Move Over, Silicon Valley

Why Pittsburgh may be the new tech metropolis.

Slate’s business and economics correspondent Matthew Yglesias says it’s time for Silicon Valley and tech companies to breakup.

In a recent post, Yglesias describes how housing and office space in San Francisco is scarce, and strict, suburban-style zoning limits new construction and jacks up housing prices. The area is one of the most expensive places to live in the country and tensions between techies and locals are running high.

So Ygelsias proposes a split. A start-over. He imagines what could happen if major tech companies packed up and relocated to a shiny new “Tech Metropolis.” His pick for this exercise in imagination? Cleveland.

Now, Cleveland is great. Like Ygelsias says, it’s got affordable housing, abundant office space, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But we’re inclined to believe Pittsburgh also has a unique blend of institutions, start-ups, and an education hub, which makes our burgeoning tech metropolis not just imaginary. (And contrary to what Ygelsias says, we actually do have a major airport).

To start, look no further than the innovations happening here in the gaming industry. Pittsburgh is home to a number of game designers, including Jesse Schell, who founded Schell Games over 10 years ago. The local company now employs over 100 people and has created educational games and platforms with Pixar, PBS Kids, and Sesame Workshop.

Schell is just one of the many leaders in digital media who call Pittsburgh home. Sabrina Haskell Culyba, cofounder and designer at Interbots, says the dense concentration of start-ups here benefits everybody by fostering collaboration.

“People in Pittsburgh are always running in to each other,” Culyba told us last February in a story about the city’s standing in the field of games-based learning. “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.”

[one_third][blockquote style=”large”]But beyond the Silicon Valley-type tech, Pittsburgh has become a hub for another kind of innovation: education.  [/blockquote][/one_third][two_third_last]

Two of Pittsburgh’s universities, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, are central to much of the interdisciplinary collaboration that’s happening here. At CMU, the Entertainment Technology Center pulls together students from fine arts and computer science to study the intersection of art and technology, applying it to areas ranging from design to engineering to medicine. Their work can be found all over the city. In 2012 they partnered with Elizabeth Forward Middle School to develop a Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab, complete with 15-by-15 virtual game board projected on the floor.

Tech companies have already taken notice. Google opened an office here in 2006 that now hosts more than 300 employees—and it’s expanding. The Pittsburgh Technology Council connects over 1,000 regional tech and service companies working in the advanced manufacturing/materials, green technology, IT, and the life sciences sectors. [/two_third_last]The Tech Council helps bring innovation to scale and fosters new economic development clusters by connecting innovations in the city to entrepreneurs, investors, and the marketplace.

In a recent article over at the Pacific Standard, geographer Jim Russell points to a study that found Pittsburgh has one of the highest upward mobility rates in the country—around as high as in Denmark and Norway. Our economy is doing so well that “Going from poor to rich is more likely in Pittsburgh than just about anywhere else in the entire United States,” Russell writes in the article, titled “Pittsburgh Booming.”

But beyond the Silicon Valley-type tech, Pittsburgh has become a hub for another kind of innovation: education.

The Kids + Creativity Network brings together more than 100 people, projects, and organizations to remake learning in the Pittsburgh region and to help make sure kids are prepared for a future that’s collaborative, creative, and technology driven. With funding from the MacArthur Foundation, Hive Pittsburgh lets kids move throughout the city as if it were a giant classroom. Instead of considering learning as an activity that only happens within the four walls of a school, Hive expands it to museums, libraries, afterschool programs, and online. This all-hands-on-deck approach represents a new way to educate a city’s kids—a way that, we believe, prepares them for the dynamic world ahead of them.

These networks often result in unique partnerships – like high school students working as museum curators or developers from a local startup mentoring children from Big Brothers Big Sisters and showing them how to take prototypes to market.

The Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz says the model Silicon Valley was built on—where innovation is concentrated in just one place—is outdated. Instead, he says the future will be made up of multiple “innovation cities” or districts within cities where  “leading-edge anchor institutions and cutting-edge innovative firms” connect to and support other spin-off companies and business incubators. Sounds a lot like Pittsburgh.

All our efforts are creating a pipeline of educated, entrepreneurial citizens. Becoming a tech metropolis takes a certain amount of serendipity for sure, but if the experts are right, the next generation of tinkers and innovators growing up here won’t need to move to California after graduation.

Published January 16, 2014