Is Pittsburgh the Next Global Innovation Hub?

With its unique capacity for innovation, can Pittsburgh become a "Globally Fluent metro area" like Helsinki?

First things first. Pittsburgh is not Finland. For one thing, we drink way less coffee. But it’s possible that, when it comes to innovation anyway, there are more parallels between Helsinki, Finland’s capital, and Pittsburgh than one might think.

This Brookings post highlights Helsinki in the fifth installment of Brookings’ “10 Traits of Globally Fluent Metro Areas” series, which examines what cities need for economic growth. Helsinki’s trait? Human capital, or “a culture of knowledge and innovation.”

“Helsinki, Finland’s largest metropolitan area, is a paragon of human capital and innovation, and thus an appropriate role model for aspiring regions,” writes Jonathan Rothwell.

Rothwell goes on to explain how, over recent decades, Finland invested heavily in research universities and built new science and engineering schools. Now, “No other country in the world has a higher percentage of young adults completing college degrees in science and technical subjects.” And, if measured by patent applications per resident, Finland is the most innovative country in the world.

Much of what Helsinki has done rings a bell. A lot of similar things are going on right here in Pittsburgh. So, is Pittsburgh poised to follow suit? There are already some indications that it is.

Alumni from Helsinki’s universities and Nokia (a major driver in Helsinki’s economy) are staying in Helsinki and turning the city into a start-up hub. Rothwell points to three Aalto University students who won a Nokia-sponsored contest to design a video game. Their company ended up creating a nifty game called “Angry Birds.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Like Helsinki, Pittsburgh’s academic alumni are contributing to its metamorphosis into a headquarters for blending technology, engineering, and art—especially in the field of video games. Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games, graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and eventually returned to start the largest game developer in Pennsylvania. Schell Games creates educational and transformational games and platforms for institutions such as PBS Kids and Pixar. The company recently designed an interactive website for PBS and the local Fred Rogers Company.

“People in Pittsburgh are always running in to each other,” said Sabrina Culyba, Schell senior game designer and cofounder of robotic toy developer Interbots. In a Remake Learning feature last February that focused on the game design scene that’s emerging in the city, she said, “We meet each other and realize we could collaborate on something. And then that’s supported by groups like Sprout or PTC, who give a framework to those ideas. They see the opportunity for a grant or festival where that collaboration could take root and be fostered.”

The recent increase in jobs in the education and healthcare fields—to just over a third of local jobs, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—is part of what helped the city pull itself out of the recession.

Pittsburgh is investing in primary education infrastructure as well. With the Hive Learning Network of museums, libraries, community centers, and afterschool programs, Pittsburgh’s progressive approach to a schools is an integral part of education, not just a showpiece. This mirrors some of Finland’s strategies.

The Brookings post also mentions a nonprofit called Startup Sauna, which provides internships and coaching to aspiring entrepreneurs. Pittsburgh, too, is doing its fair share to coach young people to become entrepreneurs, with programs like Entrepreneuring Youth.

Investing in education has done more for Finland than make its capital city the Silicon Valley of Scandinavia. As a nation, Finland repeatedly ranks highest in the world in educational markers. The gap between the lowest achieving and the highest achieving students is one of the narrowest in the world, according to this feature in Smithsonian magazine. The Finns have accomplished in part by prioritizing equality.

All this emphasis on human capital—nurturing the potential of people—is what catapulted Helsinki toward become a leading “globally fluent metro area.” Hopefully, with the mix of investment in both infrastructure and people, Pittsburgh is on the path to do the same.

Published September 25, 2013