Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Proximity Pittsburgh

Perhaps I'm alone in thinking that the Spiky World tide is overwhelming. The gravity of creative centers is impressive. Along the lines of Jared Diamond's geography is destiny, what chance does Pittsburgh have in the knowledge economy playing field? A Brookings report suggests that urban Pittsburgh is a misused asset:

In a telephone conference call, [Bruce Katz, the director of the metropolitan study group at the Brookings Institution,] said the federal government was undermining metropolitan areas by funding highways in rural regions when it should be paying for rural broadband Internet access the way the government paid to get electricity to those areas more than half a century ago. In the metropolitan areas, he said, the federal government should direct money to upgrading the ancient infrastructure such as the water and sewer systems and pay for mass transit and high speed rail to connect regions.

"The knowledge economy really requires proximity," he said.

Metropolitan areas are defined by their commuting links to the central core and do include some rural areas and some exurbs. In the Pittsburgh region, that includes Allegheny County south to Fayette County, west to the Ohio line, east to Westmoreland County and north to Butler County. The Pittsburgh region constitutes 19 percent of the state's population and 20 percent of the state's jobs.

Where proximity is king, urban areas should thrive. Better policy will result in a better Pittsburgh? I appreciate the shift of political geography from state to metro, but the irony is the diffusion of knowledge workers throughout the region. Then there is the stronger attraction of certain places. The geography of the knowledge economy isn't quite as simple as Mr. Katz portrays.

At a national or global scale, proximity is indeed king (as the migration to cities demonstrates). But within a region, a different story emerges. Exurbs continue to move farther away from downtown and long distance commuting is more common. Office parks are moving closer to where the knowledge workers reside and the area of higher density living is expanding.

If the "knowledge economy really requires proximity", then why invest in rural broadband Internet?

What the knowledge economy really requires is connectivity, not proximity. The reliance on proximity impedes the development of the knowledge economy. Instead of throwing billions of dollars at infrastructure, I'd fund research that solves the proximity problem. This is why I'm so interested in the work of Jon Udell and the Freelancers Union. Both blogs struggle to overcome distance and the importance of face-to-face interaction. I think Pittsburgh is well positioned to be a global center for the non-proximity economy (i.e. knowledge economy).

The lesson is that the economy is less tied to place, not more so.

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