Forging Innovation

Catalyzing economic development in Pittsburgh through collaborative discussion and emergent thought.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Ok, we have problems--What do we do?

I will be the first to admit that I am not the only person in Southwestern PA that recognizes we have some serious economic challenges to address--fast. I will also go so far as to say that there is a select group of folks that actually have uncovered the same systemic problems that are the root of our troubles. Some of these problems include our social network structure, culture of incrementalism, and inefficient innovation architecture.

That's great. We all know we have problems. What the heck do we do about it? People always ask me if I had to pick one thing for our community to go after, what would it be? Would I invest in a particular sector like en silico biology, semiconductors, or robotics? Would I create an investment arm to funnel risk capital into new businesses? Would I create an organization to facilitate programs to help educate and network the local corporate community?

If I had to bet on anything, I would put my money into transforming Pittsburgh into a hot-spot for collaborative research between the government, private sector, and academic community. Why? I thought you would never ask. Pittsburgh's greatest strength is its world-class research institutions. Hundreds of millions of dollars are invested each year at Carnegie Mellon and Pitt to produce cutting-edge technology and life sciences research. Creating a collaborative research park will leverage these existing strengths and address the systemic problems in our regional infrastructure, while creating a self-sustaining mechanism to fuel economic growth.

Why would companies participate? It is simple. Universities invest millions to conduct exploratory research that most private sector companies cannot justify investing in alone. This structure would provide companies a simple way to leverage university innovation with minimal risk through the establishment of a research facility in a low-cost city. We could bolster private sector incentive to pursue this unique opportunity with government tax breaks and subsidies. Carnegie Mellon has started the process with their Collaborative Innovation Center. Technology super-powers Intel and Apple have already set up shop. More could follow, if we just stay the course.

This park will have immediate impact on job creation. Just look at how many jobs were created by Seagate coming to Pittsburgh. Imagine how many more jobs could be created if we manage to bring in other world-class technology firms. A collaborative research park will serve to foster cross-sector social ties by putting together folks from variety of communities. Academics, business professionals, financiers, and lawyers will all be connected in order to facilitate the transactions necessary to create and support this initiative. This dense network will provide the essential vehicle to transition the inevitable flood of innovation from concept to commercialization. As rates of innovation increase, it stands to reason that we will see an influx of investor dollars from outside the region intended to capitalize upon new technologies. Capital always flows towards opportunities with the highest return. Wealth creation associated with commercialization will have a positive feedback effect and fuel further development. Service providers will have incentive to set up shop in the region to facilitate the growing business community.

This initiative will also have a profound effect on the culture. Research and university settings tend to be youth-centric. Initially, the best and brightest engineers and scientists will have opportunities to stay after finishing school. As more businesses are attracted to the area such as consultancies and other service providers, students in other disciplines will also have access to the lucrative opportunities available in high-profile cities like New York and Boston. It goes without saying that an increased youth population will not only enliven the region with an infusion of talent, but also with some fresh ideas.

In short, this is a great goal to shoot for. It is not a panacea, however. We still have to work to create a unified economic development community and single brand for our region. Transportation issues remain problematic. Our city and county government need to be streamlined. Universities need to actively work with the private sector and government to shape policies that will increase the rates of commercialization. Bottom line, however, is that this type of move would definitely be a step in the right direction. Regardless of what course our leaders choose, it is essential that they commit to a common vision and economize in mass to achieve it. Stay tuned. I will post more about this and other ideas in the near future.


  • At 7:34 AM, Blogger Ed Engler said…

    At last week's annual meeting of the ACCD, the incoming Chairman, Jim Rohr, made some good points as the last speaker. He started by recognizing the work of those who have come before him - Marty McGuinn most recently - and recognizing some of the achievements of the last 20 years. Too often, we forget about the good things and focus only on the negative. This is a well-known aspect of human nature and something our region is very good at. So let's remember some of the good things that *are* happening here:

    1. The start of government reform with partial row-office reform and a reduction in the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax. Hopefully the first in a long list of public policy changes that are needed to improve our competitiveness.

    2. Improvements at the Airport including infrastructure necessary to attract major businesses to the region, many new air carriers and the retention and expansion of the 911th Airwing.

    3. Increased national awareness of the beauty of our region with events such as the Bassmaster Classic, 84 Lumber Golf Tournament and upcoming events of similar stature including another PGA Event at Oakmont and the All-Star game.

    4. Large scale developments on the North Shore and on the waterfronts, improving the quality of life for young and old alike with new energy and entertainment outlets.

    By no means are our jobs done, but that will always be so. While working tirelessly to improve our community in every way we can think of, we also need to celebrate our successes and ensure that we give the public a positive image of ourselves while building a critical mass of support for the difficult changes that lie ahead for us.

  • At 9:12 AM, Blogger Hooman said…

    Fantastic points, Ed. I think there are a number of really great things going on here and will try to devote an upcoming post to discussing a few in more detail!


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