Report: Pittsburgh's Innovation Ecosystem Key to Next-generation Technology Leadership

Pittsburgh is among a handful of cities that have the institutions, innovative capacity and core science and technology competencies to compete in the race to become leaders in the world’s next-generation technologies, a new Brookings Institution report finds.

The culmination of 18 months of study, the report, funded by The Heinz Endowments and the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, identifies challenges and recommends strategies for capitalizing on the region’s distinctive strengths. The report also notes that the city’s success in the modern innovation economy is influenced by the speed and scale of actions by its public, private and civic leaders.

“The Brookings report, in its most basic form, is a call to action. It's a challenge aimed directly at the city's great research institutions,” said University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. “Simply put, it’s asking us — CMU, Pitt and our partner, UPMC — to be the engine of economic growth for the region.

“This is a challenge we gladly accept. Our focus now turns to helping our many local partners connect to this powerful engine of growth in a meaningful way to transform the Pittsburgh area. We can't wait to get started."

Gallagher joined with leaders from those institutions, businesses, foundations and city and county government at a forum last month marking the release of the report titled, “Capturing the Next Economy: Pittsburgh’s Rise as a Global Innovation City.”

“Pittsburgh has a naturally occurring innovation district and one of the most powerful innovation ecosystems in the world. And now is the chance to realize the full — not just economic — potential but social and sustainable potential,” said Brookings Institution Centennial Scholar Bruce Katz at the report release event at the Energy Innovation Center in downtown Pittsburgh.

Brookings identifies Pittsburgh’s well-established and research-rich Oakland neighborhood — anchored by the intertwining campuses of Pitt, CMU and UPMC — as a natural innovation district where creativity, entrepreneurship and cutting-edge research combine. The advanced research institutions, collaborative ecosystem, risk capital, educated workers and global orientation needed to be an innovation leader are in place, Katz said.

“Everyone wants it; you have it. Everyone’s trying to copy it. You start with it,” he said.

Nearby, other innovation neighborhoods feed the Pittsburgh region’s economy and link to Oakland’s academic and technical strengths:

  • Bakery Square, home to Google, Pitt’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories, UPMC Enterprises and Chatham University Eastside.
  • Lawrenceville, anchored by CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center and a growing cluster of robotics startups.
  • Hazelwood’s Almono site, a 178-acre brownfield that is being redeveloped to potentially serve as one of the nation’s largest autonomous vehicle testing sites.
  • Downtown Pittsburgh, home to national headquarters like PNC Bank, Highmark, PPG Industries and U.S. Steel.

Advanced university research, fueled by public investments from entities such as the National Institutes of Health, then can be commercialized and translated into businesses and economic growth, Katz said.

The regions that can capitalize on next-generation technologies will reap rewards not only in those technologies, Katz said, but in wraparound sectors as well. For example, the development of driverless cars will have an impact on the legal industry, insurance, planning, architecture and parking.

Simply put, [the Brookings report] is asking us — CMU, Pitt and our partner, UPMC — to be the engine of economic growth for the region. This is a challenge we gladly accept.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher

With a goal of putting Pittsburgh in the top 30 innovative cities in the world, the Brookings report recommends that leaders work to:

  • Build and support Pittsburgh’s innovation clusters in advanced manufacturing, life sciences and autonomous systems such as driverless cars.
  • Define, grow and connect the Oakland innovation district to the regional economy.
  • Improve the pipeline of high-growth entrepreneurs.
  • Create a talent alliance within the Oakland innovation district to leverage academic resources to train underskilled local workers for jobs in the growing innovation clusters.

Competitive challenges exist, Katz said, and there’s room to grow when it comes to translating academic strengths into new businesses and jobs.

The region also must overcome its Rust Belt demographics, including an aging workforce and stagnant population growth, he said.

“Your population looks a bit flat, but behind this is good news,” Katz said, noting the city is becoming a magnet for newcomers and its millennial population is growing.

Pittsburgh is beginning to get the recognition of not just global media, Katz said, but also of global companies and global investors.

“Pittsburgh was there before,” said Katz, referring to the steel industry that had “dramatic reverberating effects, multiplier effects, across the economy.

“You know what it’s like to be on the ground floor of transformative technologies. ... And what we’re saying is you can get there again.”