The ReSET - Pittsburgh: Why Introspection Matters

11/27/17

Newt Fowler

Baltimore and Pittsburgh have a lot in common. Both struggle to transform from their industrial past; each suffered population loss; both struggle with issues of equity and inclusion and skills gaps. Baltimore and Pittsburgh also have leading research institutions and burgeoning innovation clusters. But are they equally reflective on what it takes to tackle the challenges to compete globally?

With the support and involvement of Pittsburgh’s civic, corporate, academic and foundation leadership, The Brookings Institution recently completed an 18 month study on Pittsburgh’s potential to rise as a global innovation city. What’s telling about the study isn’t its specific recommendations, which are tailored to Pittsburgh. What’s telling is that the region’s leadership were willing to commit to such an introspective exercise, knowing that the outcome of Brooking’s work would be to challenge them to undertake very specific actions to achieve such a vision. By being willing to engage, reflect and face accountability, a collective temperament is beginning to shape profound change in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh isn’t alone in moving past denial, internal competition and malaise by waking up to the new economic development reality facing regions. Places as diverse as St. Louis, Indianapolis, San Diego and Nashville are tackling similar initiatives, and while each is building a playbook unique to their challenges and potential, they all share common themes.

The Pittsburgh study from Brookings highlights four such themes:

  • “Build and support innovation clusters”, which the report urges should be those clusters where Pittsburgh has true technical strength; while not saying it, the point is to build on your strengths not on what you would like them to be;
  • Define, market and better connect innovation districts to the regional economy, and in particular integrate them within the region;
  • “Increase the pipeline of high-growth entrepreneurs” by focusing on high-growth startups; the flow of talent from successful companies to new opportunities drives innovative clusters;
  • Identify occupational gaps for the underemployed and ally innovation districts with organizations that can teach those skills

“Pittsburgh’s broader economy will flourish when the lines between academic research and industry innovation are indistinguishable…” One only has to think of Silicon Valley, Boston, and Austin, among an increasing number of highly functioning regions, to realize the power of blurred lines between sectors in competing globally. Brookings underscores though that to succeed, Pittsburgh’s innovation economy needs to be everyone’s economy. The challenge now in Steelerville is very public commitment that its civic, corporate, academic and foundation leadership have made to undertake this vision. I suspect that such openness gives the region a decent shot at succeeding, as their future is now a fishbowl of accountability. As if the Steelers aren’t enough annoyance to us in Ravenstown.

With more than 30 years’ experience in law and business, Newt Fowler, a partner in Womble Bond Dickinson’s business practice, advises many investors, entrepreneurs and technology companies, guiding them through all aspects of business planning, financing transactions, technology commercialization and M&A. He’s the pastboard chair of TEDCO and serves on the Board of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore. Newt can be reached at newt.fowler@wbd-us.com.

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