. It will never be Boston. It struggles to figure out what it means to be Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh has been working on this problem. Pittsburgh has a long and rich history of central industrial and urban planning. Over the last decade or more, it has brought all of the might of the local best and brightest corporate CEOs to bear on a succession of centrally-planned “solutions.” Those efforts have had predictable results. We know that the steel industry is largely gone and is never coming back; we’re gradually but reluctantly accepting the fact that no single industry is going to take its place. The central plan has no provision, however, for nurturing an entrepreneurial economy, and so Pittsburgh doesn’t have one.
As a native of the Silicon Valley, when I moved to Pittsburgh years ago I saw instantly that the “central plan approach” was a formula for disaster. It took some time for me to learn enough of the local lay of the land to say anything publicly, but I figured it out, or as least I think I did, and last week I spoke my piece. In an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I criticized both the local pooh-bahs (for navel-gazing) and the two large local universities (including my employer) (for being short-sighted in their technology transfer strategies). Here’s a link to the piece, which began life as a blog post.
I offer all of the above as a preface. The reaction to the piece — at least the reaction that’s been shared with me — has been universally positive. I’ve heard from university faculty, technology transfer offices (at other schools), entrepreneurs, investors and venture capitalists, and lawyers — all of whom, to a person, are thrilled to hear someone saying, publicly and in print, what they’ve said or suspected privately for some time. The piece has become something of a small rallying cry for high tech entrepreneurship in the Pittsburgh region.
So what do I do now? Some of us academics talk and write ourselves to death about systems and networks of “bottom up” economic and cultural development, but we rarely have an opportunity to help it along in any meaningful way, that is, to get off the sidelines and get in the game. I’m about to find out if I can. I have a lot of lunches and meetings set up with the folks who responded to my article. They took the time to contact me; the least I can do is nurture this enthusiasm. I’ll report back from time to time.