Growing the Innovation Economy, One Young Technologist at a Time

In Pittsburgh’s East End, building a new generation of technology entrepreneurs.

There may be some light at the end of the great recession. At least that’s what urbanists like Bruce Katz think. Katz is one of the economists who’s been cheering on the revolutionary models he sees in cities across America, because as he sees it, the economy of the future rests on innovation:

Like all great revolutions, this one had been ignited by a spark. The Great Recession was and continues to be a shock to the American zeitgeist, a brutal wake-up call that revealed the failure of a growth model that exalted consumption over production, speculation over investment, and waste over sustainability. A new growth model and economic vision is emerging from this rubble, a next economy where we export more and waste less, innovation in what matters, produce and deploy more of what we invent, and build an economy that works for working families.

But how do we make this happen? How do we ensure that our cities are breeding grounds for young inventors? How do we make sure kids will grow up to want to lead us into a future economy—to think big, and move from consumption-based to production-based again?  And what will that look like?

Shimira Williams hit the nail on the head when she told me, “I want my kids to learn to be producers, not just consumers of technology. And I wanted to teach them how to build technology and use it to extend their own interests.”

Williams teaches at a home-based afterschool program called Tek Start on Pittsburgh’s east end. It’s not far from Google’s Pittsburgh outpost, but Williams says it can seem worlds away.

Many of her students are from low-income families, which have struggled a great deal since the economic downturn. They have limited access to technology, and some of her kids, she says, see computers as little more than places on go online to “watch PBS kids.”

“There is a gap in my community,” she says. “People would buy computers with their income tax refund, but didn’t even know how to use them. They didn’t know how to access websites or use the internet. I want to attack the issues early.”

[one_third][blockquote style=”large”]“I want my kids to learn to be producers, not just consumers of technology. And I wanted to teach them how to build technology and use it to extend their own interests.” [/blockquote][/one_third][two_third_last]

And attack she does, helping students see technology as a tool to get information and to create.

Williams has been working with kids ages preschool to 13 since 2006 and in a early care center with young children before that. She grew up in this neighborhood and believes strongly in the power of technology to improve the economy in her community and to improve the lives of the students she works with.

She encourages people in the community to donate computers and sends the extras home with students. She devotes time after school for projects that allow students to experiment with the latest technology in a hands-on way—even if her limited budget means that happens on her own personal smartphone or iPad. At Tek Start students shoot and edit their own videos, take pictures, and design apps. She encourages time for tinkering, and figuring things out, so they can build skills. “I want them to ask, ‘What am I doing to produce new content?’ Being a producer builds self-esteem. Everyone feels better when they make something.” [/two_third_last]

But Williams’ students need more than just access. They need help imagining what’s possible.

Often her students don’t know about the global innovations that are taking place right in their backyard. “I see kids using emoticons all the time, I tell them, “Do you realize those are born and bread at CMU on the east side?’ There is innovation right here.”

To rectify that, Williams took a group of students on a tour of Google Pittsburgh.

“I would love kids to know that working here is a possibility.” The tour, she said, took her months to schedule.

This year kids as young as kindergarten in her program have been interviewing local professionals and recording videos. Williams says she wants them to be able to imagine themselves as future scientists or engineers or developers. “Tech makes you feel good about yourself. It’s an economic engine. When you produce and build and create you’re most inclined to build and create and form a business. And that, for my community, is more important than anything.” So far they’ve interviewed a medical examiner, an app developer, and a traffic engineer.

“It’s a global society. We’re not just competing regionally, we’re competing globally. The kid in the other country is actually being a producer [of media] at the age of 4 when our kids are not producing anything ‘til the age of 24.”

Williams is creating her own innovation pipeline by showing her students what’s possible and then helping them find the tools and build the skills to make that vision a reality. Show kids the possibilities and how to make their dreams happen, and you’ll make sure Pittsburgh survives, and the nation continues to grow.

Published November 26, 2013