By Audrey Russo, President and CEO, Pittsburgh Technology Council
There are many lurking hypotheses about why Pittsburgh has “emerged” as one of the most stable and lucrative cities in the US. Many think that our resurgence began just a few years ago, conversely, we were leaders, and always have been leading, even during the steel industry’s “fallout,” but no one took notice. Unfortunately, all of the negative press about Pittsburgh became its calling card. The region’s people fled, taking the opportunity to look for more “lucrative” careers and moved to sunny cities defined by rapid and unchecked growth. Hmm…
Pittsburgh endured a high unemployment rate during the 1970s and 1980s, and our reputation as a tarnished blight of a region prevailed. During this era, we were forced to bear a pervasive stigma of smoke, pollution and diminished growth that saw our urban core shrink and young talent move away as soon as they were able. Hmm… While the rest of the U.S. was basking in the rapid growth and suburban and exurban sprawl, southwestern Pennsylvania (SWPA) was wrestling with the difficult problems of an aging infrastructure, a disproportionately large aging population and a shrinking tax base. A city of firsts seemingly had become a city of lasts.
But, you know what was really going on during these dark days? We developed survival skills. We stood by our community, our families, friends and neighbors. When the deep pockets of our region’s foundations were paired with the budding strength of our colleges, universities and medical prowess, we were on par to boil. Even though we were not attracting many new migrants, either nationally or internationally, some of the world’s brightest minds were being educated here and working on transformative biomedical and technology solutions. There were sporadic and erratic leaks of the good, solid, hard and profound work in robotics, software engineering, medical technology, nuclear and geothermal energy, but little to no fanfare. Hmm…
Now, a generation later, Pittsburgh is once again a city of firsts. Just like we shed the industrial age before our rust belt cohorts, SWPA also skipped the era of rapid, unanchored growth that adversely affected so many other cities. We acted with small experiments, not large ones, for concern that the outcomes would have far-reaching discord. We didn’t go after the quick payout; we focused on providing value for future generations. The bridges that drape Pittsburgh’s panorama are continual reminders of the symbiotic relationship we all share with our living legends of innovation.
This is not merely hype or spin. We know that it takes many years to rebuild and to gestate transformation. We have reincarnated ourselves into a city of true champions by attracting smart people who work hard on enduring problems, not fleeting solutions. I see the inspiration through the eyes of new CEOs who start companies. These professionals understand that building a business takes not just drive and monolithic vision, but also interdependence on others to grow strong businesses in their backyard as well.
Pittsburgh is also a place where more and more people want to return. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear from someone who wants to return to raise their kids, to retire or to start a company here. To live in Pittsburgh and SWPA means that you have made a choice to be part of the next era of firsts. We are not just another Silicon Valley. We are southwestern Pennsylvania, a region that will be the hotbed of slow, continuous and steady improvements in the next 25 years. Our sustainable approach to the newest economy will serve as the bellwether by which other regions rebuild their economies and communities. Hmm…sounds about right to me.