What “Steel City” and “Cottonopolis” Have in Common

Pittsburgh, once nicknamed “Steel City,” and Manchester, England, once nicknamed “Cottonopolis,” have all but shed the industries that once drove their economies. They've reinvented themselves for the 21st century and have more in common than you'd think.

At first glance, it might not seem like Pittsburgh and Manchester, England, have a lot in common—other than the Manchester neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s north side.

Manchester, with a population of 2.6 million, is a sprawling metropolis and economic powerhouse driving a big chunk of the United Kingdom’s economy. The city is all-out obsessed with soccer, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an authentic Primanti sandwich there.

But at closer look, the two cities have more in common than you’d think. To start, they’re the only cities with Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. (More on that later.) And they’ve both reinvented themselves for a 21st-century economy.

Pittsburgh, once nicknamed “Steel City,” and Manchester, once nicknamed “Cottonopolis,” have all but shed the industries that once drove their economies. In the 1960s and 1970s, textile mills in Lancashire, the county in which Manchester is located, were closing at a rate of nearly one per week as other nations produced textiles cheaper and quicker.

Across the pond, Pittsburgh’s factories were closing en masse and thousands of people were leaving the city for jobs elsewhere. In the 1980s, Pittsburgh lost seven percent of its population.

But the story of renewal that’s happening here in Pittsburgh has caught national attention.

“Pittsburgh, after decades of trying to remake itself, today really does have a new economy, rooted in the city’s rapidly growing robotic, artificial intelligence, health technology, advanced manufacturing and software industries,” wrote journalist Glenn Thrush in the Politico Magazine feature, “The Robots That Saved Pittsburgh.” The story detailed how smart investment and collaboration from universities, start-ups, nonprofits, and health care services have transitioned the industrial economy to an innovative, creative one.

The city has also built a hub of intertwined education opportunities unlike anywhere else. Throughout the city, kids are joining the burgeoning maker movement, using gardens to learn about STEM, and building their own circuits, thanks to the many cultural, science, and education institutions that have joined the Kids+Creativity Network.

This type of collaboration and planning earned Pittsburgh and Manchester a Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award, which recognizes people or organizations that “have broken the mold to create significant impact.” Most of the awards go to people. But in this case, Pittsburgh and Manchester are the only cities to have won the award.

“We’ll never be the biggest city in the world, but we know to succeed we’ve got to be one of the smartest,” said Sir Howard Bernstein, Chief Executive of Manchester Millennium Limited, when accepting the award for the city. In the 1990s, the city invested in a cultural plan that eventually boosted its presence in the art world and kick-started creative industries by leveraging its three major universities. “What we’ve been trying to do over the last 10 or 15 years is to actually create one single strategy built around place for the entire city where our universities and our businesses can all bind to.”

Sounds a bit like the planning we’ve put into action here.

“What we’re seeing [in Pittsburgh] is an unprecedented collaboration of people and institutions from the entire city pulling together to remake education and rebrand themselves in the process,” said journalist and filmmaker Perri Peltz, who emceed the awards ceremony.

Pittsburgh’s mines were filled with iron ore and Manchester’s air was damp enough to not break the fragile cotton threads. For much of the cities’ histories, geography shaped the economy. But in the 21st century, cities like Pittsburgh and Manchester are tapping into an even more valuable resource: their people.

And just as manufacturers once learned from each other by being in such close proximity, the same goes for education innovation. When universities, schools, afterschool programs, and nonprofits feed off each other, it makes for a new type of innovation chain fit for the 21st century.

Published October 30, 2014