Building Hubs for Education Innovation

The national push to create hubs of innovation in manufacturing relies on two key ideas—creating networks of partnerships and sharing ideas. Those two elements are also on display in Pittsburgh’s own innovation hub, in education.

In late February, President Obama announced that two new manufacturing “innovation institutes”—better known as hubs—are launching in Chicago and the Detroit metro area. The latest in his push to boost U.S. manufacturing and create high-skill, high-wage jobs, these hubs are the beginning of a National Network of Manufacturing Innovation.

Detroit’s hub will focus on developing modern, lightweight metals for wider industrial use. In Chicago, the focus will be on digital manufacturing—using big data and supercomputers to create and refine not just product prototypes, but the factory processes used to create them.   Chicago’s hub will have both a physical space for designing and testing new products and a virtual platform where partners can share data to solve common problems.

Key to their success is bringing together universities, major industry, and public and private resources to collaborate and share ideas and spark new solutions to everyday problems.

This push to create hubs of innovation is not new (think Silicon Valley), but the role of the partners involved is. Mark Muro and Scott Andes at the Brookings Institution, which has been promoting such hubs for some time now, argue that this private-public partnership is ultimately more sustainable and a better way to capitalize on local and regional resources.

The “very concept of the hub network reflects a new form of federalism wherein the federal government convenes and provides seed money, but leaves project design and delivery to the creativity—and matching resources—of ‘bottom up’ partnerships.”

This model is in many ways what the Kids+Creativity Network has created for education innovation in Pittsburgh. In 2007, Gregg Behr of the Grable Foundation and Jessica Trybus of Etcetera Edutainment were having a cup of coffee at a local Starbucks, according to Pop City. Both were talking about how much amazing talent was on the ground in Pittsburgh working on projects for kids. It dawned on them that someone should pull all that talent together—and with that, the Kids+Creativity idea was hatched.

The Grable Foundation spearheaded the network with seed funding. The Sprout Fund has since taken over, providing catalytic funding for innovative projects in education. The Kids+Creativity Network provides the glue to link people and organizations working in different realms. The serendipity of chance encounters and shared ideas allows for breakthroughs in education innovation, just like the manufacturing hubs hope to accomplish by joining forces and sharing ideas and data.

“Educators now have the same space sharing ideas with tech people and arts people and those things just don’t naturally happen because we live in silos,” Michelle Figlar, who leads the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, told Pop City. “As simple as that sounds, it’s really hard to make happen. And that’s the most powerful thing.”

This network of alliances—from public, private, and charter schools to cultural institutions, private enterprise, and the city’s stellar universities—is truly a sum larger than its parts.

In many ways, efforts like Kids+Creativity or the new manufacturing hubs represent a new way to design progress. Where once engineers or scientists held “state secrets” close to the vest in tightly cloistered labs in suburban enclaves, today’s model for innovation and discovery is more open, networked, and shared. The belief is that ideas need an ecosystem to spur creative growth. That’s certainly what drives the Kids+Creativity network.

The Department of Education’s Richard Culatta might agree. Calling for more innovation in education, he pointed to strategies in other industries, like BioSTL in St. Louis, a coalition of bio-science industries and scientists. Its leadership role, he said, has spurred entrepreneurial infrastructure, created new companies, and expanded local venture capital.

He might as well have been talking about Pittsburgh, spurring educational infrastructure, new learning opportunities, and new sources of seed funding.

Published April 03, 2014