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The Futures of Post-Industrial Economic Development

Part 1 of a new, occasional series: How does the psychology of a city change, as part of shifts in its economy and culture?

Puzzling through that question and its implications, passive voice and all, was the impetus behind Pittsblog, my years-long effort to understand the psyche of the poster-city for late 20th century industrial collapse: Pittsburgh. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Pittsburgh was culturally beat down, emotionally wrung out by the economic and social implications of the collapse of the steel industry 15 years before, and with little collective ability to imagine a new economic and social future for itself other than using the same 1950s and 1960s elite-driven, centrally-administered planning tools that produced tremendous but classically industrial success: big plants to employ people, prosperous communities to house them, public amenities to amuse them and educate the next generations of employees.  The planning toolkit had run out of fuel.

As an outsider, raised and trained on the California-bred fantasy that the future is always bright, I had a difficult time equating that Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh that I encountered when I arrived in 1998, with the tremendous raw resource base that Pittsburgh obviously possessed:  exceptional financial resources, skilled talent, scientific research, experienced leadership, and tremendous will to succeed.  Something didn’t add up.  Pittsburgh had every reason to be thriving, but it was almost literally out of ideas.

When I wound down posting at Pittsblog in late 2012, I, too, had run out of things to say, but voices like mine weren’t as distinctive or as appropriate as they were in 2004.  At least not as much. I was promoting the idea of re-invention but criticizing Pittsburgh’s industrial era affection for 20th century-style top-down economic organization.  (I once argued that the Allegheny Conference for Community Development, once a critical and innovative part of Pittsburgh’s mid-century re-boot, should close up shop.)  For reasons that I summarized in a published paper — a bit of riveting economic sociology by a non-sociologist and available here, as “Contrasts in Innovation” — by 2012 reasons for optimism about Pittsburgh’s future started to outweigh reasons for skepticism.  Pittsburgh’s personality shift was under way.  The city and region had begun to express themselves in early versions of 21st century economic thinking, focused on growing and supporting a mixed economy dominated by new-ish firms and established services.  No economic equilibrium was in sight (the populations displaced by the failure of steel are not the same populations that a service and tech economy demands, so large swaths of the Pittsburgh region were and are still suffering), but the vague outline of the future was starting to emerge, including how to get there and how to deal with transition costs imposed on excluded communities.

Unfortunately for my bank account, I volunteered my observations.  I advanced an early version of a perspective that was expressed in more formal ways in the recent report on Pittsburgh’s future produced by consultants at the Brookings Institution. 

Five years on, the shift in psychic orientation has gathered momentum. The dominant media narrative holds that Pittsburgh’s prospects for successfully re-inventing its economic brand are incredibly bright. The media (and their Pittsburgh PR enablers) overstate the case, but no one hears the phrase “Rust Belt” any longer.  No one in Pittsburgh genuinely longs for the return of massive integrated steel plants or equivalent employment engines whose output was largely the product of labor, at scale, rather than innovations in technology or finance. Few believe that Pittsburgh C-suites can or should lead the region forward. Today, fresh tech, new money, and (soon) fresh faces reign jointly. The buzz is all about robotics and artificial intelligence, meaning Google and Uber and lots of information technology startups launched from Carnegie Mellon University and emerging in other respects.

In truth, Pittsburgh has gotten so hip and potentially productive — in places — that the economic reality is starting to catch up with the brand.  Real estate development and food culture have been not far behind the tech scene.  Pittsburgh’s arts communities, rarely appreciated in full amid emphases on industry (old) or innovation (new) for their diversity and strength — from Ahmad Jamal and August Wilson to the Carnegie Museums to Wiz Khalifa and Jesse Schell — have earned justifiable if sometimes after-the-fact national and international recognition.  In interesting ways, and sometimes for the worse rather than for the better, Pittsburgh’s psychology really has started to turn.

Much of the reason, in my view, is simply demographic. As Chris Briem reported the other day on Twitter, population trends show that every age group in Pittsburgh has suffered a net decline between 2007-2011 and 2012-2016 except one: 25 to 34 year olds.  That cohort has grown by more than 20%.  Tech world and a low cost of living really are bringing younger people to the region.  The key point in that phrase is not youth as such, but the fact that so much of the young talent in Pittsburgh is migrating in from elsewhere. Incrementally but noticeably, the glut of black-and-gold/black-and-yellow sports jerseys on display (Pittsburgh’s official city colors are black and yellow, leading to the color scheme shared by all of its professional sports teams) is being supplemented by a noticeable number of … European soccer jerseys and scarves.

There are macro changes afoot as well as micro ones.  Pittsburgh’s leaders publicly (and apparently, privately) believe that the city is a leading contender to be win the top prize in the current HQ2 pie-eating contest, where the award is: more pie. While Pittsburgh waits for word from Seattle, a different Seattle shop, Geekwire, just announced that it plans to set up its own HQ2 in Pittsburgh for a while, to report on how the city is faring in the new era. As an aside, I am only cautiously optimistic about the journalism to come. Despite the Uber-ization of certain city neighborhoods and suburbs (both Uber and Argo have driverless cars on the prowl), Geekwire (as yet) appears to be sufficiently uninformed that the steel industry is on its radar as an economic and cultural baseline.  Geekwire alert: The Pittsburgh region still produces steel, but studying steel means studying Pittsburgh’s history, not its present, let alone its future.  Visit the Carrie Furnace to see the site of an awesome urban garden and concert venue, not only to engage in steel nostalgia.

If I wrote myself out of a role five years ago, and if I’m persuaded that Pittsburgh has successfully undergone the first phases of a personality/identity transformation, then why wade back in to the dialogue today?  Here’s what interests me:  “LifeX,” a new biotech/life sciences/health sciences basic-science-to-commercialization-to-saving-lives initiative launched earlier this week with great fanfare under the auspices of the University of Pittsburgh.

Back when I was writing Pittsblog, I was usually pretty careful to avoid talking about the university where I work. But times and needs have changed; this LifeX business is both so interesting in itself and also interesting as an emblem of broader themes that I really have to put Pitt in the middle here.

There are more posts to come.  Here’s a glimpse of my thinking:

Pitt’s press release, the launch party (which I attended) and the media coverage characterize LifeX in many ways, but none of that material made enough hay out of the real significance of the initiative:  it’s a platform, in the best sense of that very 21st century tech word.

Platform thinking represents a huge shift for Pittsburgh.  It’s a psychological step forward as well as a strategic one, and whether or not LifeX succeeds, it’s worth talking about at some length. Pittsburgh’s leadership — public (City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County), private (PNC and for all practical purposes, UPMC), and non-profit (Pitt, CMU, and major philanthropies) works mightily and aggressively to connect today’s emphasis on innovation-led development with Pittsburgh’s historical manufacturing dominance in steel, iron, and glass.  At the LifeX launch, there were references to continuity in innovation, as in (paraphrasing) “LifeX carries on the grand tradition of Pittsburgh innovation that extends backwards to Carnegie and Westinghouse.”  Politically and rhetorically, as I learned at Pittsblog, I understand this argument.  Even today, and despite a lot of cultural evolution, little succeeds in Pittsburgh like the phrase “we’ve always done it this way, and it’s always been great.”  But that message is often misleading, and in the case of biotechnology commercialization in this new context, it may be not only misleading but also wrong.  The truth is that LifeX is a psychic and strategic break with the past, and a meaningful one.  Recognizing that break may be important to LifeX’s potential for success.

There is more to come.  Stay tuned.