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10 Years After: A Perspective on Pittsburgh's Tech Evolution

Thought Leader

I developed a love for Pittsburgh without really knowing when the city crawled under my skin.

[caption id="attachment_2560" align="alignleft" width="122"]Audrey Russo Audrey Russo[/caption]

Having just marked 10 years as President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council has intensified my passion for this awesome city and the tech sector making it happen. I have been thinking about what’s changed and what’s different. Here are my observations:

Tools in Pittsburgh

I cannot even revert my thinking to recall a life without Uber, Twitter, Airbnb, Duolingo, Kickstarter, SnapChat, WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook. I cannot even imagine how I lived without mobile banking, search, biometric calculations, mobile video, texting and voice. I used a Blackberry 10 years ago! Merely knowing that in five years there will be 20 more billion-dollar companies that we have never heard of today highlights the velocity of transformation. It seems as though we never achieve a steady state of technology tools. Upgrades. Enhancements. Refreshes. Updates. Keeping up with these inventions and innovations is nearly impossible. And, I am an early adopter -- always one to try new applications and quickly pushing my devices to their breaking points. I opt for new, fast and sleek. I fall for new every time.

Pittsburgh Buzz

With all of the international media attention on the ‘Burgh, those of us working to ensure that this is THE place to build and develop companies know our work is ensconced in the embers of ideation to proliferation. But we love our shining stars UNTIL there’s an aberration or misrepresentation of what Pittsburgh really is. (As if the oxymoron of innovation means you can capture a steady state of who we are?) The delicate nuances of maintaining authenticity to the roots of the region’s DNA; adding in the flat-line population growth over the last few years married with the rapid transformation of locally owned restaurants; designing a region focused on children; eliminating the reputation of insular protectionism; and committing to our outdoors, cycling included, makes this reflection of the decade erratic. Not a linear path, but decidedly organic and forceful. Certainly this movement is noteworthy, not merely vapid in our worldly attentions. To me, it’s actually sensational. There has been no real predetermined recipe for prosperity, instead it’s a series of experiments led by wicked-smart innovators.

Pittsburgh Entrepreneurs

At the Tech Council, we have a front row seat to these changes. I can tell you about a loose ecosystem that existed a decade ago dependent upon local investment, our generous foundations, and state economic development and leadership. Much has changed. Coastal-based venture capitalists have made investments here, following alongside our own homegrown VCs, and economic development leaders, such as Innovation Works, spawned AlphaLab and AlphaLab Gear. Our co-working spaces – originally led by Uptown/Revv Oakland (now known as Avenu) along with Beauty Shoppe’s many expansions and Ascender – are now flanked with an array of spaces and programs, including Faros Properties’ Alloy 26 in Nova Place.  There are new co-working spaces to serve the gig and innovation economy well.

While we remain like other cities developing strategies for innovation zones with carbon-neutral footprints (think Hazelwood Green) through partnerships with our research universities and health care systems, our efforts are always a slight bit different because we leverage our local grit paired with refrained optimism about our tomorrows.  Pittsburgh is funny that way -- grit and sensitivity rolled into a persona that is anchored in our land partnering with our cultural wisdom.

I have always believed that flying cars would occur in my lifetime. They may not fly yet, but they are autonomous. Uber’s work here has tripped successful dominoes for other companies in a small window of time. Argo AI, along with Delphi, surely will provide more progress in autonomy, as well as the Internet of Things. Robots alone (and thank you Carnegie Mellon) have placed Pittsburgh on THE world map in the last three years.

A Sense of Place

I wrote a piece nine years ago, pleading that the Pittsburgh region must attract a minimum of 5,000 foreign-born people each year, and that in 10 years, we would at minimum experience a growth of 50,000. Ironically, while our population has remained flat, there is a piece of data that doesn’t readily appear. More than 100,000 foreign-born people have moved into Pittsburgh over the decade! Without them, our population would have been … okay you get the gist.

While we remain flat in population, what we require from a community in amenities has begun to manifest. We see the new locally owned restaurants, the housing, highly ranked suburban and private schools, green spaces, resurgence of city and suburban neighborhood living, commitment to a maker community spanning early childhood (Children’s Museum) to seniors, and community voices shouting diverse representation and inclusion. All of these developments have added global conversations, which are not just chatter. We are concerned. We want more. We want the world to easily access us (thank you Pittsburgh Airport for being an aggressive partner). We wrestle with matters such as opioid addiction, low-performing city schools, balancing rebirth with displacement and cultural amenities that reflect our new voyage into the rapid waters of new intersections.

Tomorrow in Pittsburgh

It’s damn thrilling to be in Pittsburgh right now. I said that 10 years ago, when the technology and innovation economy represented a fifth of the region’s payroll and now we represent a third of the payroll. These represent the highest paid jobs, but more importantly is the actual work being done: solving some of the world’s hardest problems.  We may have been late to adopt the world of fintech, but we are going to leapfrog as a result of nascent investments being made.

I believe that in the next 10 years we will have forged our reputation as a region whose diversity in market sectors will increase our population growth and simultaneously solve problems in health care and transportation. It will amaze us. We will find the synergy with robotics across every market sector. We will have autonomy drape our backdrop as we do now with Uber’s autonomous vehicles on our streets.  And I am betting on the Hyperloop!

By Audrey Russo, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council